WASHINGTON — The Taliban are mad at Sen. Lindsey Graham, and the South Carolina Republican couldn't be happier.
"I didn't know the Taliban watches 'Meet the Press,'" Graham said.
After his Sunday appearance on NBC's Sunday morning show, in which he suggested that the U.S. maintain at least two permanent air bases in Afghanistan, the militant Islamist group the U.S. chased from power in 2001 said he'd unveiled hidden U.S. imperialist aims.
"I would never let a bunch of thugs intimidate me," Graham told McClatchy. "If my idea (of keeping U.S. air bases in Afghanistan) threatens them — that's good. It struck a nerve. I think they understand that this would be a very decisive change in the future of Afghanistan. The last thing they want is for the Afghan people to have the capacity to resist them."
Graham's proposal contradicts President Barack Obama's plans to wind down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"We have spent a lot of blood and money to make sure Afghanistan never falls back into terrorist hands," he said. "One way of ensuring that is to have an enduring relationship with Afghanistan if they desire one. The relationship would be economic, it would be political and it would be military."
Maintaining two U.S. air bases in Afghanistan, Graham said, would require about 2,000 American troops to remain there.
The Taliban responded Wednesday to Graham's notion after he first broached it Sunday.
The Taliban rebuffed Graham in a statement issued by "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the title under which they ruled the nation from 1996 until the October 2001 invasion toppled the regime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"His remarks definitely lift the curtain from the colonialist motives of America, which the Islamic Emirate has been trying in the past decade to draw to the attention of the people of the world," the Taliban said.
"In fact, the invading America wants to establish her dominance over the region and the world under the so-called war on terror," the group said.
The Taliban said they'd never accept permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan categorically rejects the suggestion by the Republican senator," the Taliban said. "Americas' intention to maintain permanent bases in Afghanistan would mean extending the occupation indefinitely. This illegitimate step is never acceptable to any Islamist and patriotic Afghan."
The statement recalls similar fiery rhetoric issued by al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, whom the Taliban allowed to set up camp in Afghanistan, when the U.S. set up military bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Persian Gulf War.
Graham was a strong supporter of Obama's decision in November 2009 to send an additional 34,000 troops to Afghanistan, and this week he gave the president an overall grade of B-plus for his war policies there.
The notion that the Taliban might have Graham in their sights carries more potential threat than it might with other senators.
As a military lawyer and an Air Force Reserve colonel, Graham is the only member of Congress to have served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When he's not wearing military fatigues and toting a holstered pistol, Graham also visits Afghanistan as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Since the war started almost a decade ago, Graham has been to Afghanistan at least a dozen times as a colonel or as a senator — with another visit scheduled in the near future.
During four active duty tours in Afghanistan as a military lawyer, Graham has visited high-risk areas normally off limits to senators, among them prisons, courts and police stations.
Graham, described by aides as an expert marksman who regularly trains on the shooting range, said he thinks there are moderate and radical factions of the Taliban.
"There are elements of the Taliban that may reconcile and come back into the political system, but Mullah Omar and his gang are not in that camp," Graham said.
The U.S. has placed on $10 million bounty on Mullah Omar, the former de facto head of state under the Taliban regime, who fled into hiding after the 2001 U.S. invasion.
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