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The Whack-a-Mole Effect: National Borders Are Meaningless in Wartime – Lesson #2 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

The existence of national borders as a boundary of military operations is a fallacy. Acknowledgement of those borders is an application of physical restraints on the basis of an artificial line. More often than not, it results in safe havens for enemy combatants – especially when an insurgency is under way.

The United States has experienced this many times, and one of the most well recognized situations was the war in Viet Nam. In a 2005 Washington Post article entitled “Three Lessons From Viet Nam”, writer Dale Andrade pointed out that: “Saigon’s ultimate collapse was due to factors beyond the scope of counterinsurgency — North Vietnam’s large army and Washington’s decision to allow it sanctuaries outside South Vietnam’s borders were pivotal.”

A recent US State Department document says: “The most intractable safe havens worldwide tend to exist astride international borders or in regions where ineffective governance allows their presence. Examples are: the Afghanistan border, the Triborder region of South America, the Celebes Sea in Southeast Asia, and Somalia.” ( The report goes on to identify Syria, Iran, and Southeastern Turkey, Lebanon, and Yemen as other safe haven areas.

Foreign fighters from Iran and Syria were captured crossing into Iraq throughout the conflict there from very early days. ( According to some reports, at the height of the conflict in Iraq, 150 to 200 foreign fighters a month were “just driving down the road from Qaim to Baghdad”. In an article describing an interview with Major General Mike Flynn (Director of Intelligence for Joint Task Force 180 – JSOC Afghanistan) in 2009, “In addition to the al-Qaeda troops there are “more than a hundred” other foreigners fighting alongside home-grown insurgents across a wide swath of Afghanistan, Flynn said. Just across the border, in the Pakistani tribal areas, are another 400 to 1,500 foreign fighters, he said, a number that is growing as those fighters’ families expand.

“We now have children [of foreign fighters] who were 11 on 9/11 and who are now like 20, so if they’re following in their father’s footsteps — Christ, if they’re 16, they’re dangerous,” Flynn said. (

Clearly, since 9/11, the western border-facing areas of Pakistan have proven to be safe havens for such ignominious terrorists as Osama bin Laden as well. In a 2009 interview with NPR about Afghanistan, Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie said: “You’ve got a country where much of the population is opposed to you, and they have been -they are fierce fighters with a great sense of independence. No foreign army has ever lasted a long time in Afghanistan. They have a sanctuary, as you mentioned, across the border.” Steve Coll, author of “Ghost Wars”, also hit on this theme in the same article, saying: “The sanctuary in Pakistan is a factor, but the sanctuary in Pakistan is really quite different. The Pakistani government is itself divided about what to do about the sanctuary.” Then at the conclusion of the NPR interview, Mr. Coll had this to say: “I think that a successful second Taliban revolution in Afghanistan would have very dangerous implications for Pakistan. And I don’t know whether to call that a domino concern or not, but it’s a transnational insurgency. There are more Pashtuns from whom the Taliban draw their recruits and leadership, more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.” (

On May 2nd, as the news about Osama bin Laden’s death was released, I happened to be traveling through Dubai on my way out of Afghanistan, and was able to watch a couple of hours of AlJazeera television news coverage. The commentators were focusing not on whether the world was safer, and only to a minor extent on how the event would impact al Quaeda. AlJazeera was focused on how Pakistan would resond to the fact that America went into Pakistan and took bin Laden out without the participation or permission of the Pakistani Government. There was thinly masked outrage that the United States would invade a sovereign ntion like Pakistan to attack terrorists harborerd within those borders. Bin Laden, of course, was living in a secured compound only about 110 kilometers outside of the Pakistan capital city of Jalalibad. 

It would behoove the United States to recognize the regional nature of conflicts such as the current war in Afghanistan at the outset. Rather than attempting to fight a limited war contained within national boundaries that are so permeable as to be basically meaningless, and deploy precious military resources to stem the tide of combatants crossing those borders with impunity, we must deny them safe haven in adjacent countries. We must make it clear to all of the countries in the surrounding region that the policy of the United States military is to pursue enemy combatants wherever they go.

On September 12, 2001 the UN General Assembly (and Security Council) passed resolutions calling for the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to be brought to justice. They also called for those responsible for aiding, supporting, and harboring the terrorists to be “held accountable.” There is no doubt that adjacent nations who permit combatants in these situations to take refuge in safe havens within their borders are “aiding, supporting, and harboring the terrorists”, and as such, they should not be given a pass when it comes to applying whatever US military force Is required to retrieve the enemy from within their territory. The United States cannot afford to continue to play a massive game of “whack-a-mole”, trying to hit the enemy only when he pops up inside the territory of primary conflict. This phrase was used effectively to describe the situation in Afghanistan by Michael M. O’Brien on April 9, 2011 in an article entitled: “Afghan war timeline: like a game of “whack-a-mole” with Al Qaeda”. ( O’Brien’s article is especially poignant. At one point, he laments: “it’s a game of “whack-a-mole” with these guys. Did our senior military officers learn anything from Vietnam?”

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