Afghanistan Isn’t Good Terrorist Real Estate

As U.S. military forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, much attention has been given to the monitoring of, and possible action against, any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan. CIA Director William Burns stated in congressional testimony in April that the military withdrawal would diminish “the ability to collect and act on threats” in Afghanistan. In testimony last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that foreign terrorist groups “will have an opportunity to reconstitute, plot, inspire in a space that’s much harder for us to collect intelligence and operate against than was the case previously.”

The heads of U.S. agencies responsible for collecting information on terrorist groups will focus, understandably and appropriately, on the challenges of such collection. But the fear of, in Wray’s words, a terrorist “safe haven to be recreated” in Afghanistan is an artifact of Americans’ traumatic history with the 9/11 attacks. To the extent that a terrorist group may find a geographic haven useful, there is nothing special about Afghanistan. If such a group is looking for a conflict-ridden place with some local sympathizers where outlaws can hang out and the group can pitch a tent, there are numerous other locations in the world from which to choose.

More fundamentally, a patch of real estate is one of the less important factors that determine a group’s ability to conduct international terrorist attacks, especially ones aimed at a target half a globe away. Access to real estate may be useful for a group engaged in insurgency or civil war—as al Qaeda was in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The country provided space for the training and basing of recruits, most of whom engaged in military operations inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban during the war there in the late 1990s.

But territory is less relevant to the planning and preparing of an international terrorist attack. An example is the 9/11 operation itself. It obviously had an Afghanistan connection, but not in ways that were unique to Afghanistan, and preparations for the attack were geographically dispersed. Financing of the hijackers’ activities, for example, was centered in the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed used long-distance electronic communication for coordinating those activities. The most important preparations for the attack took place more in apartments in Europe, flight schools in the United States, and cyberspace than in Afghanistan.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.