Why the White House Is Insisting the Taliban Isn't a Terrorist Group

The White House's stance on the Afghan Taliban opens up Democrats to more criticism.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - JANUARY 12: White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, United States on January 12, 2015

Photographer: Anadolu Agency

Why is the White House insisting that the Afghan Taliban isn't a terrorist organization when the Treasury Department currently designates it as such and the group engages in terror acts? 

It's a question White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried, with some difficulty, to answer on Thursday, a day after White House spokesman Eric Schultz drew a distinction between the Taliban as an "armed insurgency" and the Islamic State as a straight-up "terrorist group." "We don’t make concessions to terrorist groups," Schultz said.

As Republicans continue to try to portray Obama—and Hillary Clinton by extension—as weak on foreign policy, it's a question the White House is likely to keep being asked.

Judging by Ernest's response, Schultz hadn't gone rogue on the administration's official position on the Taliban. 

"They do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism," Earnest said of the Taliban. "They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda."

At the same time, Earnest said, the group is "different than an organization like Al Qaida that has a much broader global aspiration to carry out acts of violence and acts of terror against Americans and American interests all around the globe."

Furthermore, Earnest added, the way the administration designates the Taliban "does allow the United States to put in place some financial sanctions against the leaders of that organization, in a way that's been beneficial to our ongoing efforts against the Taliban."

Earnest said Obama's position has been one of "building up the central government of Afghanistan and the Afghan security forces, so that they could be responsible for security in their own country and take the fight to the Taliban."

Earnest tiptoed around the more obvious conclusion that several journalists in the briefing room had reached—that the Taliban's in-between designation made it easier for the U.S. to carry off last year's prisoner swap, which involved freeing five Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for the freeing of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. 

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, was quick to scorn Earnest's rationale, sending out a memo with the subject line "NOT THE ONION" accusing the White House of flip-flopping.