Paul Pillar

The Safe Haven Notion

More general habits of thought, especially American habits, are also in play.  One is a tendency toward spatial thinking that associates good guys and bad guys with different places on a map.  There is a tendency to imagine a Mordor whether one exists or not.  A further American tendency is to equate solving a security problem with an overseas use of military force.  Related to that is the American view of terrorism as primarily a foreign threat, notwithstanding the nature of most terrorist attacks within the United States since 9/11.

An unfortunate effect of the persistent notion about terrorist safe havens is not only costly and unnecessary military expeditions; the notion also worsens the terrorist threat itself.  The overseas deployment of U.S. military forces provides a major motivation for anti-U.S. terrorism.  The collateral casualties and damage that inevitably result from operations by those forces accentuate the grievances that underlie such terrorism.

A relevant reminder about this comes from an incomplete and misleading passage in Trump’s speech about Afghanistan.  He referred to Iraq and asserted that “the vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks.”  What he did not mention was that ISIS did not exist before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.  The group arose, under a different name, as a direct result of the invasion and of the warfare within Iraq that the invasion ignited.  And lest we forget, a major part of the campaign to sell the invasion to the American public involved the fear of terrorism, the specter of dictators giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, and the idea that if we don’t fight the bad guys over there they will attack us at home.