Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The True Threat of Terrorist Safe Havens

by Micah Zenko
June 6, 2011

Afghan President Hamid Karzai presents U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with the Ghazi Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Medal, Afghanistan's highest governmental award, in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2011. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen.

 Gen. David Petraeus, Commander of the American and international forces in Afghanistan, is expected to provide his recommendation to the White House for how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn starting in July. While Petraeus has refused as recently as yesterday to specify how many troops could be withdrawn, it is widely expected that his recommendation will be modest (3,000-5,000 troops) and involve non-combat forces. On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, after receiving the Ghazi Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Medal, Afghanistan’s highest governmental award, noted that Obama would “consider some modest draw-downs beginning in July…in short, there will be no rush to the exits.”

A fundamental issue for the White House to consider in this debate is whether Afghanistan requires a large number of U.S. troops on the ground to prevent the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven. After all, the first objective articulated by President Barack Obama in his December 2009 Afghanistan strategy speech was to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven.” Last week, Gen. Petraeus further clarified that the ultimate U.S. goal is “to ensure that Afghanistan does not become an attractive alternative to [Al Qaeda] for, again, a safe haven in which they might plot attacks such as those of 9/11.”

According to the State Department’s latest annual Country Reports on Terrorism, there are thirteen such terrorist state havens, defined as “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed areas of a country and non-physical areas where terrorists that constitute a threat to U.S. national security interests are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”

Some of the thirteen terrorist sanctuaries have obvious connections to international terrorist plots, such as Pakistan and Yemen, while others are much less directly involved with threats to U.S. interests, such as the Tri-Border Area (Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay), where: “No corroborated information showed that Hizballah, HAMAS, or other Islamic extremist groups used the Tri-Border Area (TBA) for military-type training or planning of terrorist operations.” Since the State Department first began naming safe havens in its 2007 Country Reports on Terrorism, only one has been removed, Indonesia in 2008. (The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region was also collectively removed in 2009, but both countries remain listed individually.) 

On Friday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, which warned that the Obama administration could not provide the congressionally mandated “comprehensive, governmentwide list of U.S. efforts” intended to combat terrorist safe havens. More interesting than the GAO study faulting the performance of the federal government was an appendix attached to the report. In the appendix, GAO investigators asked terrorist subject experts to determine which of the five safe havens named in the 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism “posed the greatest risk to U.S. national security.” Not surprisingly, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq received the most votes. Meanwhile, fully six of the thirteen safe havens received no votes (Colombia’s Border Region, Northern Iraq, Southern Philippines, Sulu/Sulawesi Seas Littoral, Tri-Border Area, and Venezuela; all locations where Al Qaeda does not have a presence), and some terrorist subject experts refrained from even listing five. Apparently, the extent to which certain alleged safe havens pose a “threat to U.S. national security interests” varies greatly; policymakers should calibrate resources and attention accordingly.  

The issue of combating terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and elsewhere is covered in an important and timely new book by my colleague, and director of the CFR International Institutions and Global Governance program, Stewart Patrick. (Patrick is also the author of a new CFR blog, The Internationalist, which should answer any question you have about rising world powers, tensions between globalization and traditional national sovereignty, and the evolving role of multilateral institutions in the world.)  In his book, Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security, Patrick challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the alleged connections between state weakness and transnational terrorism, noting that terrorist attacks have been planned in Yemen and Somalia, as a well as Germany and Spain (and I would add the United States).

Patrick makes his argument by comparing relative measures of state weakness with evidence of terrorist activities, as measured by datasets collected and published by the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center. The findings suggest that “state weakness correlates only imperfectly with exploitation by transnational terrorists,” because states that are too weak “may lack even minimal levels of security or predictability” that are required to reliably plan and oversee terrorist attacks. In short, Patrick concludes, “The most attractive states for transnational terrorists are weak but functioning states where state structures have not collapsed but remain minimally effective, in the context of a permissive cultural and ideological environment.” This characterization sounds alarmingly like much of Afghanistan outside of the Kabul District.

Based upon his findings, Patrick recommends that the United States should focus primarily on the handful of locations that might be predisposed to indigenous Salafi terrorist movements as well as the presence of Al Qaeda. He advocates avoiding “an overly militarized response (such as a reliance on drone attacks),” while bolstering “broader civilian-led efforts to promote democratic governance, address social and economic grievances, and discredit extreme ideologies.” In addition, to avoid implementing counterterrorism efforts that have a “made in the USA” stamp, Patrick also calls on the United States to integrate more states, international organizations, and regional organizations into the effort. President Obama should keep these recommendations in mind as he decides how quickly to begin the end of the Afghan surge.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    As Dick Cheney said it is only a matter of time before we get nuked. How does he know because in 2008 al-Qaida tried to create a confrontation between India and Pakistan via using LeT to hit Mumbia. So they could get a Pakistani nuclear warhead out of secure storage so it could be stolen and detonated in the US.

    But they need proxies to steal it and a proxy state to launch the terror operation from. Same as 9/11 can’t blame Pakistan or the ISI it is al-Qaida and Afghanistan.

    That is why Afghanistan cannot be come a safe haven again and under control of the ISI.

    Make no mistake if Obama followed the plan there would be US tactical nuclear weapons placed in Afghanistan.

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