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Changing Security Strategies Towards the Taliban from Bush to Obama

Judith Renner & Alexander Spencer
Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich
Judith Renner & Alexander Spencer

Judith Renner & Alexander Spencer

Apart from an increased interest in multilateralism and more respect for international law, one fundamental difference between the Bush and the Obama Administration is their consideration of reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Shortly after 9/11 any kind of engagement, let alone reconciliation, with the Taliban was considered impossible. Under the Bush Administration, the "war on terror" was the preferred security strategy to react to any kind of perceived terrorist threat. Recently however, reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan has become a possibility worthy of serious thought. Not only Afghan President Hamid Karzai has now pointed out that one of the most important strategies to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan was "a vigorous reconciliation and reintegration programme aimed at the Taliban" as "[r]econciliation, in our view, is ultimately the most effective and lasting solution",1 the US Administration under Barack Obama has also announced that it is now willing to talk to parts of the Taliban in an attempt to begin a reconciliation process in Afghanistan. This new strategy of the Obama Administration towards the Taliban is surprising, as it stands in a sharp contrast to the security strategy under Bush. It is therefore worth thinking about how such a change became possible.

From a discourse theoretical perspective, it can be argued that it was the changing construction of the Taliban which made this kind of policy turn possible. How an actor acts in the social world, is dependent on how he constructs the subjects, objects and practices of this world, and changing constructions thus make changing behavior possible. Indeed, looking at the constructions of the Taliban found in the discourse of the political elite in the United States, one can show that while reconciliation with both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was considered impossible under Bush, the constitution of the Taliban changed during the Obama Administration and made engagement with them possible.

Under the Bush Administration following 9/11, the Taliban were discursively closely linked to Al-Qaeda, so that both groups became "virtually indistinguishable".2 President Bush frequently spoke about "the Taliban and Al-Qaeda" and constructed them as "the terrorists",3 thus constructing both groups as representing one and the same "terrorist other". Against such terrorists, Bush argued, war was the only possible strategy and the goal of the US would be to defeat these terrorist.4

Under the Obama Administration, however, the construction of the Taliban began to change, as Obama decoupled the Taliban from Al-Qaeda by differentiating between a radical, extremist core of the Taliban and a more moderate group of "Afghans" that were coerced into the Taliban and could still be integrated into the Afghan society. For instance, Obama now spoke about "Al-Qaeda terrorists" and "the core Taliban leadership" on the one hand, who still constituted as a terrorist threat to Afghanistan, the US and its allies. On the other hand, however, he spoke about "those who've taken up arms because of coercion",5 who should be given another option that to fight. These Taliban, as Obama pointed out, should be negotiated with and eventually have the opportunity to reconcile with their country, if they agreed to break their ties with Al-Qaeda.6

Overall, an analysis of the construction of the Taliban found in the discourse of US elites suggests that the discursive construction of the Taliban changed considerably from the Bush to the Obama Administration. Talking to the Taliban has become a policy option worthy of serious thought. One may be sceptical whether reconciliation between the US and the Taliban is likely, however talking to each other is a good start. What implications this will have on the War on Terror remains to be seen.

1. Speech by Hamid Karzai at the 46th Munich Security Conference, 02 July 2010, available at: [28.06.2011]. (Back)
2. George W. Bush, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY, 10.11.2001, available at: [28.02.2011]. (Back)
3. George W. Bush, Focus on Iraq: Address to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Washington, D.C., 13.03.2006, available at:[28.02.2011]. (Back)
4. George W. Bush, Remarks at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C., 09.09.2008, available at: [28.02.2011]. (Back)
5. Barack Obama, 'Remarks by the President on a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan', Washington, D.C., 27. March 2009, available at: [24.02.2011]. (Back)
6. Barack Obama, "US President speaks exclusively to BBC", available at: [28.06.2011]. (Back)