So this is a significant problem, right?
Not necessarily, says former CIA officer and current Georgetown/Brookings Institution scholar Paul Pillar, in a response in The National Interest. Pillar argues that physical safe havens are overrated, claiming "a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree" of threat a terrorist group poses. He then goes on to specifically question what practical good any U.S. intervention in Syria would have. And finally, he concludes by arguing against the kinetic element to the U.S. War on Terror, saying that we should shift this effort over to local proxies. Instead, we should focus on working to weaken the extremists' narrative . . . specifically, by forcing Israel to make a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Let's briefly take these points on one-by-one. First, I get what Pillar is trying to say about the fungibility of safe havens (i.e. if we drive them out of Afghanistan, they move to Iraq; if we drive them from Iraq, they move to Yemen, etc) and the globalization of terrorism. But to date, all of the significant, high-casualty terrorist attacks in the West involved either travel and training by the jihadist operatives to an al-Qa'ida or similar extremist-controlled safe haven such as the terror training camps in Afghanistan that were instrumental to the planning/training for the 9/11 attacks. The most dangerous plots in the intervening decade have involved training in Pakistan's tribal areas, or the construction of explosive devices/distribution of propaganda from AQAP's sanctuary in Yemen. Although it is true that eliminating one sanctuary does not preclude the establishment of another somewhere else, the senior leaders and experienced bomb makers we worry most about have been proven less effective if they are constantly on the run from one safe haven to another.
Pillar does raise some important points regarding whether a limited U.S. intervention can be strategically effective, and if, in fact, we wouldn't be better off with Assad in power rather than any ungovernable mess that might result from the fall of the Alawite-Ba'athist regime in Syria. As Barnard and Schmitt note, many of the Free Syrian Army leaders have, out of necessity, had to fight alongside with many of the al-Qa'ida affiliated groups we fear in Syria. Thus, there is no assurance that weapons delivered intending to help the "good" rebels won't end up in the wrong hands.
But this furthers a point I've made several times before, which is that the Obama administration's strategic paralysis at the front-end of the conflict has drastically constrained our strategic options so that there are few, if any, good options left. As Barnard and Schmitt note:
It was fear of militants coming to dominate the opposition that caused the United States and its Western allies to hold off providing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, at least until now. But as a result, counterterrorism analysts say, they lost a chance to influence the battle in Syria. Even Congressional supporters of the CIA's covert program to arm moderate elements of the Syrian opposition fear the delivery of weapons, set to begin this month, will be too little, too late.Pillar may be right that there is no good option on Syria at this point, but recent history shows that leaving a conflict to sort itself out (i.e. Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal) poses its own risks.
I also agree with Pillar regarding the importance of shifting a significant portion of the fight against al-Qa'ida's affiliates to local proxy forces, with U.S. drone strikes or SOF raids only being used on rare occasions against strategic jihadist leaders. However, one of the great paradoxes of the War on Terror has been that by empowering local leaders to fight al-Qa'ida or other militants within their borders through training, arms sales, and intelligence support, it also becomes more difficult to get them to enact the political/economic reforms Pillar believes are necessary to mitigate the "exploitable grievances in a target population" that give rise to jihadist groups. It is easy to say we should chose strategies designed to eliminate local grievances, it is much harder to walk the policy/cultural tightrope to effect these changes in a government fighting for its survival and that we have agreed is critical to our fight against al-Qa'ida.
Which brings us to Pillar's last point. I appeared on a panel with Paul back in 2011, and during a breakout session we got into a heated exchange over his insistence that the way to defeat al-Qa'ida was to force Israel to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians because it is "the most salient issue to people across the Middle East." I challenged him to name a single time an Israeli concession (i.e. withdrawal from Sinai, withdrawal from southern Lebanon, withdrawal from Gaza, etc.) that had been met with a significant uptick in acceptance of Israel's right to exist in the Middle East. He couldn't. I asked whether Salafist jihadism had been stronger in the Middle East before or after Camp David, before or after Oslo, before or after Ehud Barak's offer at Taba in January 2001. I also disputed whether the Arab intellectuals he talks to at international conferences are necessarily representative of the demographic that volunteers to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, or now Syria, none of which had anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is not to say that the Israelis will not have to make serious concessions if/when the Palestinian leadership is ready to negotiate and enforce a genuine final status agreement leading to a Palestinian state (that is a whole other topic outside the sphere of this blog . . . ). Yet even if Israel were to concede on every point of contention (i.e. accept the 1949 borders, grant full right of return for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees into Israel-proper), I believe it is naive to think that people who believe the slaughter of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Arab Shi'a, and other Arab/Muslim civilian victims of al-Qa'ida-affiliated attacks are Koranically justified won't find some other grievance to justify murder on behalf of their utopian vision of a global caliphate. Unlike Pillar, I believe the jihadists and their supporters would be more inclined to see this as a reason to redouble their efforts than as a reason to stand down.