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April 09, 2009

Does Terrorism Matter in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Posted by Patrick Barry

Afghanistan Disagreeing with Steve Walt is generally not advisable, because A) he's generally right in the first place, and B) he can turn your best arguments into confetti, but I am going to go ahead and take issue with his  post questioning the seriousness of the terrorist threat in the Afghanistan - Pakistan region. While I don't disagree with his overall caution - that we should be careful not to inflate the significance of terrorist threats in general - I felt that his exploration of terrorism in the particular setting of Afghanistan and Pakistan fell short in a few ways.

For instance, Walt plays down terrorism's significance a bit by looking at the issue of American casualties resulting from terrorist attacks.   Walt observes that in terms of destructive power, terrorism matters much less to the US than other potential causes of mortality. He rightly points to the fact that though there were over 14,000 terrorist attacks in 2007, only 19 Americans were killed, and roughly two-thirds of overall casualties had more to do with victims being present in theatres of war (Iraq and Afghanistan.)   Looking at this data, you would conclude that while terrorist attacks may occur frequently, they are not frequently harmful to Americans. 

I think this is a fair point, but I would argue that it is relevant to the flawed manner in which the U.S. has assessed overall terrorist threats for the last few years, not the specific threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Where other organizations have failed to demonstrate any serious capacity for harming the U.S., al-Qaeda has succeeded.  While U.S. policy toward Central Asia should obviously weigh other strategic concerns against the possibility of another, large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland, it’s important to recognize that there is justification for evaluating this breed of terrorism differently from how you would a fringe group operating in Iraq or Somalia.  Additionally, al-Qaeda’s capacity is still sufficient enough for DNI director Blair to describe the group as one of the most serious national security threat facing the U.S. outside of the economic crisis (interestingly, Blair downgraded the al-Qaeda threat partially because of the tactical success of U.S. predator strikes in Pakistan)  Walt is right to observe that based on the small number of casualties arising from international terrorism, the U.S. may have overhyped the threat overall.  However threat evaluation should not just account for the most common contingency, but the most destructive.  In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda's rebuilt capacity (relative to 2001) and demonstrated ability to carry out attacks of a much greater scale warrant consideration.

This relates to my next point having to do with Walt’s analysis of terrorist operating bases (safe-havens.)  I would argue that these havens are more important for operations and planning than he suggests.  It’s definitely wise to continually revisit our notions of what constitutes a haven, and whether that haven is important for terrorist operations.  But so far those investigations always seem to return to the reality that several major attacks or attempted attacks over the last few years are linked back to either Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan (See the recent discussion of Andrew Exum’s article on virtual havens)  As Ilan noted a few months ago:

Over the past few years, pretty much every single major terrorist attack or foiled plot against the U.S. or its allies has in some way involved the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  Obviously there was 9/11.  The 2005 London bombings.   The 2006 plot to blow up Transatlantic flights or the conclusion by Gordon Brown and British counterterrorism officials that "[t]hree-quarters of the most serious terror plots being investigated by UK authorities have links to Pakistan."

These connections extend beyond the more inspirational sort described by Walt to comprise actual, operational relationships, involving training, oaths of allegiance, etc.  Though this does not mean that terrorist action and physical safe-havens are intrinsically bound with one another, there are significant correlations.

And last, I don’t think Walt’s analysis fully reflects the degree to which Afghanistan and Pakistan have become a unified problem, a problem which strikes me as being so maddeningly complex that it doesn't present any sort of clear options for the U.S.  Say the U.S. were to do as Walt recommends and scale back its footprint in Afghanistan, and halt all military involvement in Pakistan (essentially predator strikes and training missions)  I’m not sure I see how that option helps matters, particularly in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which faces an insurgency that sympathizes with the aim of driving the U.S. from the region, but quite separately seems bent on challenging the writ of the Pakistani government.  The U.S. might be able to manage the volatile Afghanistan that would likely emerge following its withdrawal, but could an already-besieged Pakistan?  I’m not so sure.

Overall, I think Walt’s piece is grappling with the irony that the Obama administration appears to be making every effort to de-emphasize terrorism within its broad foreign policy agenda, but re-emphasizing it within the narrower context of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They aren’t unjustified in doing so. 


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