Paul Pillar, former deputy CIA counter-terrorism chief, has an interesting op-ed in today’s Washington Post posing an important question regarding the Afghanistan conflict:
Whether preventing a safe haven in Afghanistan would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States enough from what it otherwise would be to offset the required expenditure of blood and treasure and the barriers to success in Afghanistan, including an ineffective regime and sagging support from the population. Thwarting the creation of a physical haven also would have to offset any boost to anti-U.S. terrorism stemming from perceptions that the United States had become an occupier rather than a defender of Afghanistan.
Clearly Pillar is arguing that the answer is Afghanistan is not worth the price, given those terms of debate. One of his main points is that The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.
Here is where I disagree. Clearly training camps are not of paramount importance to terrorist groups, and the Internet provides a fluid and almost risk free way to communicate both ideologically and personally, and physical safe havens are not as vital to many aspects of the terrorist threat as they were before 9/11. But it misses a key point to dismiss their importance to the degree Pillar does.
Almost all the personal ties and connections that were formed among those who have carried out different terrorist attacks took place because the actors had a place where they meet each other, understand they were not alone in their vision of jihad, and build relationships of trust.
This is fundamental to any cadre, and something that virtual exchanges simply cannot replace. The meetings in the hotel rooms and apartments were possible because of the bond of trust forged in a broader common experience.
People are seldom motivated to act based on the Internet alone. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Ramsey Yousef, the 1998 Embassy bombers, Bali bombers and the current group of foreign recruits in Somalia all share a tie that could never be forged outside of being in a battlefield and fighting the infidel.
Those who undergo the same experiences (training, combat, deprivation, communal living etc.), even if they do not do it together, share a bond that cyperspace simply cannot bridge. It is the building of community that is vital in moving someone from interest in jihad to actual involvement.
It is also worth remembering the cross-training and learning experiences that safe havens provide. Hezbollah and al Qaeda exchanged “lessons learned” and technology when bin Laden was in Sudan.
Sudan itself was the great mixing bowl for all radical Islamist groups, under the guidance of al Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing Hamas and Hezbollah, PIJ and al Qaeda a safe meeting ground that enhanced the operational capacities of each and forged the bonds that still are relevant today.
I think the analysis also overlooks the importance, in jihadist theology, of a physical caliphate or space that is considered a true Muslim nation or divine kingdom on earth. Hence the fight in Somalia, Afghanistan etc. It is not so much about conquering space to create safe havens as it is to establish the rule of Allah on earth, and eventually, spreading that rule over the entire earth.
Safe havens make jihadists stronger. The cost of denying them is high, and Pillar is right that the case has not yet been publicly made for that in Afghanistan. It is time to seriously consider whether it can be made.