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The al-Qaeda "Safe Haven" Myth

War supporters are running out of arguments

Daniel Korski has a blog on the Coffee House site today in which, like the Prime Minister at the IISS, he tries (and fails) to make the case for staying in Afghanistan. He offers three reasons for remaining "engaged":

1. To deny al-Qaeda a safe haven from which to train and organise attacks on the west. Though terrorism can be organised in Oldham, Hamburg and Marseilles, al-Qaeda still believes it needs safe havens in places like Afghanistan.

2. To prevent a new generation of terrorists and insurgencies getting the mother of all propaganda coups by having routed Nato. Victories in places like Helmand and Swat, even if not technically by al-Qaeda, resonate through jihadist websites and mindsets the world over, and could inspire myriad groups to further atrocity.

3. To preserve Nato and maintain US security interests in Europe. Having been belatedly dragged into the conflict in 2003, Nato's credibility is on the line, as are US commitments to European security. If Europe cannot help where the US needs it, why should the US care about European security concerns?

I am not going to waste time on a Friday evening addressing reasons 2 and 3, as I find it rather distasteful, if not offensive, to claim that brave British teenagers are sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan simply to prevent so-called "propaganda coups" or to preserve "Nato's credibility". These are not, and never will be, convincing explanations for Britain's military misadventure in Helmand.

However, reason 1 has become, in recent months, the main argument offered by supporters of the war for maintaining our military presence. But Korsi says al-Qaeda "still believes it needs safe havens in places like Afghanistan" without offering a shred of evidence. Did Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri ring him up to tell him that is the case? (If they did, they would have been ringing him from Pakistan, which is, in fact, their current "safe haven" and which we have not yet invaded or occupied and, I presume, we have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.)

Korski's safe-haven argument has been dismantled in last month's issue of the American Interest by the pro-war policy wonk Stephen Biddle (who happens to be a civilian adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan):

The United States invaded Afghanistan in the first place to destroy the al-Qaeda safe haven there -- actions clearly justified by the 9/11 attacks. But al-Qaeda is no longer based in Afghanistan, nor has it been since early 2002. By all accounts, Bin Laden and his core operation are now based across the border in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan is clearly linked with al-Qaeda and sympathetic to it, but there is little evidence of al-Qaeda infrastructure within Afghanistan today that could directly threaten the US homeland. If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there.

But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn't much different [from] the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state's resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

Many of these countries, especially Iraq and Pakistan, could offer al-Qaeda better havens than Afghanistan ever did. Iraq and Pakistan are richer and far better connected to the outside world than technologically primitive, landlocked Afghanistan. Iraq is an oil-rich Arab state in the very heart of the Middle East. Pakistan is a nuclear power. Afghanistan does enjoy an historical connection with al-Qaeda, is well known to Bin Laden, and adjoins his current base in the FATA. Thus it is still important to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But the intrinsic importance of doing so is no greater than that of denying sanctuary in many other potential havens -- and probably smaller than many. We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before Bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.