Stephen M. Walt

Safe Haven (2): A response to Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen has taken issue with me on whether the danger of a “safe haven” for al Qaeda justifies an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, but his critique mostly misses my central point. In my view, what has been largely absent from the current discussions of U.S. policy is any serious attempt at cost-benefit analysis, ...


Peter Bergen has taken issue with me on whether the danger of a “safe haven” for al Qaeda justifies an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, but his critique mostly misses my central point.

In my view, what has been largely absent from the current discussions of U.S. policy is any serious attempt at cost-benefit analysis, and my original post was directed toward that particular omission. At present, advocates of a heightened U.S. role — including President Obama — simply invoke the dreaded words “al Qaeda” and the worrisome phrase “safe haven” as if that rendered any discussion of ends, means, costs and benefits unnecessary. It’s an effective rhetorical tactic: we are so mesmerized by the specter of another 9/11 that we are willing to support any policy if it is said to be about preventing that from recurring. In most cases, however, it discourages us from examining how serious the risks really are and whether the proposed line of action will actually lower them.

Bergen thinks the threat is very, very serious, and he is admirably candid about his willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more to try to ward it off. He also believes that a large U.S. presence in Afghanistan is the best way to do that, while skeptics tend to think that reducing the U.S. military role is a better long-term bet. And let’s not lose sight of just how difficult this is going to be. Consider what the Obama administration’s own White Paper on Afghanistan identified as some of the key requirements for success:

These are daunting tasks. They require a new way of thinking about the challenges, a wide-ranging diplomatic strategy to build support for our efforts, enhanced engagement with the publics in the region and at home, and a realization that all elements of international power –- diplomatic, informational, military and economic — must be brought to bear. They will also require a significant change in the management, resources, and focus of our foreign assistance.

We must engage the Afghan people in ways that demonstrate our commitment to promoting a legitimate and capable Afghan government with economic progress…

A strategic communications program must be created, made more effective, and resourced…

a complete overhaul of our civilian assistance strategy is necessary…

The international community must assume responsibility for funding this significantly enhanced Afghan security force for an extended period…

A dramatic increase in Afghan civilian expertise is needed. . . The United States should play an important part in providing that expertise, but responding effectively to Afghanistan’s needs will require that allies, partners, the UN and other international organizations, and non-governmental organizations significantly increase their involvement in Afghanistan.”

And if we do our best and some of these “daunting tasks” go unfulfilled, what then?

Of course neither Bergen nor I know for certain how likely a Taliban victory is or how dangerous it would be for U.S. interests. But note that his assessment still depends on a number of unproven worst-case assumptions. He assumes that absent large-scale and lengthy U.S. involvement, the Taliban will gain power again, even though the conditions that enabled them to consolidate power in the 1990s no longer exist. Among other things, many Afghan now know what Taliban rule is like, and non-Pashtuns aren’t going to accede to Taliban control, which is why the fighting is mostly in the Pashtun south. 

Bergen also assumes that the Taliban and al Qaeda are still inseparable ideological soul-mates and that the Taliban would quickly revert to the same supportive policy that led us to drive them from power once before. It’s possible, of course, but hardly a certainty, especially given that the Taliban itself is not a homogeneous group and that most of its cadres don’t share Al Qaeda’s commitment to global jihad. 

Bergen also assumes that a “safe haven” in Afghanistan would add a significant additional increment to Osama bin Laden’s capabilities. I’ll concede that this might be preferable to huddling in a cave, but it’s not clear how much it would really increase their ability to plan or train. Even if some hypothetical Taliban government did let Bin Laden & Co. have a hideout somewhere inside Afghanistan, he would be little better off than he apparently is today. He could hardly start operating openly, of course, because we would be certain to go after him if he did. And given that al Qaeda has metastasized into different groups that are already operating in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere (including sympathetic cells in Western Europe) the incremental value of a re-established presence in Afghanistan would be modest. Bergen points out that various plots in the past were conceived in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but it hardly takes a “safe haven” to sit around and conspire — terrorists can do that virtually anywhere. In other words, making Afghanistan an “al Qaeda”-free zone is only a small part of the problem, and one could even argue that large-scale Western military involvement in these regions is precisely the sort of thing that gave rise to al Qaeda in the first place and continues to win it sympathizers today.  

The real questions to ask are: 1) how much blood and treasure are the United States and its allies willing to invest in Afghanistan, and 2) is the way we are currently investing those lives and money are going to make things better or make them worse? Bergen thinks the danger is bigger than I do — so he’s willing to spend a lot more — and he thinks a combination of counter-insurgency against the Taliban and massive external assistance to strengthen the central government is the best way to head his nightmare off. I have no objection to our using special forces and other assets to go after al Qaeda wherever it might be, and I don’t object to foreign aid programs designed to repair or improve Afghanistan’s woeful infrastructure (building roads and expanding electrical grids is something we do know how to do, whereas designing a legitimate and minimally effectve central government are tasks we seem singularly ill-prepared for). So I’m with those who believe that trying to “defeat” the Taliban and create a strong central state in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.  

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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