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What Kind of Safe Haven Is Afghanistan?

Elizabeth Grimm
Sunday, October 24, 2021, 10:01 AM

Al-Qaeda will now have a more permissive environment in which to operate, but the precise context will be important for the U.S. policy response.

U.S. soldiers take position on a ridge overlooking the Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan, on Dec. 11, 2010. Photo credit: MSG Mark Burrell via DVIDS/Public Domain

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Editor’s Note: With the United States out of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda again enjoys a safe haven there. But not all safe havens are created equal. Georgetown's Elizabeth Grimm details the different kinds of safe havens that terrorist groups can exploit and explains how governments might respond to limit the danger they pose.

Daniel Byman


The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has renewed debates about terrorist safe havens, with some commentators arguing that the country is unlikely to return to its 1990s role as a sanctuary and others countering that it may slide back to that past. The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan already is a sanctuary; the more critical question is what type of safe haven it is and how that should inform the U.S. policy response.

Although various agencies within the U.S. government rely on different definitions of safe havens, one commonality exists among them: the idea that havens exist where groups have freedom to undertake support activities with little risk of counterterror action. In these territories, terrorist groups can train, recruit, fundraise and communicate without fear of counterterror retaliation or pressure. Much has been discussed about how the pre-9/11 safe havens in Afghanistan gave al-Qaeda the physical space and time to plan the most complicated terrorist attack of all time, but what is often not addressed is more banal—how the safe haven allowed the weaving together of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda through intermarriages and children. Groups that fear drone strikes do not plan weddings among their members, but in a safe haven, members are not living in constant fear of retaliation and can build and reinforce their local organization and alliances.

Havens provide manifold benefits to terrorist groups. They allow groups to rest and recover, and provide groups the time and space to choose when and where to strike again. They also let groups co-locate with other organizations, increasing the terrorist threat. Terrorist groups with allies conduct more deadly attacks, resulting in a higher average number of fatalities and injuries to both victims and attackers alike. In addition, alliances increase terrorist groups’ longevity and make them more resilient. Without its allies in Pakistan and the haven provided there, it is unlikely al-Qaeda could have survived the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban.

Although some scholars have argued that online coordination has diminished the importance of physical safe havens, the internet cannot provide the same benefits as a physical space. Physical safe havens, when allowed to operate unimpeded, reduce the communication and operational security risks that complicate electronic interactions. They also facilitate a greater level of trust than internet communications. In addition, online coordination renders terrorist groups more vulnerable to security service detection and infiltration. Law enforcement and intelligence authorities readily penetrate group chats, websites and communications to uncover and disrupt terrorist activities as well as collect significant amounts of electronic data on the group and its functioning. As a result, the groups that have proved the most capable and resilient—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, among others—all have well-established sanctuaries.

In short, safe havens are not a “myth.” The terrorist groups that have posed the greatest threat over the longest period of time have one shared factor: the possession of a safe haven.

So, what makes certain spaces compelling pieces of terrorist real estate?

Safe havens emerge due to both government will and capability. In capable states, they emerge when the government could oust the terrorist organization but chooses not to—perhaps in an effort to exert control over the organization in order to enhance its own security or to challenge external opponents. These are government-sponsored sanctuaries where the government possesses both the willingness and the capability to sponsor a haven. For example, part of the reason for the failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan came down to the safe haven the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network received in Pakistan. The Pakistani army possessed the capability to eliminate these havens but chose not to in order to retain influence in Afghanistan. Safe havens in Balochistan province, adjacent to Kandahar, sheltered Afghan Taliban leaders for years. The Haqqani network, a Sunni militant organization whose members now hold senior leadership positions in the Taliban government, enjoyed sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, primarily close to the border with the Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost.

Moving away from South Asia, this is also the type of safe haven that al-Qaeda enjoyed in Sudan prior to its expulsion in 1996. The National Islamic Front government invited Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to Sudan, in part to render Sudan as a center for the international Muslim movement and to benefit from bin Laden’s largesse. The government possessed the willingness and the capacity to host the organization, and it also possessed the willingness and the capacity to evict al-Qaeda when the international pressure for its sponsorship became too high.

In contrast, safe havens can also emerge when the government opposes their existence but lacks the capacity to eradicate them, due to weakness on the part of the central government, the group’s strength, or both. These spaces are contested sanctuaries. This was the case in Somalia, for example, where the central government was so weak that the Islamic Courts Union’s provision of mediation, policing and conflict resolution services conferred legitimacy and authority on the group. While terrorist groups can find haven in such spaces, these sanctuaries can often be less than ideal places. These failed and failing states offer a space for a group to pitch a tent, but they cannot offer logistical or financial infrastructure for a group to engage in support activities.

Lastly, safe havens can emerge when a state has both limited capacity to eradicate a group’s haven and a posture supportive of its sanctuary. In this way, a permissive government enables the safe haven to thrive, creating a particularly intractable sanctuary. These havens are government-enabled sanctuaries and often pose the greatest challenge to U.S. policy. This is the current situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan under the Taliban currently offers a space where foreign terrorist groups and fighters, except for the Islamic State in Khorasan province, are free from counterterrorism pressure. The United Nations estimates that thousands of foreign fighters are present in Afghanistan as members of 20 groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is not clear that the government possesses the capability to evict those foreign fighters, but it is clear that it supports most of the fighters.

Each type of safe haven presents a different set of challenges for U.S. policymakers. The U.S. government needs to recognize what type of haven it might be facing, given the state’s willingness and capability to eradicate the haven.

  • In government-sponsored sanctuaries, multilateral pressure—in the form of sanctions, isolation or perhaps even targeted strikes—can shift the capability and the willingness of the regime to host the group.
  • In contested sanctuaries, when the state lacks the ability and the willingness to remove the haven, any measures taken need to address the underlying reasons for government incompetence and any steps must involve working with local actors and civil society.
  • In government-enabled sanctuaries, capacity-enhancing measures can help shift the government’s ability to remove the haven. Given the enabling posture of the government, however, a vicious cycle emerges between capacity and intent, wherein the government will not invest its meager resources to eliminate a safe haven it supports. In addition, military options alone cannot dislodge the haven. Counterterrorism solutions must focus on providing capacity by building support for civilian institutions, the judicial system, and demobilization and deradicalization programs in exchange for demonstrated changes in the host government’s willingness to support the haven.

As for Afghanistan—which now falls into the third, government-enabled type of sanctuary—the removal of U.S. forces means that attempts to collect intelligence, disrupt camps and interdict the flow of illicit money is now more difficult. And an Afghanistan run by a Taliban government means that terrorist threats should occupy more than just two pages out of the 27-page Worldwide Threat Assessment. Focus needs to be spent examining both the willingness and the capability of the Afghan Taliban to restrain the foreign terrorist groups operating there. The United States will need basing agreements in neighboring states to allow for necessary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts—or perhaps targeted strike capabilities to prevent the creation of the large-scale training facilities that existed decades ago. Efforts that are already underway, such as sanctions and freezing assets, should be continued. These efforts, however, need to be combined with intelligence activities examining and eroding the Taliban’s willingness to provide a haven. The great unknown is whether and to what extent actors inside the Taliban government oppose the provision of haven to various groups and fighters. Given the interaction between capability and willingness, the United States could support counterterrorism cooperation against the Islamic State in Khorasan province in exchange for commitments to reduce its haven. What the Taliban want now is recognition and funds, and so aid provision must be contingent on concrete deliverables, such as the removal of foreign fighters, and not generic statements refuting that their country will be used as a terrorist safe haven.

Elizabeth Grimm, Ph.D., is an associate professor of teaching in the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of “How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture” (Columbia University Press, 2017) and co-author of “Terror in Transition: Leadership and Succession Terrorist Organizations” (Columbia University Press, 2022).

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