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Doubts Linger Over Targeting Al-Qaida Safe Havens

September 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Growing unease has arisen in Washington over U.S. strategy aimed against eliminating so called "safe havens" for terror operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. Two experts provide insight.
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MARGARET WARNER: Senior al-Qaida leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was one of six suspected militants killed on Monday in a daring daylight U.S. helicopter assault in southern Somalia. Nabhan was one of the most wanted al-Qaida operatives in the region, for the deadly 1998 East African embassy bombings and the bloody 2002 bombing of a Kenyan beach resort popular with Israelis.

National Public Radio reported today he also trained recruits from Minneapolis to join the ranks of a Somali group of Islamist militants, Al-Shabaab.

Nabhan was being sheltered in lawless Somalia by that group, which is believed to be loosely linked to al-Qaida. Al-Shabaab has fueled two decades of fighting in pursuit of its chief aim, to topple the Somali government.

The Pentagon refused to comment on yesterday’s raid, but the Associated Press reported the attack was carried out by Navy SEALs and Army helicopters launched off two U.S. warships in the region.

The raid played into an ongoing debate in Washington about how best to contain and defeat al-Qaida. The U.S. has gone after militant leaders in western Pakistan using drone attacks.

But in Afghanistan, the U.S. has sent 65,000 combat troops to help the Afghan government take on the indigenous Islamist group, the Taliban. Yesterday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen testified the war was essential to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror groups like al-Qaida.

And today, a leaked draft administration document on “evaluating progress in Afghanistan-Pakistan” underscored that point. It cited as objective number one, “Disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks.”

But in an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, entitled “Who’s Afraid of a Terrorist Safe Haven?” former CIA counterterror official Paul Pillar dismissed that rationale for the war, calling it a “flawed assumption.”

And to take up the safe havens issue, Paul Pillar joins us now. He currently heads the security studies program at Georgetown University. With him is Reuel Gerecht, a former case officer at the CIA. He’s now a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Thank you both for being here.

Paul Pillar, so, beginning with you, you called it a flawed assumption, the very assumption and objective that Mike Mullen and the president have laid out, which is the reason we’re at war in Afghanistan is to prevent al-Qaida from returning there and establishing a haven. What is flawed about that assumption?

'An unquestioned assumption'

Paul Pillar
Georgetown University
[W]hat has not been part of the public discussion and debate is a detailed examination of what safe haven means and how important it is to al-Qaida or any other group

PAUL PILLAR, Georgetown University: Well, actually, what I said was flawed, Margaret, in the piece were the assumptions back during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, but you made the analogy.

PAUL PILLAR: What we have here is an unquestioned assumption. And as your piece -- as the intro to the piece made clear, that's rationale number one for why we are waging a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

But the problem with the public discussion and debate we've had is that gets invoked almost ritualistically. We say 9/11 came from Afghanistan, can't have a safe haven.

And what has not been part of the public discussion and debate is a detailed examination of what safe haven means and how important it is to al-Qaida or any other group and, most importantly, how much difference having it or not having it would make to the terrorist danger to the United States.

And let me be clear: We've still got a jihadist, terrorist threat to the United States. The question that our policymakers have to face right now is how much difference there would be in the degree of that threat with or without a particular safe haven for a particular group.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let's have our debate now, and I'm going to give you another quote of yours, which I believe came from your column. You said essentially that a physical haven is not as important to groups like al-Qaida as has been assumed, I think you called it, as the assumptions underlying the current debate, and you said, "The operations most important for future terrorist attacks do not need such a home." Now, what's your evidence for that?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, look at 9/11 itself. A lot of things did take place in Afghanistan, but it's rather simplistic to say, "Well, 9/11 came out of Afghanistan."

Much of the most important preparations took place in European countries; they took place right here in the United States in flight schools. And even things that did take place in Afghanistan -- and even though that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups make use of a safe haven, if they have it -- are not necessarily critical ones that have to take place in any one physical safe haven, much less in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: So what's your view of this, Reuel Gerecht? I mean, how important is having a haven and, in particular, Afghanistan to the operations of al-Qaida? I mean, is this an assumption that we've just said by rote and haven't examined?

Function of safe havens

Reuel Gerecht
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
[S]afe havens are important to terrorist groups wherever they can find them, because they need to have down time. They need to have some place where they can plot and plan.

REUEL GERECHT, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: Well, I mean, I think safe havens are important to terrorist groups wherever they can find them, because they need to have down time. They need to have some place where they can plot and plan. They need to have some place where they have sufficient security that they know that they're not going to get killed the next day.

Now, I would say this. I mean, I think it's -- in the early 1990s or even after 9/11, one could have postulated that, all right, al-Qaida has been trying to democratize terrorism since the late 1980s, when they started publishing these encyclopedias of jihad. Since then, they put out CDs, DVDs, flash ROMs, everything.

The idea behind it was that we could actually create groups everywhere, and they could be as lethal as the home-based units. I'm not sure that's true. I mean, we have seen groups grow up, but still, if you were to ask European counterterrorist officers, particularly the British, who have to deal with the Pakistani threat more than anyone else, I think they'd tell you quite quickly that the Pakistani connection, the going back to al-Qaida central, is really what makes...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, Brits of Pakistani origin who go back...

REUEL GERECHT: Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: ... and get trained and come back?

REUEL GERECHT: Absolutely, that countering them there is what, in fact, is the most important. It's that connection that really takes them to a different level, that makes the most lethal groups.

The importance of Afghanistan

Paul Pillar
Georgetown University
There are all kinds of links back to Afghanistan that still date to the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, and we still see today, in the networks and the groups and the relationships...that were formed back then.

PAUL PILLAR: When we talk about links and connections, we have to be more precise about exactly what we're talking about. There are all kinds of links back to Afghanistan that still date to the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, and we still see today, in the networks and the groups and the relationships, friendships and relationships that were formed back then.

That does not mean we're talking about the next big threats to the United States, having been instigated, planned, conducted, commanded from some place in South Asia.

I agree with Reuel that down time is needed, the other things that he mentioned, but they don't have to take place in a particular physical safe haven. Most of those things can take place in apartments in the West.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me turn this to this question, Reuel Gerecht. If the rationale for having all these boots on the ground in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaida safe haven there, yet the U.S. is now identifying Somalia and Yemen as places where al-Qaida is resurgent, we saw, actually, a link to U.S. recruits in the fellow that was killed today -- or Monday in Somalia -- what makes Afghanistan different that would mean U.S. forces have to be engaged at the level they are versus, say, Somalia, where we seem to be approaching it off-shore, with attacks such as the one that took place on Monday, or Pakistan, for that matter, which is, again, being mostly done -- we don't know all the details, but remotely?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I mean, that's a good question. I would say it goes back to the other reasons why we're fighting the war in Afghanistan, and those have to do that we're trying to prevent, one, the radicalization of Pakistan.

I mean, imagine a scenario, the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. I think you're going to see two things immediately. One, you're going to have the return of civil war in Afghanistan. It's probably pretty quickly you'll see the Taliban become the dominant group inside of the Pashtun community. You're going to be in a situation where the United States is going to have to get involve in that civil war. The radicalization effect, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I suspect would be enormous.

MARGARET WARNER: But is it a given that al-Qaida would want to return from the hinterlands of western Pakistan, the al-Qaida leadership, and re-establish itself in Afghanistan and that, if the Taliban took over, they would welcome them? I mean, that's a lot of assumptions.

REUEL GERECHT: Well, no. Actually, I think the Taliban probably would welcome them. I think the radicalization of the Taliban movement is pretty profound and it's deep. And when you see individuals like Haqqani, who's grown enormously inside of the Taliban movement...

MARGARET WARNER: Who has his own network.

REUEL GERECHT: Right. I mean, I think that you would be quickly staring at the same situation that occurred in 1996, when bin Laden was welcomed there. And could -- if bin Laden had more room to maneuver, I think he'd take it.

And also, I'd have to say, he emotionally is attached to Afghanistan. And if he could go back there, he could get out of the cocoon that he's in, in the northwest area of Pakistan, I think he'd go for it quite quickly.

Pakistan's connection

Reuel Gerecht
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
[I]f we leave Afghanistan, you'll see the intelligence connection with the Pakistanis collapse.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, these issues about Pakistan have been discussed and debated a lot recently. But, you know, those are some of those other rationales besides that, number one, referring to Afghanistan...

MARGARET WARNER: But what about the point about whether al-Qaida would want to return from where it is now, the main leadership? Is it a given, do you think, or do you think it's not a given that they'd want to get back to Afghanistan?

PAUL PILLAR: I don't think it's a given. Those are decisions that bin Laden and Zawahiri would have not yet made. And they would depend on the situations that arise.

They've had, apparently, a fairly hospitable environment in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where they reportedly are hiding out, and I don't think it is a given, no.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, do you think that if that was their intention, it could be handled in another way, not by using boots on the ground, but by doing it off-shore?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, I do agree with that. And the recent operation against the individual in Somalia, which was at the top of your piece, is an excellent example, skillfully executed, precisely targeted, and did not rely on prior boots on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: A brief riposte to that?

REUEL GERECHT: I think, if we leave Afghanistan, you'll see the intelligence connection with the Pakistanis collapse. If it collapses, our ability to target al-Qaida disappears.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much.