The Safe Haven Myth

Washington needs to broaden and diversify its understanding of safe havens if it intends to end them in the war in Afghanistan.


At the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal admonished an audience of listeners to question "generally accepted, ‘bumper sticker’ truths" about Afghanistan. As U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors decide on the best way to proceed with the war, they might want to reconsider one in particular: safe havens.

"Since first invading Afghanistan nearly a decade ago," Matthew Rosenberg and Siobhan Gorman wrote in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal, "America set one primary goal: Eliminate al Qaeda’s safe haven." Over the past eight years, virtually no one has questioned what that means exactly, or the buzzwords used to describe the problem.

In late 2008, former CIA director Michael Hayden extolled the virtues of drone strikes into Pakistan: "By making a safe haven feel less safe," he claimed, "we keep al Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies; question their methods, their plans, even their priorities." Explaining his AfPak strategy this August, Obama said, "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."

Much of what Washington thinks it knows about insurgent and terrorist safe havens is defined by the common geopolitical understanding of security, an understanding first articulated by a neoconservative White House. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the White House followed the logic that if the Taliban controlled the country and sheltered al Qaeda, then defeating the Taliban would allow the United States to rout its real enemy. It never wavered from that logic, and it wasn’t long before "terrorist sanctuaries" became an entrenched part of the national security strategy, annual State Department reports, and Pentagon briefings.

Enter Georgetown University’s Paul Pillar, a former CIA official turned author and academic. This September, Pillar wrote that the United States has "largely overlooked a … basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?" He forcefully argued that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would not decrease the terrorist threat to the United States because, as he put it, "by utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters."

"In the past couple of decades," he wrote, "international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens." But this argument relies on another unquestioned assumption: that "havens" and "states" are the same thing. In fact, it is a dangerous oversimplification to suggest that they are.

Different militant organizations use sanctuary in different ways — and the United States must reconcile itself to this heterogeneity. Guerrilla armies need territory in which to encamp, train, and credibly challenge the writ of the state. Networked organizations don’t, but whether they’re legitimate revolutionary movements, urban guerrillas, or clandestine terrorist cells, they don’t stop operating in the physical world and they don’t stop needing safe spaces in which to operate. The difference isn’t whether physical havens are needed, but how they’re created and distributed.

This raises questions for countries attempting to coordinate cross-border counterterrorism policies and practices. How big does a safe haven have to be to qualify for a military campaign to eliminate it? Is a safe house big enough? How about an urban ghetto? Is there a difference between sanctuaries and safe havens? How safe do havens have to be? Do they even have to be physical?

Moreover, policymakers need to recognize that some terrorist groups — the ones that survive and persist — change over time. Before 2001, al Qaeda needed serious patches of territory to run training camps and field its paramilitary units. Now, the few remaining al Qaeda militants could not control that much space even if they wanted to. Al Qaeda’s track record shows that eliminating one base of operations is no guarantee that terrorists won’t simply establish another one somewhere else. Worse, once pushed underground, these militants inhabit havens that look more like cells than garrisons. Shape-shifting organizations like al Qaeda and its affiliates, in other words, put the lie to the assumption that safe havens and states are indistinguishable.

The current debate on Afghanistan strategy does not take into account such changeability and shades of gray. It generally hinges on two options: commit to a large-footprint counterinsurgency operation, saturating the country with thousands more troops; or turn to surgical counterterrorism options that don’t require a large or continuous presence and focus on a much narrower set of goals and activities. Both strategies intend to create an Afghanistan that can survive without the security blanket of foreign troops, with some semblance of stability and some capability to self-police as the central benchmarks. Under that vision of success, Afghanistan would cease to be a resource for insurgents and terrorists.

But realities on the ground defy both resource-heavy counterinsurgency and more tactically nimble counterterrorism — and suggest policy options that straddle the two strategies. The military could continue to target training camps in Waziristan, a suburb of Quetta, or a city block in Peshawar. At the same time, the forces in Afghanistan could create "safety zones" for civilians as outlined in international humanitarian law. The French did so during Operation Turquoise during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations established safe cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during its 1992-1995 war and a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq in the late 1990s. These aren’t perfect examples, but they show that the United States might be able to make a "model district archipelago" to help make the country more stable and safe.

International humanitarian law also identifies safe havens of another kind — protected sites like schools, hospitals, and religious facilities. Such physical structures, usually located in urban areas, present a different set of potential problems, particularly in light of Gen. McChrystal’s plan to withdraw from rural areas and focus on securing Afghanistan’s cities. Security forces in Afghanistan will likely have to contend with an increase in clandestine cells of urban guerrillas, reliant on networks of safe houses, covert training sites, and other underground havens to conduct operations like last Thursday’s Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul.

U.S. and coalition forces have already witnessed extensive sectarian targeting and the exploitation of mosques by insurgents in Iraq. In Afghanistan, girls’ schools and hospitals have consistently been hit with insurgent violence. In Pakistan, the 2008 raid on the Red Mosque, where militants had taken refuge, demonstrated the strategic significance of a local event — precipitating no small amount of bad press for the government and contributing to nationwide discontent. None of these locations were states; all of them were statutory havens; all of them hosted high-visibility events that challenged the security policies crafted to deal with them.

Ultimately, Obama and his advisors can use whatever language they want to describe this war, but recent history has shown that the right choice of words is key to continued legitimacy and a convincing claim of success. Pinning counterinsurgency and counterterrorism options to a narrow, neorealist vision of sanctuary is potentially misleading, could foster misguided expectations, and will most certainly miss out on some of the local dynamics that Centcom hopes to acquaint itself with through its new Afghan Hands program. If they’ve outlived their usefulness, then perhaps it’s time to let this set of bumper-sticker buzzwords die.

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