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No Place to Hide

The new Obama Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy redefines counter-terrorism--but it doesn’t go far enough.

When the Obama administration announced the results of its review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policies on Friday, reporters quizzing the review's authors seemed confused. They wondered whether the recommendations announced by the president amounted to an abandonment or endorsement of the kind of population-centric counter-insurgency strategy employed in Iraq in 2007. Were we embracing a more limited counter-terror mission? Or were we committing ourselves more fully to nation-building?

The aims of the strategy are quite modest: to deny transnational terror groups the ability to use physical space to plan and prepare for attacks on the United States in the way that al-Qaeda used Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks. And the central problem of the post-Cold War era is that these staging grounds are often in ungoverned spaces like the Pashtun belt straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The solution to this problem in those countries is improved governance from Kabul and Islamabad, respectively, which leads us to pursuing lines of operation quite unlike those most normally associated with the art of war--such as improving centralized governance, coordinating economic development, and providing essential services to the peoples of southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The new Obama strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is thus better described as a "counter-haven" strategy then a counter-terrorism strategy. (I must credit a conversation I had with counter-insurgency theorist-practitioner David Kilcullen on Friday for that particular turn of phrase.)

So the plan announced by the Obama administration is actually a renunciation of traditional counter-terror strategies--which have employed special operations raids, drone strikes, and bombing campaigns to deter or reduce the capacity of transnational terror groups. In the administration's strategy is the admission that solely "kinetic" means--blowing things up and killing people--cannot be relied upon to end the threat from terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The new White House strategy very much reflects the American experience with counter-insurgency campaigns, which we have historically waged as third parties outside our nation's borders, such as in Vietnam and Iraq. In counter-terrorism too, we have traditionally focused on safe havens, where we believe that plots are hatched and prepared to visit havoc upon our shores. And to a large degree, this is true; Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan have indeed served as areas where attacks have been plotted and terrorists trained.

Many of our European allies fighting with us in Afghanistan, however, have generally waged these battles in what they saw as their own territories, such as the French in Algeria or the British in North Ireland. Thus, they are wary of their Afghanistan operations leading to greater unrest in their own immigrant communities, being as likely to look to the suburbs of Paris and London for terror plots in utero as they are to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, for example, was allegedly plotted almost entirely within the confines of my old neighborhood in East London. And while some terrorists--such as Mohammed Sadiq Khan, who is believed to have masterminded the 7/7 bombings--travelled to Pakistan and trained in militant camps, the common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical "safe haven."

The White House strategy, though, betrays an obsession with physical space at the expense of virtual space. This fixation very much reflects a generational divide among the scholars and policy-makers who focus on terrorism. Younger scholars such as Will McCants (now at the Department of Defense) and Thomas Hegghammer--in addition to being much more likely to actually be able to speak and read the relevant languages (Arabic and Urdu)--are "digital natives" rather than "digital immigrants" (to use the labels preferred by the counter-insurgency scholar Thomas Rid): They do not need to have the explosive potential of the internet explained to them, and McCants and Hegghammer especially have individually spent hundreds of hours on the more popular jihadi chatrooms to gather data about the debates and spread of information that is taking place in the virtual world.

This is not to say that physical safe havens do not matter. They do--a lot. But they are not the "be all, end all" of an effective counter-terror strategy. The policy-makers who crafted the White House strategy largely belong to the generation that cut its teeth in the Clinton White House, when physical havens were in fact the only havens that mattered. But as Europe's experience has shown us, this thinking is outdated; we shouldn't wait until we are attacked by homegrown or internet-coordinated terrorists to adopt an appropriately far-reaching strategy.

The white paper released on Friday, of course, was only meant to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And if the chief policy objective of the Obama White House is to eliminate the problematic area of ungoverned space straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, this strategy is as good a strategy as can be expected. But its myopic thinking about the terror threat does not bode well for broader efforts to keep America safe.

The emphasis on destroying "safe havens" also establishes a tricky rationale for our presence in Afghanistan. Even if we succeed in spreading effective governance to southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are we then prepared to go to wherever the transnational terror groups relocate? Are we prepared to clear out the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon? Or provide governance to the Horn of Africa? The new Obama plan is a dangerous precedent. If the reason we are staying in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda the use of safe havens, where are we going next?

The costs of Obama's new strategy--both human and financial--will be immense. But President Obama's insistence on measuring the degree to which his strategy is succeeding or failing suggests a president willing to re-evaluate his positions and assumptions if they prove wrong. In a counter-insurgency campaign--especially when waged against an enemy like the Taliban who pursues a strategy of exhaustion--if you're not winning, you are losing. If momentum has not demonstrably shifted 12 months from now, then, it will be time to question again our position in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and edits the counter-insurgency blog Abu Muqawama.