Debunking the Safe Haven Myth

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been justified using the false claim that withdrawal will create a “safe haven” for terrorism. Debunking the safe haven myth reveals the absurdity of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, and could pave the way for a full troop withdrawal.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States undertook a military operation in Afghanistan designed to topple the Taliban government. This mission succeeded in relatively short order, and subsequently gave way to a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since 2003 has largely been a counterinsurgency effort waged by the United States on behalf of the Afghan government -- not in defense of U.S. security interests. Advocates of continued intervention that the United States must remain in Afghanistan until Kabul can govern effectively. If the past two decades are any indication, that means the United States will remain in the country indefinitely.

Advocates of continued intervention largely accept this fact, but justify the past 20 years and argue for a continued military presence in Afghanistan “on the basis that withdrawing U.S. forces would create a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists to plan and operate from, inviting a second 9/11.” Indeed, the “safe haven” notion extends beyond Afghanistan, and characterizes U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts around the world.

This approach ignores the fact that “nation building and counterterrorism are distinct goals.” The experience in Afghanistan illustrates this. The Taliban was able to successfully attack the United States because U.S. intelligence officials underestimated the threat it posed, not because Afghanistan was a failed state.

In fact, “Afghanistan was not necessary to carry out 9/11” at all. This was demonstrated “in painstaking detail” by the 9/11 Commission Report, which explains how leaders of a nascent Al-Qaeda planned most of the attack in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even the United States. Additionally, “even before 9/11 the U.S. possessed the intelligence gathering and targeting capability to locate and kill key terrorists (including bin Laden) anywhere in the world,” including Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Correcting these misconceptions is crucial to moving past the “safe haven myth.” An accurate understanding of the events preceding 9/11 reveals two flawed assumptions that undergird U.S. counterterrorism policy. Afghanistan isn’t the only country that can provide a safe haven for terror. And the United States doesn’t need a military presence to defeat terrorists.

As previously noted, the United States has long had the ability to eliminate terrorists around the world, regardless of their location. “Our ability to locate terrorists hiding in remote locations and conduct strikes to eliminate them has only improved since 9/11,” thanks to a multibillion-dollar counterterrorism budget, a robust intelligence community and support from over 100 allied nations. Post-9/11 domestic security and the successful elimination of terrorist leaders in recent years proves that counterterrorism doesn’t require sustained military presences.

“According to senior U.S. military leaders, there are currently some 20 terror groups operating in Afghanistan—compared to two prior to the U.S. invasion.” If a 20-year, $2 trillion military effort hasn’t completely rid Afghanistan of terror organizations, maintaining a military presence over the next 20 years certainly won’t. While a continued presence in Afghanistan won’t make the United States safer, it will impose “considerable costs on the U.S. and our military forces—negatively impacting our ability to defend ourselves where it matters the most.”

The best thing the United States can do, for itself and Afghanistan, is to withdraw troops and finally let Kabul take control of protecting the region. Debunking the safe haven myth can help jumpstart withdrawal.

Read the full explainer here.

Feature Charticle

Defense Priorities


  • The Taliban remains a sizable presence in Afghanistan despite years of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts.
  • Most hostile actors in Afghanistan are “anti-Kabul insurgents,” not international terrorists targeting the United States.
  • The sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has not been effective, and is not necessary to defend U.S. security interests.

Read the full explainer here.