As deliberations about the Obama administration's strategic direction in Afghanistan unfold, the White House is weighing whether al Qaeda, in fact, needs an Afghan safe haven -- an expanse of land under the protection of the Taliban -- to reconstitute its capability to attack the United States. Many noted scholars doubt it. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass bluntly stated, "Al Qaeda does not require Afghan real estate to constitute a regional or global threat."
He's wrong. Although the group has been significantly weakened since late 2001, the only chance al Qaeda has of rebuilding its capability to conduct a large-scale terrorist operation against the United States is under the Taliban's umbrella of protection.
Objections like Haass's are rooted in the following arguments: that terrorists don't need physical space because they can plot online; that the London and Madrid bombings prove deadly attacks can be planned in restrictive, Western, urban locations under the noses of local security services; and that denying terrorists one safe haven will simply compel them to move to another lawless region.
I spent five years as a counterterrorism analyst for the Pentagon and rigorously studied plots from Madrid to London to 9/11. The above arguments may have merit in a piecemeal or abstract sense, but fall apart in the specific case of what we all dread: a large-scale, al Qaeda operation aimed at the United States.
It is certainly true, for example, that terrorist groups can accomplish much online. Individuals can maintain contact with groups via chat rooms, money can be transferred over the Web (if done with extreme caution), and plotters can download items like instruction manuals for bomb-making, photographs of potential targets, and even blueprints for particular buildings.
But all the e-mail accounts, chat rooms, and social media available will never account for the human touch. There is simply no substitute for the trust and confidence built by physically meeting, jointly conceiving, and then training together for a large-scale, complex operation on the other side of the world.