As deliberations about the Obama administration's strategic direction in Afghanistan unfold, the White House is weighing whether al Qaeda, in fact, needs an Afghan safe haven -- an expanse of land under the protection of the Taliban -- to reconstitute its capability to attack the United States. Many noted scholars doubt it. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass bluntly stated, "Al Qaeda does not require Afghan real estate to constitute a regional or global threat."
Objections like Haass's are rooted in the following arguments: that terrorists don't need physical space because they can plot online; that the London and Madrid bombings prove deadly attacks can be planned in restrictive, Western, urban locations under the noses of local security services; and that denying terrorists one safe haven will simply compel them to move to another lawless region.
I spent five years as a counterterrorism analyst for the Pentagon and rigorously studied plots from Madrid to London to 9/11. The above arguments may have merit in a piecemeal or abstract sense, but fall apart in the specific case of what we all dread: a large-scale, al Qaeda operation aimed at the United States.