Over at Foreign Policy, Professor Stephen Walt poked a few holes in the Obama adminstration’s central rationale for sending tens of thousands of Americans to fight in Afghanistan. This rationale–carried over from the Bush adminstration, naturally–says that we have to be in Kabul for decades to prevent terrorists from getting a “safe haven,” or “safe havens,” plural.
Reading his post was like a breath of fresh air, the kind of invigorating intake of oxygen that would make a smoker want to give up on Marlboro. It helped that I was inclined to agree with him, as it’s something I’ve been trying explain myself–why the whole notion of the terrorist “safe haven” threat doesn’t really stand up under close scrutiny, especially when considering a cost/benefit analysis of fighting a war that requires a “generational commitment” of hundreds of billions of dollars. Even an Iraq/AfPak war salesman like the Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan has admitted that safe-havens can really be anywhere–Somalia, Indonesia, the Phillipines, just read this State Dept. report and you’ll see the world is teeming with ’em. So justifying a massive ground presence in Afghanistan to prevent a safe haven when the nature of terrorism is that it can move anywhere doesn’t really hold water. As an American officer I spoke to once put it: “Explain how having 100,000 Americans in a ‘Stan makes me safer.”
The safe haven argument, writes Walt, is “the kind of assertion that often leads foreign policy insiders to nod their heads in agreement, but it shouldn’t be accepted uncritically.” Walt makes six good points, and here’s one of them:
…in the unlikely event that a new Taliban government did give al Qaeda carte blanche to prepare attacks on the United States or its allies, the United States isn’t going to sit around and allow them to go about their business undisturbed. The Clinton administration wasn’t sure it was a good idea to go after al Qaeda’s training camps back in the 1990s (though they eventually did, albeit somewhat half-heartedly), but that was before 9/11. We know more now and the U.S. government is hardly going to be bashful about attacking such camps in the future. (Remember: we are already doing that in Pakistan, with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government). Put differently, having a Taliban government in Kabul would hardly make Afghanistan a “safe haven” today or in the future, because the United States has lots of weapons it can use against al Qaeda that don’t require a large U.S. military presence on the ground.
Well, it took about a day before a foreign policy insider–in this case, Peter Bergen–offered a rebuttle.
Remember those six points of Walt’s that I like? Bergen isn’t too keen on them. He writes: “All of [Walt’s] objections to Obama’s “Af-Pak” strategy are seriously flawed.”
Bergen then goes onto list the handful of terrorist attacks over the past two decades that had an Af/Pak connection. What’s interesting, though, is that a couple of those attacks–Mumbai, London, Barcelona–have occured while the U.S. and NATO have been tooling around Afghanistan and Pakistan. Which would suggest that having a significant number of Western troops in Afghanistan thus far hasn’t been what one might call a fool proof solution to terrorism. And, in fact, if you look at how the number of suicide bombings in Pakistan have skyrocketed over the past few years, it would seem that our presence in Af-Pakistan has had somewhat of a destabilizing, perhaps radicalizing, effect on the region. (So you can probably tell who I’m agreeing with. But you should take the time to read Bergen’s post.)
Luckily, the miracle of the blogozphere allowed Walt to respond to Bergen’s response. So today, Walt writes:
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.
This is heart of the issue, why it makes it so hard to talk about “safe havens.” It’s become one of those accepted scare phrases to promote the war in Afghanistan, like WMD’s were for Iraq. The words have so ingrained themselves in the debate that it’s hard argue against them without sounding like some kind of freaky, pro-safe haven pacifist. It’s already taken a smart guy like Walt over a thousand words just to debunk two.
(Caveat to prove I’m a serious foreign policy type: I’m all for killing boatloads of Islamic terrorists. Send in the SEALS. Unleash the Hellfire missiles. If I knew what company makes the Predator drones, I’d certainly by stock in it.)
The questions we should be asking are whether or not our current strategy, as Walt writes, is actually worth the cost, and if it will actually make us that much safer. As the WaPo/ABC poll suggested, the majority of Americans seem to be on the side of Professor Walt and myself on this one. But, shit, what do the majority of Americans know about anything, really? How many books on Bin Laden have they written? It’s not like they’re the folks who are paying for and fighting the war…Oh wait a sec…