WASHINGTON - Herman Cain suggested Friday that the Taliban were playing a role in Libya's new government. The comment initially was seen as another foreign policy misstep from the Republican presidential candidate, but aides later pointed to a one-time Libyan rebel leader who fought in Afghanistan to back up Cain's claims.
Cain has spent the week trying to calm jitters about his foreign policy after he struggled to answer whether he supported President Barack Obama's approach to Libya. He ended the week trying to blame reporters for the moment, which was captured on video and quickly spread around the Internet.
Cain's critics seized on Monday's incoherent answer as the latest evidence that the former pizza executive is unprepared to be the GOP's nominee.
"Do I agree with siding with the opposition? Do I agree with saying that (Libyan leader Muammar) Qaddafi should go? Do I agree that they now have a country where you've got Taliban and al Qaeda that's going to be part of the government?" Cain asked reporters in Orlando. "Do I agree with not knowing the government was going to -- which part was he asking me about? I was trying to get him to be specific and he wouldn't be specific."
On Monday, Cain hesitated when asked whether he agreed with Obama's decision to back Libyan rebels in overthrowing Qaddafi. The longtime Libyan dictator was killed last month.
"I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason," Cain said in the videotaped interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Uh, nope that's, that's a different one," said Cain, who fidgeted in his chair and crossed his legs. "See, I got to go back, see, got all this stuff twirling around in my head. Specifically what are you asking me, did I agree or not disagree with Obama?"
The video ricocheted around the Internet. Two days later, he skipped a similar meeting with reporters at the New Hampshire Union Leader, the largest paper in the state that holds the first primary contest.
Cain's campaign hoped to prevent a repeat to end the week after the candidate's comments about the Taliban and pointed to Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a rebel leader who fled to Afghanistan after a failed uprising against Qaddafi in the 1990s. At that point, he led the now-dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
One U.S. official familiar with the group said it was not a monolithic entity and some branches have had connections with al Qaeda in Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Others, however, dropped any relationship with al Qaeda entirely. Belhaj led a faction that disavowed al Qaeda and declared its commitment to establishing a democracy in Libya, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
The United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the al Qaeda-harboring Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan and are now scattered in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There is no evidence the Taliban are returning to power in Libya, a continent away.
Islamic extremists in Libya, however, could play a role in the new government. U.S. officials are concerned that the former insurgents who have renounced extremism may have ties to al Qaeda leadership.
Cain's aides, fighting the perception that Cain was wobbly on foreign policy, pointed to reports that Belhaj, now a military leader in Libya's National Transitional Council, was a Taliban ally.
In a September interview with The Associated Press, Belhaj played down his Islamist ties.
"We never have and never will support what they call terrorism," he said.
Belhaj was a civil engineering student and Qaddafi opponent when he fled Libya and went to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He later joined the U.S.-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighting alongside militants who would go on to form al Qaeda.
Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s and led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in fierce confrontations with Qaddafi's regime. He said that after fleeing Libya in the mid-1990s, he moved from country to country until 2004, when he was picked up and taken to Thailand, where he claims he was tortured by the CIA.
The CIA has declined to comment on the allegations.