Do We Need 30,000 Troops in Yemen, or A Better Counter-Terror Strategy?

When President Barack Obama announced his plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in early December, he began by invoking the attacks of 9/11 and explained that fighting al Qaeda was the primary reason for America’s war effort, calling the Afghan-Pakistan border “the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.”

The idea is that transnational terrorist groups require safe havens to prepare their attacks, but the Af-Pak border isn’t the only place where terrorists hide. Somalia and Yemen, which Obama also mentioned in his speech, are also home to al Qaeda. We were treated to an object lesson on Christmas Day when a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who reportedly obtained explosives from an Al Qaeda contact in Yemen, allegedly attempted to ignite explosives on a Detroit-bound flight before he was subdued by quick-acting passengers.

Some, like Senator Joe Lieberman, are already descending into self-caricature by calling Yemen “tomorrow’s war.” Indeed, the U.S. has recently stepped up its intelligence and Special Forces presence to bolster the Yemeni government’s efforts to drive out Al Qaeda and radical clerics (including one linked to the Fort Hood shootings); last month President Obama ordered cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets there. But, though it is clear that broader engagement, including non-military partnership, is needed to stop with Al Qaeda in Yemen, we shouldn’t be looking for another war. Instead, the circumstances of the attack give us an opportunity to reconsider whether the Obama Administration’s extensive commitment to the Afghanistan conflict is the right way to go after extremist groups who wish to attack the United States, and whether so-called “safe havens” are really a threat.

“This attempted attack does not appear to have any connection to Afghanistan,” Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, wrote via e-mail. “The incident is a reminder that countering such terrorism is not a matter of controlling particular pieces of foreign real estate but instead of less visible work by intelligence and law enforcement resources.”

While there are good reasons for the United States to be in Afghanistan – in particular, keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons away from extremists and the international commitment to shoring up the faltering government in Kabul – Obama sold the plan as a response to 9/11 even when he had a chance to offer an evolved justification to the American people.

Pillar has previously questioned the assumption that we need to interdict terrorist safe havens with military force in an age when the Internet enables international terrorists to network as efficiently as office workers. Friday’s attack didn’t come, so far as we know, from Afghanistan or the largely illiterate tribal insurgents there, but from an educated Nigerian man who had lived in England, obtained explosives in Yemen and was screened in two international airports whose security measures were approved by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

Newsweek’s Declassified blog reports that Abdulmutallab had been entered into a potential threat database following warnings from his father. (He had already been barred from entering the United Kingdom.) However, his name had not yet migrated to the no-fly list, suggesting that despite Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s Sunday claim that “the system worked,” more attention and resources are needed to get U.S. security agencies operating on the same page. With the costs of the already $68 billion-a-year Afghanistan conflict set to rise, it’s time for the administration to rethink the balance of resources between military operations designed to shut down terrorist safe havens and the intelligence and law enforcement efforts that could have stopped the incident on Christmas.