For nearly two decades, the fundamental premise of America’s counterterrorism strategy has been to prevent extremist groups from establishing territorial safe havens — spaces in which they train and plot, free from interference. With a prospective U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the horizon, Gen. David Petraeus warned recently that a precipitate pullout could allow al-Qaida or the Islamic State to rebuild “a terrorist platform.” A growing number of experts have argued, however, that a preoccupation with safe havens is really an unhealthy obsession that produces unnecessary — and unending — military crusades.

So, do safe havens matter or not? The truth is that denying such sanctuaries is critical to effective counterterrorism, so long as some key caveats and distinctions are kept in mind.

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