- - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama’s decision to accelerate the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan begs the question: What if the country again becomes a safe haven for terrorists? A recently leaked U.S. Army report for NATO shows that the Taliban believe they are winning and need only outlast us to regain control. If that happens, Afghanistan could become the terrorist safe haven it was before our 2001 intervention.

After all we’ve done, that would be a troubling defeat, particularly because terrorist sanctuaries elsewhere are thriving and new ones are emerging. In Pakistan, tribal areas used to stage attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan would become entrenched safe havens. Islamist extremist groups there would be emboldened to try to overthrow the government and train more terrorists to attack India, the U.S. and others.

Terrorists already train in Somalia, where al-Shabaab — a clan-based terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda — is becoming more dangerous. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula controls much of Yemen’s south and is creeping toward its capital. A major safe haven, Yemen could become the planning base for plots against the U.S. much as Afghanistan and Sudan were in the 1990s.

Little attention is paid to Nigeria’s bloody Boko Haram insurgency, but events there could touch us as well. Nigeria is one of our largest oil suppliers, and the government’s response to the insurgency is foundering.

Trends are also worsening is the North Caucasus where Russia has battled Chechens and other insurgents for decades. The ire of the terrorist groups in this hotbed of lawlessness is aimed mostly at Russia, but some like the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade with ties to al Qaeda-related financiers in the Arabian Peninsula are showing interest in nearby Europe. If U.S. friends Georgia and Azerbaijan become destabilized, the oil pipelines to Europe in the future could be compromised.

Iran, the world’s foremost supporter of terrorism, is a huge wildcard. It could respond to growing Western pressure by stirring up trouble in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere.

In Libya, no one knows what will happen. The transitional government has been unable to gain control, address security concerns or unite the people. Instead, Islamist violence has surged and an al Qaeda flag was flown at the courthouse in Benghazi, the former rebel stronghold. Left uncontrolled, parts of Libya could become major safe havens.

There are lawless areas along our own southern border. The former chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration testified last week that the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah is working to influence Mexico’s drug cartels that operate with impunity in the U.S.

The administration makes it sound like it’s winning the war against terrorism. Its focus on drones and special operations and withdrawal from Afghanistan signals its belief that the trends in terrorism favor our side.

It’s way too early to draw that conclusion. Terrorist attacks worldwide remain very high. Al Qaeda operationally is not what it used to be, but other terrorist groups are emerging, and their decentralized and highly adaptive nature makes them difficult to track and predict. If things go south in Afghanistan and more terrorist sanctuaries emerge, we may find ourselves in a worse situation than before Sept. 11, 2001.

First, Americans should be wary that we narrowly define and confine the threat to al Qaeda and miss other emerging threats. Many people looked the other way in the 1990s and ignored terrorist threats mainly for political reasons. We shouldn’t make that mistake again.

Second, we should not view drones and special operation forces as magic bullets. They have had some success but, alone cannot defeat terrorism. They need overseas bases and naval vessels from which to operate, conventional forces to back them up, and intelligence, which we cannot get by killing terrorists from a distance before we can interrogate them.

The enemy always adjusts. Rather than play whack-a-mole with drones, we need a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that enables the U.S. to respond effectively to an ever-evolving security threat.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.