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A different take on the “safe haven” myth

By Paul Cruickshank In an article posted on his Foreign Policy blog Tuesday Stephen Walt challenged one of the key realist foreign policy rationales for maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan, describing President Obama’s contention that “left unchecked the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill ...


By Paul Cruickshank

In an article posted on his Foreign Policy blog Tuesday Stephen Walt challenged one of the key realist foreign policy rationales for maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan, describing President Obama’s contention that “left unchecked the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans” as emblematic of a “safe haven myth” swallowed uncritically by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Walt questions whether the actual risk of a terrorist attack being launched from Afghan soil in the future, justifies the huge cost of the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan.

While Walt is correct that critical thinking is sometimes absent from the policy debate in Washington, DC, and it should not be taken as axiomatic that increased Taliban control over Afghan territory would lead to new attacks in the United States, his critique of the “the safe haven argument” far from adequately accounts for the potential threat that increased Taliban domination over Afghanistan would pose.

Below is a response to five correctives offered by Walt to the so-called “safe haven myth.”

  • The Taliban — or at least important elements of it — do not share al Qaeda’s determination to attack the United States homeland.

This is true to some extent. The Taliban and al Qaeda are after all distinct groupings with autonomous, though sometimes overlapping, agendas. The Taliban is much more interested in creating an autonomous Pashtun state than in creating a Global Caliphate. And Mullah Omar, who never authorized the 9/11 attacks, has distanced himself from al Qaeda of late.

But what Walt neglects to mention is that fact that Taliban commanders have increasingly bought into al Qaeda’s vision of ‘Global Jihad’ in recent years. While they may not themselves be interested in orchestrating attacks in the West, the Taliban movement as a whole is arguably more sympathetic to Bin Laden’s vision of a global Jihad now than in the 1990s. This is especially the case for a younger generation of “Pakistani Taliban” commanders who have emerged as powerful players in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have offered al Qaeda safe-haven and resources.

  • It would not be in the Taliban’s interests to offer al Qaeda a safe-haven.

From a realist perspective this is also undoubtedly true. The Taliban lost power as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks so why would they make the same mistake twice? The problem with this is that the Taliban can hardly be accused of being poster children for “rational state actors;” otherwise presumably they would still be in power in Kabul. This is not to say that the Taliban are incapable of weighing their interests — Mullah Omar is a much shrewder political operator than most give him credit for — but religion, specifically the belief that al Qaeda is engaged in a legitimate Jihad,  has historically played as important a role in Taliban calculations as realpolitik.

While the Taliban would be unlikely to be rash enough to provide direct support to al Qaeda if they were returned to a position of political power inside Afghanistan, it is unclear whether they would be willing to take active steps to remove al Qaeda operatives who entered their territory.

  • Afghanistan would be of limited use as a safe haven because it is remote and isolated.

This does not square with the facts.  To support this assertion Walt incorrectly states that “the 9/11 plot was organized out of Hamburg, not Kabul or Kandahar,” when the 9/11 Commission Report and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation reports make it clear that the key planning for the attacks took place on Afghan soil. It was in an al Qaeda camp in the Kandahar area in late 1999 that Mohammed Atta and his gang were groomed to become suicide bombers and directed to launch the 9/11 attacks.

Walt also asserts that the “training camps [al Qaeda] could organize in Pakistan or Afghanistan … would not be particularly valuable if you were trying to do a replay of 9/11.”  But this ignores the fact that several of the U.K. terrorist cell members allegedly plotting to blow up at least seven transatlantic airliners in the summer of 2006 received crucial bomb-making training in al Qaeda facilities in the tribal areas of Pakistan not many miles from the Afghan border.

When they were arrested three years ago this month the “airline plotters” had obtained all the components necessary to build liquid explosives capable of bringing down aircraft. Given the interdependence of the world economy such an attack could have been economically devastating, something worth bearing in mind when assessing the dollar costs of U.S. deployment in Afghanistan.  Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff stated that, if successful, the alleged plot “would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy.”

Recent evidence suggests that al Qaeda has been able to sustain its training operations in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, despite intensified Predator strikes. The interrogation reports of a number of Western al Qaeda recruits, including Bryant Neal Vinas, an American who spent time in the tribal areas during 2008, indicate that it is still possible for Westerners to join up with the terrorist organization there, however remote these areas may be. The testimonies also revealed that al Qaeda is still able to offer recruits a large variety of training courses in this safe-haven, including advanced bomb-making.

  • The U.S. would be able to successfully identify and strike any al Qaeda camps that did emerge in Afghanistan.

While al Qaeda’s large mountainside camps that it ran in Afghanistan in the 1990s were relatively easy to target with Cruise missiles, its new training facilities in tribal areas of Pakistan, are much smaller — sometimes just mountain shacks — and consequently  much more difficult to target, even with Predator drones. If the Taliban gained tighter control over territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan and al Qaeda were to transfer some of these camps across the border from Pakistan, it would not be a straightforward task for the United States to identify them.

And even if they could be identified the loss a few small facilities would not be a great blow to the terrorist organization. It is worth also recalling that the cruise missile strikes ordered by the Clinton administration in 1998, even though they hit their targets, had very little impact on al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan.

  • The presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan helps al Qaeda win allies for its global Jihad.

Walt has a point here. The presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has certainly been exploited by al Qaeda to gain recruits and allies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This has been compounded by the accidental killing of a significant number of Afghan civilians in air strikes. But the United States had little choice but to intervene militarily after the 9/11 attacks and recent polls suggest that a majority of Afghans still support the U.S. military presence in the country. Moreover a precipitous withdrawal of troops might produce a situation where one had the worst of both worlds: high levels of hostility to the United States in the region and a considerably safer and larger haven for al Qaeda.

President Obama will face difficult decisions in the next months about whether to maintain, increase, or reduce American troop levels in Afghanistan. In making these decisions the danger of al Qaeda again setting up operations in Afghanistan should be neither exaggerated nor discounted.

Paul Cruickshank is a Fellow at the NYU Center on Law & Security.


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