How Much Do Safe Havens Matter?

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I’m still trying to decide what I think about this question. But given how much strategic focus we’re giving to Afghanistan, I’m confident we haven’t given the question enough collective thought. Matt Yglesias had a post a couple months ago asking a basic question: how much does it really matter if al Qaida has safe havens in Afghanistan?

To be clear, no one’s saying it doesn’t matter at all. But does it matter enough, relative to other threats, to make Afghanistan — and specifically, the escalation of our involvement in Afghanistan — close to the focus of our whole foreign policy? Ethnic Afghans have played little or no role in any of the major terrorist incidents of the last decade. And most were planned and organized either in Europe, the US or in other Arab or majority Muslim countries. The training camps we hear a lot about mainly focused on light combat training and maybe car-jackings. As Matt puts it, the ‘safe havens’ in Afghanistan were neither necessary (the training could be and often was done elsewhere) nor sufficient (you still needed cells in the target countries) conditions for any of the major terrorist attacks. So why is this such a critical focus of our policy?

On the other side of the spectrum, I’d put the following considerations. If al Qaida types get plugged in in the thriving opium trade in Afghanistan that’s clearly a source of money. And one of the best counter-terrorism strategies seems to be just keeping the members of terrorist organizations under pressure and threat everywhere. So you wouldn’t want one country where bin Laden and his pals could live more or less unmolested and in the open — though given what happened and how many drones we have on patrol, it’s not really credible to me that quite that would ever be allowed again.

Then there’s the question of Pakistan. On really every front, money, safe havens, weaponry, even nuclear weapons, Pakistan has everything that Afghanistan has, only ten-fold, though there’s probably a decent argument that the two countries are umbilical when it comes to counter-terrorism policy.

And let me finish on two further points. Through much of the last decade, I’ve been in the group of people saying that Iraq was a distraction and that Afghanistan was the place we really needed to be focusing on. So this is in conflict with much I’ve said before. Furthermore, if you look at the history, the role of Afghanistan going back over the last few decades, wasn’t so much that it allowed for safe havens but that the guerilla, semi-irregular wars there spun off thousands of violent, highly-trained and religiously intoxicated extremists who later spread out around the world spreading terror right and left. And that makes intensifying the conflict in Afghanistan to prevent the growth of safe havens a logically questionable proposition.

Like I said up top, I’m not sure where I come down on this one. But given how central a role ‘safe havens’ play in current policy and how much focus we’re giving to this policy, it really requires more scrutiny. Let me know your thoughts. I’m curious what others have to say.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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