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“The Safe Haven Myth”–Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt Takes on Obama’s Justification for Escalating the Afghanistan War

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US military commanders have reportedly told the US special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, that they need more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Last week, President Obama defended the expansion of the war, calling it a “war of necessity.” We speak with Harvard professor Stephen Walt, who argues that the President’s “safe haven” argument for expanding the US military presence in Afghanistan should be viewed with skepticism. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We turn now to the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The New York Times reports that US military commanders have reportedly told the US special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, that they need more troops to fight the Taliban. There are currently 57,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and that number is expected to hit 68,000 by the end of the year, in line with President Obama’s order to send more troops to the country. The Times said it’s not clear how many additional troops the commanders are seeking.

On Sunday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the situation in Afghanistan as, quote, “serious and deteriorating” and warned that the Taliban remained a threat and was only getting more sophisticated.

Last week, President Obama defended the expansion of the war, calling it a, quote, “war of necessity.” He was speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Phoenix, Arizona.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick nor easy. But we must never forget, this is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven, from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting; this is fundamental to the defense of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest says the President’s safe haven argument for expanding the US military presence in Afghanistan should be viewed with skepticism. Stephen Walt is professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, author of Taming American Power and The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. His article for Foreign Policy is called, “The Safe Haven Myth.” He joins us now from Boston.

Professor Walt, welcome to Democracy Now! Why “myth”?

STEPHEN WALT: It’s a myth, or at least a set of claims that should be taken with some skepticism, because it rests on a set of worst case assumptions, which, if you link them all together, makes it appear that unless we are completely successful in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, we’re going to end up with another 9/11.

It’s very effective rhetoric, because if you, you know, use the phrase “al-Qaeda,” which immediately alarms people, and then you talk about something worrisome like a safe haven for al-Qaeda, people put those things together and don’t ask just how serious the problem is, just how much a less-than-complete rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan would be for American national security.

So, again, it’s an effective argument for the President to make, but you have to unpack the various claims that are embedded in it and examine each one to see if there really is a serious national security threat and, most importantly, whether or not the national security threat that’s being presented there is worth an open-ended commitment of American forces and American money. And my judgment was that if you look at this carefully, it probably doesn’t.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you write that Afghan territory is not exactly an ideal place to provide a safe haven to plan attacks on the United States. Could you explain?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, if you were trying to figure out a place you wanted to put al-Qaeda, if you had to — if you knew al-Qaeda was going to be somewhere and you asked yourself where would you like it to be, I’d prefer it to be in a landlocked country a long way from the United States that has very primitive infrastructure, where it’s hard to get materials, where it’s hard to get people in and out of the place. The last place I would want them is to, say, be in western Europe or in the United States itself. That’s not to say I’d be happy with having al-Qaeda in, you know, northwest Pakistan or Afghanistan; I’d rather they didn’t exist at all. But the simple fact of them being in Afghanistan, you know, shouldn’t scare us as much as we’re being told.

The second thing to remember is that having a presence someplace is relatively easy. We know that al-Qaeda cells or al-Qaeda sympathizers probably exist in lots of other countries. The notion that the safe haven somehow adds dramatically to their capabilities is the thing that one has to unpack and look at much more carefully than I think the President has done so far.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Coming as military commanders are reportedly asking for more troops to Afghanistan, what do you think — what do you see as a solution here to the occupation of Afghanistan?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, I think ultimately the United States is going to have to realize that Afghanistan’s fate is going to have to be determined by the Afghan people.

At present, we have a large military presence there. It’s not large enough to control the entire country, but it’s large enough to be a disruptive element in various parts of the country. And we are attempting to create a sort of Western-style centralized state with a functioning democracy in a country where that has not been the traditional form of government, where a weak central government has been the practice, where it’s a relatively mountainous country, and where there are very deep social divisions within different groups there. We’re attempting to essentially do large-scale social engineering in a country of some 32 million people that we don’t understand particularly well.

And I think that’s ultimately a goal that we’re going to fail at, despite our best intentions. Again, if that is justified by the national security argument that we have to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining a safe haven there, it seems to me that the danger we are averting by throwing more and more resources at Afghanistan probably isn’t worth it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. You write, Professor Walt, “as well-informed critics have already observed, the primary motivation for extremist organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda is their opposition to what they regard as unwarranted outside interference in their own [society].” Expand on that.

STEPHEN WALT: Well, I think if you look at what al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations that are anti-American say — and this is pretty well documented — they have a view of the world in which the United States and other countries have been interfering in various illegitimate ways in what they regard as their own homelands. So, you know, one of al-Qaeda’s main grievances was the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. Another one of their grievances is what they regard as one-sided American support for Israel combined with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. So they have a narrative in which it is Western and, in particular, American interference that justifies them taking various actions against us. One doesn’t have to agree with their view to recognize that that’s what the motivation is.

Now, it seems to me that the more you increase the Western and American presence in places like Afghanistan, and conceivably also Pakistan, and the more we are engaged in trying to sort of restructure their societies along lines that we think are appropriate, the more we play into the narrative that they use to try and attract support and recruit people in Afghanistan itself. And one of our challenges is to find ways to advance our interests and advance some of our objectives without actually making the job harder for ourselves. It seems to me that the larger the American footprint is in that part of the world, in fact, the more difficult we are likely to make our task. And I think the record of the last several years suggests that.

I do also want to go back to a point we should emphasize. One of the assumptions that the safe haven argument makes is that the Taliban is and that al-Qaeda are essentially the same organization, that they are ideological soul mates, and so if the Taliban were to regain power in Afghanistan, they would immediately invite bin Laden back, give him some room to operate in, give him as much support as they could afford, and therefore make him much more formidable as a danger. I think if you look carefully at that, it’s a pretty skeptic — or pretty questionable argument.

First of all, the Taliban itself is a very heterogeneous umbrella label. There are lots of different factions within it. They don’t agree on everything. They’re motivated by different things. And a great many members of the Taliban don’t share al-Qaeda’s jihadist philosophy; they’re not trying to restore a caliphate in the Arab world, they’re not trying to bring down the West in any fundamental way. So it seems to me you can’t assume that even in the event that they won in Afghanistan, which is by no means a sure thing, but even if they did, it’s not obvious to me that they would be giving a lot of help to bin Laden.

Among other things, they would have to ask themselves, do you want to help bin Laden attack the West or attack the United States again, and therefore give the United States a reason to come back here and do what we did in 2002, oust them from power once again? I think they’d have to rethink that one pretty carefully.

The second thing I’d point out is, even if they did welcome bin laden back into Afghanistan somewhere, he’s not necessarily going to be able to operate the way he did before. He can’t operate openly in Afghanistan, because we’ll be looking for him. If he had a big training camp operating there, we wouldn’t hesitate to attack it. We debated whether or not that was a smart idea back in the 1990s in the Clinton administration, but after 9/11, there wouldn’t be much debate about going after him. So even if he were to move back into Afghanistan, he’ll have to keep his head down, he’ll have to operate in a very covert way. And the idea that it would be an enormous increase in his capabilities, again, I just don’t think stands up too much scrutiny.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You also write that one can make a moral argument for an extended commitment in Afghanistan. What do you see as that moral argument? I mean, Human Rights Watch released a report last year that documented that the number of US — of Afghan civilian deaths from US and NATO air strikes tripled over the year before. We’ve seen a record number of US soldiers killed last month, on pace to beat that this month. What is your argument for a moral commitment in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, it’s not my argument, but you could — and some people have; President Obama did not — but you could make an argument about the empowerment of women. You could make an argument about protecting the Afghan people from the actions of the Taliban. And as we heard in the earlier segment, the Taliban has been the greatest source of Afghan casualties. So you could make essentially a philanthropic argument that it is the international community’s duty to help the Afghan people; you know, oust the Taliban; develop some kind of effective central government; you know, improve their economic conditions; get, you know, roads, bridges, electrical grids, schools, etc. Here, you’re not making a national security argument. You’re not saying we need to do this to make Americans safer here in the United States; we’re doing this out of our own sense of generosity.

Now, there are two problems here. One is, that’s not an argument, I think, that’s going to sell very well. The American people and other people around the world would be willing to devote some resources to Afghanistan for philanthropic reasons, but not the kind of sums and not the lives of American soldiers that we’re talking about. Second, as your question suggested, it’s not obvious that we actually know how to do that. Our record thus far in trying to occupy and run societies we don’t know very well is not very good, and that goes for our record in Afghanistan, as well. We do know how to do certain things, and we probably ought to keep doing them. We do know how to build roads. We do know how to extend electrical grids. What we don’t know how to do is create a functioning Afghan society. We don’t necessarily know how to reconcile the various groups within Afghanistan. That’s going to have to be done by the Afghan people themselves.

So, again, you can make a philanthropic argument, but notice that that’s not the argument that President Obama was making. He was justifying increasing our presence there on strictly national security grounds, and that’s what I was questioning.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Walt, we want to thank you for being with us. Stephen Walt is professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, speaking to us from Boston. His piece in Foreign Policy magazine is called “The Safe Haven Myth.”

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