Stephen M. Walt

The Afpak muddle (part 2): How serious is the threat?

The Afpak muddle (part 2): How serious is the threat?

Does the threat of international terrorism — specifically al Qaeda — justify a costly, long-term engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan? President Obama and his advisors think so, but I’m still not convinced. I certainly understand that we have a terrorism problem; I just don’t believe that it is serious enough to warrant the level and type of effort the administration is proposing. And if the results of the recent NATO summit are any indication, our NATO allies seem skeptical, too.

Just how serious is the threat? According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, there were 14,499 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2007 (the most recent year for which it has data). All told, these attacks killed 22,684 people and injured about 44,310. This sounds serious (and it is obviously not something to trivialize), but over half of all terrorist attacks (and two-thirds of all those killed, wounded or kidnapped) occurred in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and thus are not a good indicator of al Qaeda’s ability to threaten the American homeland or key U.S. allies. To keep these numbers in perspective, bear in mind that over a million people die in traffic accidents worldwide each year, with many more injured. Yet no one is proposing that we allocate additional billions to try to eliminate all highway fatalities.

Even more significant for the issue at hand, the number of private U.S. citizens killed by terrorists in 2007 was nineteen, with zero injured and seventeen kidnapped. All of these deaths or kidnappings occurred either in Afghanistan or Iraq. As John Mueller has argued, if al Qaeda is as dangerous as U.S. officials maintain, why haven’t there been more attacks on the United States over the past eight years? In America, the danger of drowning in a bathtub is greater than the risk of dying in a terrorist attack.  And that would be true even if the United State were to suffer one 9/11-scale attack every ten years. Given these numbers, does it really make sense to double down in Central Asia?

In short, my concern is that we are allowing an exaggerated fear of al Qaeda to distort our foreign policy priorities. Having underestimated the danger from al Qaeda before 9/11, have we now swung too far the other way? I am not arguing for a Pollyanna-like complacency or suggesting that we simply ignore the threat that groups like al Qaeda still pose. Rather, I’m arguing that the threat is not as great as the administration — and most Americans, truth be told — seem to think, and that the actual danger does not warrant escalating U.S. involvement in Central Asia.  

I can think of at least three counter-arguments to my position.

First, one could argue that there have been no attacks on the United States since 2001 because we’ve put al Qaeda on the defensive, and that going after them in Pakistan’s frontier provinces will deny them a “safe haven” and further reduce their ability to stage another 9/11 (or worse).  This line of argument sounds persuasive, but it falls apart on closer examination. For starters, it is not clear that al Qaeda requires a safe haven to do damage, especially since the original organization has metastasized into smaller groups of sympathizers (such as the group that bombed the Madrid railway station in 2004).  

Equally important, the United States is not going to mount a large scale invasion of Pakistan, which is what would be necessary to completely eliminate al Qaeda from that region. And there is little reason to think that the Pakistani military will do the job for us any time soon. Furthermore, U.S. military strikes in Pakistan — even limited ones — tend to undermine the Pakistani government and increase the risk that Pakistan will become a failed state. As James Traub noted in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

Pakistan feels as if its falling apart. . .[and] American policy has arguably made the situation even worse, for the Predator-drone attacks along the border, though effective, drive the Taliban eastward, deeper into Pakistan.  And the strategy has been only reinforcing hostility to the United States among ordinary Pakistanis.”

Fortunately, there are ways to deny al Qaeda a safe haven (or operational base) that do not require a large U.S. ground presence in Afghanistan and do not require us to conduct extensive military operations in Pakistan. In addition to improved homeland security and more effective counter-terrorist efforts (e.g., cutting off financing, monitoring communications, sharing intelligence, etc.), the United States can launch preemptive attacks against suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan, using Predators, cruise missiles, or in some cases, Special Forces. If we remain vigilant, al Qaeda will not get the “free pass” that it enjoyed before 9/11. This will not eliminate the threat, but it can reduce its potency.

Second, one could argue that while the risk from conventional terrorism is manageable, the real danger is nuclear or WMD terrorism and that this threat justifies upping the ante in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if the commitment is costly and open-ended. Nuclear terrorism is a worrisome prospect, but doubling down in Central Asia isn’t the best response to that problem. Pakistan is the key here and our primary goal should be making sure that its nuclear arsenal remains under reliable control. The best way to do that is to try to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state. As emphasized above, using the U.S. military to go after al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas is likely to destabilize Pakistan, thus increasing the chances that nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorists.  

Third, one might concede that the actual danger from terrorism is slight, but the political consequences of terrorist attacks are disproportionate to their actual impact. In this view, comparing the risk of terrorism to highway fatalities, or to the danger of being struck by lightning, ignores the psychological and political effects of successful terrorist operations, and rational politicians have to take the latter into account. There is no question that this is the situation we now face in the United States, but it does not have to be that way. Indeed, it is mainly the result of failed political leadership over the past eight years. If our leaders react to every terrorist incident as if it’s a monumental disaster, and if they hype the terrorist threat for political advantage — as George Bush and Dick Cheney did — the public will surely respond by demanding that we throw more resources at the problem than is prudent. Getting the opponent to react in foolish and self-defeating ways is one of the primary goals of most terror campaigns, of course, because these blunders can help the terrorists win victories that they could not achieve otherwise. We did more damage to ourselves when we invaded Iraq than Osama bin Laden accomplished on 9/11, and an open-ended commitment in Central Asia could easily compound that error.

What we need, in fact, is a political elite (and a responsible media) that will help Americans keep the terrorism problem in perspective. Terrorism is a tactic that various groups have used throughout history, and it will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Dramatic incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks are going to happen again, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that includes the possibility of attacks on American soil. But if we can keep suicidal extremists from obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not be able to threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.

None of this is to say that we should ignore al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that is bent on attacking the United States, or that we should not sometimes act assertively to protect Americans at home and abroad. But the threat from al Qaeda does not justify increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, and certainly does not justify major military operations in Pakistan.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images