One of the most intelligent and thoughtful comments on Afghanistan so far comes from Paul Pillar, the former chief analyst for the US intelligence community and a renowned expert on terrorism, who writes in today’s Washington Post that the real issue in Afghanistan is: What is a “terror haven”? Pillar’s argument ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about what “success” in Afghanistan means, since the chief fall-back argument for anyone who supports a long-term counterinsurgency strategy there is that the United States cannot allow the country to become a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
“The debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?”
And he answers his own question:
“The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose.”
Instead, he says, would-be terrorists can use globalization and Internet technologies to plan, organize, and train from anywhere. He points out that preparations for 9/11 “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.” And, most important, he says:
“Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless.”
Pillar’s argument makes a bulls-eye on the central issue for Afghanistan policy going forward. If the US goal there is to create a strong, democratic state with a modern army, a centralized government, and a growing economic infrastructure, then, yes, it’s a generational project that will necessarily require a heavy-handed US military presence. But if the US goal is simply to prevent 9/11-style attacks on the United States by Al Qaeda and its allies, then it’s hard to argue for a counterinsurgency strategy a la General McChrystal. Earlier this year, President Obama seems to have initially defined US goals in the more limited sense, that is, as an anti-Al Qaeda program. Since then, however, under pressure from the US military and hawkish advisers, Obama’s “limited” counterterrorism apporach to Afghanistan has morphed dramatically into a much larger, and more open-ended, counterinsurgency and nation-building approach.