What’s in a Safe Haven?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Wikimedia Commons

By Mitchel Hochberg, Columnist

What’s in a Safe Haven?

Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, United States foreign policymakers have been obsessed with preventing the emergence of terrorist safe havens. When leaders discuss the threat of a safe haven, they conjure up dread for many Americans. Safe haven rhetoric is not about present threats or concrete dangers to American lives. Instead, US policymakers reference safe havens to stoke worry of what may come next. What would happen if terrorists were allowed to regroup, train, and plan in an area beyond our reach? The fact that these potential terrorists are usually Muslim is no mistake. Many Americans are deeply afraid of the threat Muslims and Islam pose to the American way of life and, intentionally or not, policymakers draw on that fear when they discuss safe havens. [1] Across multiple administrations, American intervention has become the natural solution.

Foreign policy actions designed to prevent safe havens have often had the opposite effect. Before the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban had the power to police terrorists within the country. Though the Taliban instead sheltered Osama bin Laden, it may have ousted him if given more time after 9/11.[2] After fourteen years of war to eliminate a safe haven, swaths of Afghanistan lack an authority that could deny terrorists a foothold.[3] Iraq had no Al Qaeda affiliate in 2002, but the terrorist group sprung up in chaotic post-invasion Iraq to fight the United States.[4] Efforts to prevent terrorism by fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may just motivate the group to launch an attack on the United States, an act which they have yet to attempt.[5] In Yemen and Somalia, US policy may have limited the impact of safe havens, but it is unclear if these operations can prevent safe havens or terrorism in the long run.[6] Not acting could have been the better counterterror measure in each of these cases.

US foreign policy premised on preventing the emergence of safe havens has a parallel in Cold War policies based on preventing the spread of communism. In both cases, the United States incurred huge costs in blood and treasure. Military operations in Korea and Vietnam cost a combined $1.079 trillion in FY2011 dollars and around 90,000 American lives.[7] As of April 2014, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan cost around 13,600 lives, while through 2014 $1.57 trillion had been allocated to those fights.[8] During the Cold War and today, the costs of inaction may well have been lower than the consequences of action. US policymakers confused local developments for international threats and created sandpits that sapped American power.

Still, terrorism from safe havens threatens the United States. The important question is the significance of that threat and its origin. In a recent Foreign Policy article, Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf claim that the rhetoric of safe havens has been used to justify fruitless US interventions abroad while “a hotel room in Hoboken can be just as much a safe haven as a hut in Helmand.”[9] They argue that the United States has incurred tremendous costs to prevent safe havens, even though domestic threats can be as damaging.[10] Zenko and Wolf display a poor understanding of terrorist operations when they claim that Hoboken and Helmand are equally threatening safe havens. Safe haven logic may be overused and justify undesirable US actions, but Hoboken is certainly not a “more dangerous” safe haven than Helmand.[11]

A nuanced typology and explanation of safe havens can be found in Elizabeth Arsenault and Tricia Bacon’s new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Arsenault and Bacon reject the notion that any weak, collapsing, or failing state can become a safe haven and instead reimagine safe havens in relation to local governments’ will and capability.[12] Using different sanctuaries within Pakistan, they demonstrate that safe havens—where terrorists can “undertake core support activities with relative security or limited fear of counterterrorism action”—are not monolithic.[13] Rather, safe havens exist when governments are either incapable of eliminating them or uninterested in doing so due to the benefits such safe havens bring.

The United States would need to take drastically different counterterror actions to get rid of each type of safe haven. Sometimes the best option is developing government capacity, other times pressuring a government to evict a group could work, and in others targeted strikes become the only option.[14] Safe havens do not come into existence simply because a state is weak, but because of a complex interplay between groups and governments that intentionally host them or are stuck with them. Weak states without good communications and transportation infrastructure may well be useless to terrorist groups. Further, Hoboken would not be a safe haven. In Hoboken, the United States has the will and capacity to eliminate terrorists. New Jersey would be an excellent area of operations for a terrorist group, still there would be no expectation of “relative security or limited fear of counterterrorism action.”

Arsenault and Bacon argue that the United States should target safe havens since safe havens prolong the lives of terrorist groups and allow dangerous linkages between groups to emerge.[15] Yet their article demonstrates that not all safe havens and not all terrorist groups are equally threatening to US interests. In Pakistan, as Arsenault and Bacon discuss, most groups with safe haven—the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba—are tools of Pakistani foreign policy in Afghanistan and India.[16] They impact US interests insofar as they complicate US policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but these groups pose almost no threat to the US homeland despite their territorial sanctuaries. To the extent that these groups do affect US interests, Pakistani use of terrorist proxies as a tool of foreign policy, not safe havens, is the problem to be solved.[17]

Still, both arguments support a common point: public debate over safe havens lacks understanding of the real threats to US national security such safe havens pose, where they come from, and how best to deal with them. Zenko and Wolf claim that relatively few threats come from abroad, while Arsenault and Bacon show that different types of safe havens require drastically different US responses. They differ crucially on how much terrorism they think it is in US interest to combat.

That debate needs to happen in the United States. Discussion should be about what types of safe havens and terrorist groups may actually threaten the United States and how those risks could be mitigated. The overreliance on safe haven rhetoric to justify US defense policies disservices Americans and leads to a flawed policymaking process. Jihadists are scary, but ISIL controlling territory is not a direct threat to the United States.[18] A communist Vietnam did not lose us the Cold War. If debate more carefully acknowledged the dangers of safe haven rhetoric and relied on a more sophisticated understanding of safe havens, it could even lead to better policy.

 Mitchel is a first year in the Security Studies Program and a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown concentrating in international security. He is especially interested in security dynamics in the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. Currently, he is interning in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy-Middle East. He previously interned at the Council on Foreign Relations, United States Embassy London, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.


[1] Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg. Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. (Plymouth: Roman & Littlefield, 2008). <https://books.google.com/books?id=OZFlomJ5E4wC&printsec=frontcover&dq=islamophobia+america&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rzrpVN-oMcOnggSa6IHoCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=islamophobia%20america&f=false>.

[2] Jeremy R. Hammond. “Newly Disclosed Documents Shed More Light on Early Taliban Offers, Pakistan Role.” Foreign Policy Journal. 20 Sep. 2010. <http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/09/20/newly-disclosed-documents-shed-more-light-on-early-taliban-offers-pakistan-role/>.

[3] John M Donnelly. “Growing Bipartisanship in Support of a Slower Withdrawal of US Troops From Afghanistan.” Roll Call News. 24 Feb. 2015. <http://www.rollcall.com/news/growing_bipartisanship_in_support_of_a_slower_withdrawal_of_us_troops_from-240291-1.html>.

[4] Michael Cooper and Larry Rohter. “McCain, Iraq War and the Threat of ‘Al Qaeda.’” New York Times. 19 April 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/19/us/politics/19threat.html?_r=2&pagewanted=print&>.

[5] Mitchel Hochberg. “The United States Should Think Twice Before Intervening Against ISIL.” Georgetown Security Studies Review. 13 Jan. 2015. <http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2015/01/13/the-united-states-should-think-twice-before-intervening-against-isil/>.

[6] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio. “US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia.” Long War Journal. 11 September 2014. <http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/us_to_strategy_again.php>.

[7] Stephen Daggett. “Costs of Major US Wars.” Congressional Research Service. 29 June, 2010. <https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22926.pdf+cost+of+war+in+vietnam&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.>; National Archives. “Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War.” Aug. 2013. <http://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html>; CNN Library. “Korean War Fast Facts.” 19 June 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/28/world/asia/korean-war-fast-facts/>.

[8] National Priorities Project. “Counter Notes and Sources.” 16 Sep. 2014. https://www.nationalpriorities.org/cost-of/notes-sources/; Costs of War. “Human Costs of War.” April 2014. < http://www.costsofwar.org/sites/default/files/Direct%20War%20Death%20Toll%20in%20Iraq,%20Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20since%202001%20to%20April%202014%206%2026.pdf>.

[9] Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf. “The Myth of the Terrorist Safe Haven.” Foreign Policy. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/26/al-qaeda-islamic-state-myth-of-the-terrorist-safe-haven/>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Tricia Bacon. “Disaggregating and Defeating Terrorist Safe Havens.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. 2014.

[13] Arsenault and Bacon, 8-9.

[14] Arsenault and Bacon, 9-16.

[15] Arsenault and Bacon, 1-2.

[16] Ibid.

[17] C. Christine Fair. “Ten Fictions that Pakistani Defense Officials Love to Peddle.” War on the Rocks. 29 Jan. 2014. <http://warontherocks.com/2014/01/ten-fictions-that-pakistani-defense-officials-love-to-peddle/>.

[18] Hochberg. “The United States Should Think Twice Before Intervening Against ISIL.”

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