Afghanistan: Are "safe havens" the WMDs of Obama's War?

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…

 

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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2 Responses to Afghanistan: Are "safe havens" the WMDs of Obama's War?

  1. libtree09 says:

    It is ludicrous to think that the military could in any way prevent the planning of another attack on the United States. The 9/11 attack was planned from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United States. Yet we only consider Afghanistan a safe haven. Worse still was the fact that the plan was a poorly kept secret and U.S. intelligence knew of the general outline of the attack and no amount of military might in the region could have prevented it. The failure was of U.S. police work, of intelligence agencies not sharing with domestic agencies. A condition that Homeland Security did not change.

    We must at some point in history recognize the horrible brilliance and effectiveness of this attack not only for its tactical success but for the trap that it led the United States into. Not only did it frighten an entire country, but it pushed the government into spending far beyond its means attacking Muslim nations, proving the extremists points about invading crusaders. Bin Laden became a hero defending his brothers against the invading Communists and now he retains his mantle by opposing invading Capitalists. A trillion and counting has been spent while as a nice by-product America has lost its title as a just country bound by laws with its use of torture and illegal detention. Half of all our deficient spending can be laid at the feet of Bin Laden and our military reaction. Still with the lessons learned we continue pursuing vengeance instead of justice so hog tied by our own actions and failures that Bush had to announce that Bin Laden was not a priority and Obama to state it is no longer essential to kill Osama.

    It is time to consider putting our resources to better ends. There is only limited uses of the military in the war against terrorism just as it was against Communism. Intelligence, human in particular is more dollar effective against an enemy that has no standing army. Above all we must protect our values and economy and not spend billions on chasing ghosts and creating new enemies with every innocent death. The American people never question military spending and our future generations will pay dearly for such unquestioning loyalty to a disastrous policy.

  2. Mr. Hastings,

    I do not disagree with anything you have written here. However, I suspect that there is one aspect of the war in Afghanistan that you did not comment on and that is a factor in Washington’s thinking on this topic. Let us suppose a worse scenario, the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan and allowing a resurgent al-Qaeda to operate there. I would agree that the likelihood of that being a base for a successful attack upon the US is unlikely. However, I think that there are those would argue that a Taliban ruled Afghanistan would be a destabilizing force through the immediate region, most immediately Pakistan but also India and the neighboring nations of the former Soviet Union to the north. A variation on the old Domino Theory.

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