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September 16, 2009

The Safe Haven Fallacy
Posted by Michael Cohen

In the Washington Post, Paul Pillar has today's must-read piece exposing one of the key flawed assumptions underpinning the US effort in Afghanistan: that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan risks again becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda. Pillar doesn't argue that such an event is impossible, but that even if it were to happen it wouldn't really matter all that much:

How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

As Pillar points out, al Qaeda has become more of an "ideological lodestar" rather than an operational organization - indeed since September 11th no major al Qaeda attacks have been organized and implemented from the current al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan. And from an ideological standpoint, al Qaeda current influence in the Muslim has decreased significantly. Indeed, it seems that the best way to turn the Muslim world again against the United States and embolden and empower al Qaeda . . .. is to remain an occupying force in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. As Pillar correctly notes:

Instead, the issue is whether preventing such a haven would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States enough from what it otherwise would be to offset the required expenditure of blood and treasure and the barriers to success in Afghanistan, including an ineffective regime and sagging support from the population. Thwarting the creation of a physical haven also would have to offset any boost to anti-U.S. terrorism stemming from perceptions that the United States had become an occupier rather than a defender of Afghanistan.

Read the whole piece here

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