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Safe Havens: Both a Broad and Narrow Counterterrorism Focus

Matthew Yglesias writes about the Pakistani safe havens for al-Qaeda:

[I]t’s not a good idea to overrate the importance of “safe havens” in terms of al-Qaeda’s ability to cause harm to American interests or American civilians. The evidence suggests that such havens are neither necessary nor sufficient to carry out substantial terrorist attacks.

Perhaps there’s another way of viewing this, one that goes beyond not overrating the importance of safe havens to actually rating their importance in a balanced way. A new report on al-Qaeda’s core leadership from the terrorism-focused NEFA Foundation illustrates the point.

Basically, the report is a tally of the wins and losses for the organization’s central actors in Pakistan during 2008. It has a central flaw, one that isn’t actually its fault: to really be able to work out a net assessment, it’s necessary to know how large the organization is and the relative importance of its component parts to each other, and the United States just doesn’t have that information. So with that caveat, the report spends a good deal of time tracking the loss of “ten of [al-Qaeda's] senior and mid-level operatives, including three leaders of its external operations units,” nearly all of whom were killed by CIA drone strikes. Alas, there are probably “high hundreds of core al-Qaeda members” in the area, so those attacks don’t sound like the greatest strategic victory, even when stipulating for the sake of argument that the dead al-Qaeda were supremely important figures.

What seems like the most significant development that al-Qaeda endured in 2008 was the multifaceted attack on its credibility by important figures who were formerly allied with several of its most important leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy. Lawrence Wright and Peter Bergen have reported on this phenomenon extensively. The report quotes a senior intelligence official noting that nearly half of al-Qaeda’s communications in 2008 were devoted to defenses of their Islamic bona fides. That’s the way to actually destroy the organization: destroy it as an attractive force for radicalized Muslims. In other words, the drone strike kill people in the organization, but the organization can replace people. But if the organization can’t replace people because it’s a discredited entity, then the destruction of al-Qaeda is actually in sight.

The problem is that even a weakened al-Qaeda is still a really dangerous thing. NEFA’s report notes that the dual-pronged attacks forced al-Qaeda to retrench to key goals that it presumed could command baseline radical-Sunni Muslim support, including attacks on Shiite Muslims, Jews and alleged “apostate regimes” in the Muslim world, as well as expanding its connections with the Taliban. It then assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and blew up the Islamabad Mariott, all of which were accomplished with the benefit of the western Pakistani safe havens that it consolidated and expanded in 2008 and early 2009. Yglesias fears, above all, a destabilized Pakistan that causes an overreactive Indian nuclear response and kills tens of millions of people. He’s right to fear that. But it should be noted that, at bottom, what’s destabilizing Pakistan is what’s emanating from the safe havens.

Taken together, what this points to is that the territory al-Qaeda holds is necessary for the accomplishment of some of its goals, though not necessarily the near-term realization of its most audacious ones. The goal for the present time appears to be destabilizing Pakistan, and there its plans appear to be bearing fruit. But going after the safe havens themselves don’t appear to be a precise-enough goal for a strategy of eradicating al-Qaeda. The evidence suggests that the wiser goal is to focus on discrediting al-Qaeda, and any approach to pursuing that has to recognize that the crucial determinants of credibility are Muslims themselves. The value of pressuring al-Qaeda militarily isn’t disputed, but it’s clear that a more effective strategy has to recognize that popular bandwagoning against al-Qaeda has to trump military success against discrete targets if and when the two come in conflict. That makes the drone strikes appear less valuable than meet the eye.

Two weeks ago, I asked Denis McDonough, a top foreign policy aide to President Obama, what the administration’s strategy of destroying the safe havens really meant.

Referring to recent intelligence reports about al-Qaeda planning attacks on the United States from its Pakistani tribal-area safe havens, McDonough defined “disrupting” as “those plans not [being] further carried out.” So disruption is about planning, and the relevant measurement is a lack of further attacks on us. “Defeating” is about giving an alternative to “the violent, hopeless future” that al-Qaeda offers, though “different opportunities available to Pakistanis and Afghans and others.” Notice that “defeat” here is has an *ideological *meaning, and its primary measurement comes from the perceptions of Afghans and Pakistanis themselves.

That seems to jibe with the above framework. It doesn’t deny the importance of taking punitive measures against al-Qaeda, but it recognizes the greater part of valor is in a decisive cleavage of given population clusters from al-Qaeda’s plans. That casts the prerequisites for destroying the safe havens — that is, preventing them from reconstituting their populace with new feeder pools for recruitment — in broad terms.

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