To twist Clinton strategist James Carville’s famous 1992 catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” when it comes to national security, “It’s the safe haven, stupid.” Whether in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, or anywhere else, terrorists pose an enhanced danger to American national security when they hold territory. Indeed, al-Qaeda theorists discuss the need to hold territory; hence the danger of past Pakistani deals to transfer territory to extremists in Malakand, Waziristan, etc.
While Max Boot is correct to say the United States has made inroads in southern Afghanistan, as important is the fact the United States and NATO have lost ground in eastern Afghanistan. Last year, the United States handed Kunar and Nuristan to the Afghan government. Today, the Taliban controls districts in these provinces. Should the United States withdraw further before defeating the Taliban, we will only amplify a Taliban victory. After all, Afghans have never lost a war: They just defect to the winning side. Momentum is everything. Should the Taliban win 10 percent of the country, 30 percent will join them. And should they win 40 percent of the country, the next month they will have 70 percent as even traditional enemies make their accommodation. When General Petraeus talks about a “significant” drawdown of troops, in effect, he is foreshadowing a vacuum, one that will come back to bite us.
The same problem exists in Yemen. As Ali Abdullah Saleh clings to power, province after province is defecting from central government control. Taiz, the traditional capital of Yemen, is already lost. Yesterday, extremists seized Lahij, just north of Aden. Lahij isn’t a peripheral province—but along the main highway between Aden and Sanaa (a province which I used to traverse regularly when I was a graduate student). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is already the most lethal al-Qaeda franchise, and the fact the White House has no clear strategy for filling the Yemeni vacuum before AQAP does is strategic malpractice of the first order.
The real national security question now is when the attack comes on the United States, will it originate from a safe-haven in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, or perhaps Pakistan?