Paul Pillar: Afghanistan a "Terrorist Haven"? So What?

It's been a parameter of debate that the United States cannot allow Al Qaeda to re-establish a "terrorist haven" in Afghanistan. When I say it has been a parameter of debate, I mean that even many critics of the war, and those who have argued for a timetable for withdrawal or exit strategy, have accepted this as an assumption, and argued that there are better ways to achieve this goal than by maintaining the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan. (As recently as Monday, I made such an argument.)

But in today's Washington Post, Paul Pillar challenges this assumption.

Paul Pillar has what one could call "impeccable establishment credentials." Pillar was deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA from 1997 to 1999.

Pillar asks:

How much does a [terrorist] haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?

And he answers:

not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks 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.

As Pillar notes,

The issue today does not concern what was worth disrupting eight years ago. And it is not whether a haven in Afghanistan would be of any use to a terrorist group -- it would.

Instead, the issue is whether preventing such a haven would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States enough from what it otherwise would be to offset the required expenditure of blood and treasure and the barriers to success in Afghanistan, including an ineffective regime and sagging support from the population. Thwarting the creation of a physical haven also would have to offset any boost to anti-U.S. terrorism stemming from perceptions that the United States had become an occupier rather than a defender of Afghanistan.

Pillar says "the case has not been made" that "such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States." That implies that a case has not been made for continuing the war, even according to the stated goals of Official Washington.

This analysis at least asks the right question.
We cannot fight all terrorism everywhere, and, obviously, we do not do so even today.

When the Afghanistan war was commenced, the US was suffering from macho-embarrassment and we went to war NOT to achieve an anti-terrorist aim commensurate with the cost of the war (now $1T?) but rather to reassert US self-esteem.

We should pull out, first from the Iraq war (a wholly illegal war of aggression on our part) and then from the Afghan war (for the reasons Mr. Pillar gives).

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