Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wading into the "Safe Haven" Debate

I am not a part of the 51 percent of Americans who apparently no longer think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. Then again the public also approves of President Obama's handling of the war to date; I find myself in the minority of both groups. I believe that we should be in Afghanistan, but only if we develop a realistic and achievable desired end state and a strategy to accomplish that mission.
Over the last few days several foreign policy blogs have been discussing a line from President Obama's speech to the VFW, “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans." Realist scholar Stephen Walt argued in six points that leaving Afghanistan (presumably immediately) would not create more of a safe haven for terrorists bent on attacking the United States, that it is not fundamental to our survival as a nation, and thus that Afghanistan is not a "war of necessity." He was then "slammed" by, among others, Peter Bergen, Paul Cruickshank, and Spencer Ackerman.
The thing is, while I don't agree with everything he is saying, Walt has a valid point. Would leaving Afghanistan create a safe haven for al-Qaeda? Probably, because either the Taliban would take over or Afghanistan would be come what is referred to as an "ungoverned space."
The first problem is, al-Qaeda already have a safe haven: the ungoverned space on the Pakistan side of the border. Has any analyst or policymaker been so bold as to propose that either the United States or Pakistan will be able to tame and rule the mountainous tribal areas? No power in history has been up to the task. Functioning countries on both sides of the border along with continued drone flights would contain the problem, and that is a valid, and hopefully achievable, goal, but totally eliminating a mountainous maze as a safe haven won't happen. Bergen points out that the 2005 London subway bombings, the 2006 liquid bombs on planes plot, and others were plotted in Pakistan, all while surrounded by thousands of U.S. and allied troops. Eliminating every nook and cranny along the Durand Line is just as difficult as eliminating every nook where a cockroach could be hiding in your house.
A second problem, which some of the commenters acknowledge and then ignore, is that many other ungoverned spaces exist, including Somalia and Yemen, that can and do serve just as well as terrorist bases and training areas. And in a modern, globalized, interconnected world safe havens in ungoverned or welcoming countries aren't necessary. Sure several of the 9/11 hijackers trained in Afghanistan, but they also spent significant time plotting, training, and waiting in Hamburg, Cairo, and Florida (is Florida an ungoverned space? It's easy to get and practice with guns and other weapons there, and parts of it certainly have religious fanatics...).
I don't believe we should withdraw from Afghanistan, although without a real strategy we are simply treading water. We need to set a realistic and achievable goal and figure out a plan to achieve it. The President is right, leaving now would result in an "even larger safe haven" (italics mine), but staying won't eliminate one completely, nor should that be the goal. I don't agree with Walt that we should leave, but he should not be attacked for pointing out that the idea of "safe havens" is not enough of a reason to stay.

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