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How Important Are “Safe Havens”?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"How Important Are “Safe Havens”?"

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The head of the Pakistani Taliban, Beitullah Massoud, has threatened to strike Washington, DC with a terrorist attack. But while everyone takes Massoud’s threat to the stability of the Greater Hindu Kush area seriously, nobody seems to take his threat to do this very seriously. As Spencer Ackerman says “It’s difficult to see how Beitullah Massoud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has the capability to launch attacks against the U.S.”

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that this points to what I think is a serious conceptual flaw in the administration’s thinking—this heavy emphasis on the idea that we need to deny al-Qaeda a “safe haven” in Afghanistan or Pakistan. As Andrew Exum observes, it’s not at all clear that a “safe haven” is necessary to carry out a terrorist attack:

Thus, [European governments] are wary of their Afghanistan operations leading to greater unrest in their own immigrant communities, being as likely to look to the suburbs of Paris and London for terror plots in utero as they are to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, for example, was allegedly plotted almost entirely within the confines of my old neighborhood in East London. And while some terrorists–such as Mohammed Sadiq Khan, who is believed to have masterminded the 7/7 bombings–traveled to Pakistan and trained in militant camps, the common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical “safe haven.”

And as per Spencer’s point, not only is a safe haven not necessary, it’s not sufficient either. A safe haven in the mountains in Central Asia doesn’t let you carry out a terrorist attack in the United States. You need an attacker physically located in the United States, in possession of explosives that are also physically located in the United States, in order to attack the United States. The danger is of a terrorist being here or else in someplace like Western Europe or Canada from which it’s easy to get into the United States. Recall that key action in the 9/11 plot took place not just in Afghanistan, but in Hamburg and the best governance initiative in human history is not going to make Afghanistan as orderly and prosperous as Germany. The attackers went to flight school in America; you can’t learn to pilot a jumbo jet in the mountains. Clearly “al-Qaeda has a safe haven” is worse than “al-Qaeda does not have a safe haven” but orienting our national security policy around the goal of denying safe havens is not going to achieve what we’re looking for. And as Exum explains, it could easily lead to dangerous overreach:

The emphasis on destroying “safe havens” also establishes a tricky rationale for our presence in Afghanistan. Even if we succeed in spreading effective governance to southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are we then prepared to go to wherever the transnational terror groups relocate? Are we prepared to clear out the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon? Or provide governance to the Horn of Africa? The new Obama plan is a dangerous precedent. If the reason we are staying in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda the use of safe havens, where are we going next?

I think that’s right. You need to be wary of a strategic concept which implies that the security of American citizens requires the United States to achieve effective physical control over 100 percent of the world’s land area. We should be especially wary of it given that effective physical control of U.S. territory didn’t actually stop the 9/11 attackers from traveling throughout the country, learning to fly, hijacking airplanes, etc. Absent al-Qaeda acquisition of a nuclear weapon (and they’re not going to find one in Kandahar), the main way al-Qaeda can threaten the United States is by baiting us into implementing costly and unworkable policy responses and some of the “safe haven” rhetoric seems to be pointing us in that direction.

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