At the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal admonished an audience of listeners to question "generally accepted, 'bumper sticker' truths" about Afghanistan. As U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors decide on the best way to proceed with the war, they might want to reconsider one in particular: safe havens.
"Since first invading Afghanistan nearly a decade ago," Matthew Rosenberg and Siobhan Gorman wrote in last Monday's Wall Street Journal, "America set one primary goal: Eliminate al Qaeda's safe haven." Over the past eight years, virtually no one has questioned what that means exactly, or the buzzwords used to describe the problem.
In late 2008, former CIA director Michael Hayden extolled the virtues of drone strikes into Pakistan: "By making a safe haven feel less safe," he claimed, "we keep al Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies; question their methods, their plans, even their priorities." Explaining his AfPak strategy this August, Obama said, "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
Much of what Washington thinks it knows about insurgent and terrorist safe havens is defined by the common geopolitical understanding of security, an understanding first articulated by a neoconservative White House. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the White House followed the logic that if the Taliban controlled the country and sheltered al Qaeda, then defeating the Taliban would allow the United States to rout its real enemy. It never wavered from that logic, and it wasn't long before "terrorist sanctuaries" became an entrenched part of the national security strategy, annual State Department reports, and Pentagon briefings.
Enter Georgetown University's Paul Pillar, a former CIA official turned author and academic. This September, Pillar wrote that the United States has "largely overlooked a ... basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?" He forcefully argued that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would not decrease the terrorist threat to the United States because, as he put it, "by utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists' organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters."
"In the past couple of decades," he wrote, "international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens." But this argument relies on another unquestioned assumption: that "havens" and "states" are the same thing. In fact, it is a dangerous oversimplification to suggest that they are.
Different militant organizations use sanctuary in different ways -- and the United States must reconcile itself to this heterogeneity. Guerrilla armies need territory in which to encamp, train, and credibly challenge the writ of the state. Networked organizations don't, but whether they're legitimate revolutionary movements, urban guerrillas, or clandestine terrorist cells, they don't stop operating in the physical world and they don't stop needing safe spaces in which to operate. The difference isn't whether physical havens are needed, but how they're created and distributed.