Page last updated at 19:32 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 20:32 UK

Should US focus on al-Qaeda havens?

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

US marines on patrol through an Afghan village in Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, on 29 September 2009
President Obama is deciding whether to send more troops to Afghanistan

When President Barack Obama sits down with his national security team on Wednesday for the first of five meetings about his administration's strategy in Afghanistan, one phrase is likely to come up again and again - safe havens.

When Mr Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, denying al-Qaeda a safe haven in that region was a central goal.

As he laid out the details, he said the strategy was meant "to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the al-Qaeda safe haven that it was before 9/11".

And to drive the message home, he added: "Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.

"And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban - or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged - that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

But some seven months later, American popular support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping.

And as President Obama and his team debate whether to send thousands more troops to the front, many counter-terrorism experts are questioning the centrality of safe havens to a counter-terrorism strategy, and their importance for militants.

Globalised world

In a thought-provoking piece published in the Washington Post, Paul R Pillar, a former deputy chief of counter-terrorism at the CIA, argued that in a globalised world, where militants use the internet to communicate and plots are hatched in Hamburg, Madrid or more recently, perhaps, in Denver, militants were "not beholden to any one headquarters".

Mr Pillar, who now heads the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University, also told the BBC that while Afghanistan would clearly be useful to a terrorist group, no-one had yet presented a convincing case about whether "pursuing such a long, costly counter-insurgency at the expense of many lives and many more dollars would appreciably reduce the threat against the US and the West".

Not enough attention has been paid to the concept of safe havens, despite it being a central tenet of US strategy, Mr Pillar argued.

I'm not talking about running with our tail between our legs, but about not adding more troops
Paul R Pillar
Georgetown University

The question is particularly pertinent because much of the al-Qaeda leadership is now in Pakistan and concerns are growing about al-Qaeda's resurgence in Yemen and their continued presence in Somalia and the Maghreb (a region of North Africa).

Mr Pillar warned that the efforts and resources devoted to Afghanistan mean that the US may also not be paying enough attention to other areas of concern.

Daniel Benjamin, the counter-terrorism co-ordinator at the state department, concedes that the multitude of safe havens is a concern.

But in a BBC interview he insisted the administration was keeping a close eye on other trouble spots, from Yemen to the Horn of Africa, as well as working closely with Pakistani authorities to "put al-Qaeda out of business there".

"I wouldn't say that we are facing a dearth of resources. I think we can do two things at once, in fact, we need to do more than two things," he said.

But, he added, "it is very important that Afghanistan not become a permissive environment again for al-Qaeda and if we were to suddenly leave, we would have justifiable fears about what would happen".

Still essential

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist at the CIA, believes safe havens are still essential for militants as they provide a place where they can have "down-time" and where they can plot and plan.

He points out that many of the militants who plotted or carried out bomb attacks, including the London bombers, had travelled to training camps in Pakistan.

Mr Gerecht, who is now with the conservative think-tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argues that globalisation and the internet have not worked to al-Qaeda's advantage as much as they had hoped, as intelligence services improve their ability to track communications.

US drone
The US has been using drones to attack militants

The military efforts in Afghanistan are mostly destined to ensure that the "marriage between al-Qaeda and the Taliban doesn't occur again" - but more importantly, according to Mr Gerecht, the effort in Afghanistan is about neighbouring Pakistan.

"There is no way that we are going to be able to counter jihadis [based in Pakistan] without extensive co-operation with the Pakistani authorities," said Mr Gerecht.

At the heart of that co-operation are the drone attacks against suspected militants in Pakistan, which the Obama administration has continued.

"Co-operation on drone attacks would fall off the cliff if the Pakistanis perceive that the US is about to run. If the intelligence connection with the Pakistanis collapses, our ability to target al-Qaeda disappears."

Despite the success of the drone attacks, Mr Gerecht says more troops are needed on the ground in Afghanistan to reverse the negative trend.


But Mr Pillar argues that the administration can rely on those targeted attacks, like in Pakistan and recently in Somalia, to target al-Qaeda without needing "boots on the ground".

"I'm not talking about running with our tail between our legs, but about not adding more troops," said Mr Pillar, adding that it is also essential to beef up the Afghan armed forces.

Mr Pillar points to Gen Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the counter-insurgency, which states that even if properly resourced, parts of Afghanistan will remain out of government or Nato control.

The assumption is that those areas could still be exploited by al-Qaeda.

Mr Pillar's advice to the administration about its overall counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategy is to keep an eye on how America's "policies are perceived by people who sympathise with jihadists and might provide recruits for them".

Part of that is to make sure America "doesn't become seen as an occupier in Afghanistan". Sending more troops, he says, could contribute to that perception.

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