Walt vs. Bergen and Cruickshank on Afghan ‘Safe Havens’
Stephen Walt blogged yesterday to put some stress on the idea that the goal in Afghanistan justifying the war should be to eradicate an “even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans,” to use President Obama’s phrasing in Monday’s Veterans of Foreign Wars speech. He’s gotten criticism from Peter Bergen here and from Paul Cruikshank here. Judge for yourself who has the better arguments, as there are six different spheres of contention. For my part, I think Bergen overall comes out with the strongest arguments (except when it comes to the Taliban being functionally indistinct from al-Qaeda, which he comes surprisingly close to saying) but is needlessly harsh to Walt, who deserves credit for asking uncomfortable questions.
What no one really gets at is the idea that safe havens in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions are one way of several that an al-Qaeda threat can metastasize. History, as Bergen points out, shows rather compellingly that they’ve been prime and preferred methods to go about hatching plans for terrorist attacks half a world away. But that may be a function of opportunity. For one thing, the expansion of al-Qaeda’s presence to Yemen and Somalia recently should raise questions about whether a “counter-haven”-centric approach might compel the spread of the war to *there, *which is straightforwardly an undesirable option. For another, the ability of al-Qaeda to exploit anger and marginalization among the Muslim diaspora in Europe, a contributing factor to both 9/11 and several terrorist attacks in its wake should raise further questions about the resilience of the terrorist network. And for a third, don’t forget virtual communities, as Andrew Exum recently warned:
Younger scholars such as Will McCants (now at the Department of Defense) and Thomas Hegghammer–in addition to being much more likely to actually be able to speak and read the relevant languages (Arabic and Urdu)–are “digital natives” rather than “digital immigrants” (to use the labels preferred by the counter-insurgency scholar Thomas Rid): They do not need to have the explosive potential of the internet explained to them, and McCants and Hegghammer especially have individually spent hundreds of hours on the more popular jihadi chatrooms to gather data about the debates and spread of information that is taking place in the virtual world.
None of this isn’t to say that eroding or, insh’allah, eliminating the safe havens in Pakistan aren’t a necessary part of a campaign against al-Qaeda, which is part of the reason I think Bergen has the stronger arguments. But in the interest of perspective about al-Qaeda — and, as Cruickshank writes, not to “exaggerat[e] nor discoun[t]” the threat from it — it’s necessary to look beyond the safe havens as well.