Of all the ridiculous and false arguments for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where they continue to kill and die for nothing, the “safe-haven” argument has to rank among the worst. The argument holds that if U.S. troops are withdrawn from the country, the Taliban will end up winning the civil war, take control over the national government, and convert Afghanistan into another safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan terrorist attacks against the United States, like the 9/11 attacks.
In fact, that was the main thing that President Trump was hoping for in his peace talks with the Taliban. As part of the proposed peace deal, the Taliban would agree not to make Afghanistan a safe haven for al-Qaeda in return for Trump’s agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from the country. I can’t help but wonder what Trump would have done if the Taliban ended up violating the agreement. Sue them for breach of contract?
Indeed, today the Taliban controls a large portion of Afghanistan, which serves as a constant reminder of what a disaster this 18-year war has been. The obvious question arises: What’s stopping the Taliban from making the part of the country it controls into a safe haven for al-Qaeda?
Moreover, there is a point that becomes glaringly obvious when one starts to carefully examine the safe-haven argument: Why does al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization need thousands of miles of land in a Third World country in order to plan a terrorist attack? Wouldn’t just a house or hotel room do? And couldn’t it be in Pakistan, Germany, or even the United States?
Here is another fallacious part of the safe-haven argument: it had nothing to do with the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The safe-haven argument came after the invasion as part of a feel-good campaign to justify the massive death and destruction that the U.S. invasion and occupation has wreaked in the U.S. government’s 18-year war on Afghanistan.
After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush and other U.S. officials immediately suspected that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had orchestrated the attacks. Bin Laden was known to be living in Afghanistan at the time of the attacks. However, simply because an accused terrorist is residing in a certain country at the time he purportedly conspires to commit a crime doesn’t necessarily mean that the government of that country is complicit in the crime. It is entirely possible that the suspected criminal has committed his crime without the knowledge or consent of the political regime of the country in which he is residing.
In fact, Bush’s own actions confirm that U.S. officials had absolutely no evidence that the Taliban had participated in the 9/11 attacks by knowingly harboring a group that it knew was planning the attacks. If Bush had such evidence, he would have immediately ordered his military to attack the Afghan government and, at the same time, capture or kill Bin Laden. That’s what any modern-day president would do if another nation state attacked the United States. He wouldn’t even follow the constitutional mandate to secure a congressional declaration of war before waging war. He would just go on the attack under a self-defense justification.
Bush’s extradition demand
That’s not what Bush did. Instead, he demanded that the Taliban forcibly deliver bin Laden into the hands of the U.S. government. Again, if Bush had evidence of Taliban complicity in the 9/11 attacks, such as providing bin Laden and al-Qaeda with a safe haven knowing they were orchestrating the attacks, he never would have made such a demand. He would have instead ordered a full-scale attack on Afghanistan. Another way to look at this is that if the Taliban had complied with Bush’s demand for bin Laden, there never would have been a U.S. war against Afghanistan.
Bush knew that terrorism is a criminal offense under the U.S. Code, not an act of war. That meant that bin Laden was being accused of a federal offense, to wit — the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Bush had a big problem: There was no extradition treaty between the United States and Afghanistan. Extradition enables one country to force another country to turn over a suspected criminal for trial.
Thus, under international law the Taliban regime was under no legal requirement to turn over bin Laden. Nonetheless, the Taliban expressed a willingness to turn bin Laden over to an independent third nation, one in which he would be guaranteed a fair trial. The Taliban was concerned that if it turned bin Laden over the United States, he would end up getting brutally tortured by the Pentagon and the CIA and even summarily executed, perhaps after a kangaroo military tribunal. The Taliban also asked Bush to furnish some evidence of bin Laden’s complicity in the attacks, something that would have to be done anyway in an extradition treaty.
Bush rejected the Taliban proposal. He demanded unconditional compliance with his demand. When the Taliban refused to comply with Bush’s dictate, that’s when Bush ordered his military to attack Afghanistan. That’s what led to the U.S. government’s 18-year-old war against Afghanistan, a war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghan citizens, most of whom were totally innocent of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, 2,401 U.S. troops have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded in Bush’s (and Obama’s and Trump’s) war; all of them have been sacrificed and injured for nothing. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the Bush-Obama-Trump forever war in Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers around $1 trillion.
Terrorist retaliation for U.S. interventionism
Finally, there is something else that should be considered. The 9/11 attacks constituted terrorist retaliation for U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, including the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children with U.S. sanctions. Thus, if there had been no interventionism in the Middle East after the Cold War ended, there would have been no anti-American terrorist attacks. Such being the case, the safe-haven argument would never have arisen because there never would have been the 9/11 attacks.
By the same token, if U.S. interventionism were to be ended today, which it should be, the safe-haven argument disintegrates because the threat of anti-American retaliatory terrorism disintegrates.
Like so many other aspects of America’s forever wars, the safe-haven argument for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been a lie, and it continues to be a lie.