Having fixated on al-Qaeda and its myriad offspring for the best part of 20 years, the United States is inching ever closer to extracting itself from bloody quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, while repositioning for “great power competition” with China, Russia, and other state competitors. Yet now, more than two years since the United States officially shifted strategic priorities away from terrorism to focus on great power competition, there is a continued sense of uncertainty as to what exactly this means for counterterrorism. In light of the enduring, and in some cases escalating, terrorist threats across the globe, it is important to get this right.
In the view of some, the American focus on counterterrorism was such that it became an unhealthy obsession, distorting U.S. foreign policy and sidelining competing interests that were equally, if not more important. From this perspective, it is high time the United States moved away from counterterrorism to deal with more important things — starting with a far more decisive effort to “fully end America’s peripheral conflicts” in far-flung corners of the world.
While recognizing the need to end so-called “forever wars” and reorient the national security apparatus toward far more capable state competitors, others caution against “overcorrection.” An overly hasty or excessive retreat from overseas counterterrorism missions would leave a security vacuum in which terrorist threats could fester and grow, eventually demanding an even greater commitment of resources to deal with down the line.
How can a balance be struck between these two, competing positions?
To begin with, there needs to be greater appreciation of the fact that not only are counterterrorism and great power competition not necessarily at odds with one another, but in fact, they often overlap and complement each other. A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Congressman Anthony Brown (D-MD), who serves as the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, made this very point in January, following reports that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was considering a dramatic drawdown of U.S. troops in Africa in order to free up resources needed for great power competition. In a letter to Esper that was posted online, the members of Congress wrote that “a narrow focus on confronting Russia and China in great power competition is a shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence… [C]ounter violent extremism operations are part and parcel to our competition with Russia [and] China.”
This is equally true in other regions as well. In the Middle East, the interconnections between counterterrorism and strategic competition are so ingrained that they are practically inseparable. After ISIS ruthlessly carved out its ill-fated ‘caliphate’ in mid-2014, American troops returned to “help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists.” Yet U.S. officials have long regarded Iranian proxies as an even bigger threat than al-Qaeda or ISIS and, as recently acknowledged by U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, the American military presence in the country serves “both to help fight Islamic extremists and to check Iranian influence.”
Similarly, the U.S. drawdown of troops in Syria in late 2018 was described as a “victory,” not for ISIS or al-Qaeda, but for Russia and Iran. A modest increase in U.S. forces last month was announced as a move “to ensure that they are able to continue their defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” after a Russian armored vehicle deliberately rammed an American ground patrol in a physical manifestation of the figurative clash between the two nations.
Beyond these examples, we should all be mindful of the fact that as great power competition intensifies, states are increasingly inclined to turn to irregular means of warfare — to include use of proxies and, for some, state sponsorship of terrorism — as a way of competing with one another while avoiding the costs of conventional war. Faced with a biting, pandemic-induced recession, these options are likely to appear even more attractive.
This suggests that looking ahead, the mutual relevance of counterterrorism and strategic competition is likely to increase. In some ways, the overlap between the two only deepens the strategic conundrum. However, this is not an argument to simply continue business as usual. The resources needed to shore up conventional warfare capabilities and deterrence needed for great power competition will not materialize out of thin air. Counterterrorism must indeed be de-prioritized, as mandated by the National Security and National Defense strategies. Nevertheless, rather than treat counterterrorism and great power competition as binary, either-or alternatives, it makes sense to acknowledge that counterterrorism is one of the many tools that are available to advance American influence as part of an overarching competitive strategy. Simply put, it is a form of currency.
Planners and policymakers should therefore seek to explicitly integrate counterterrorism into the overall approach to great power competition. A useful place to start would be a systematic review of existing deployments of troops to identify ways that the two lines of effort may be mutually reinforcing in different locations.
Likewise, decisions on whether or not (and how) to intervene militarily against any given terrorism threat in the future should take into account not only the nature of the threat, but also the potential relevance to competition with China and Russia. Reflecting on his time as commander of Special Operations Command Africa, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks similarly recommended that, when deciding whether or not to deploy special forces, an important part of the equation that “should be explicitly considered… is to maintain a partnership that may be valuable someday, and to displace other powers that may seek to exploit… the vacuum” left by the absence of the United States.
A Strategic Anchor
Going forward, from the outset, any overseas counterterrorism activities would then ideally have a clearly articulated set of strategic goals relating to great power competition. Given that many of the specific outcomes that counterterrorism is intended to achieve are tactical in nature and also subject to change over time — not to mention rarely articulated and poorly understood – such unambiguous geopolitical objectives could offer a strategic anchor that provides clarity of purpose and ultimately leads to greater gains in terms of national security. Moreover, the resources required need not be excessive. In some cases, according to Hicks, “simply to be there” is sufficient for meeting limited strategic objectives.
At the same time, even if the savings are likely to be relatively meagre, it will still be necessary to reevaluate the various counterterrorism missions to maximize efficiency. The renewed emphasis on burden sharing with a broader range of partners, to include the technology sector and civil society, described in the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism is a good start. Similarly, David Kilcullen argues for more “balanced missions with an appropriate civilian-military mix … which of necessity would imply far smaller forward-deployed military forces, tailored down to meet the civilian element rather than vice versa.”
More broadly, this echoes calls for a greater emphasis on non-kinetic approaches to counterterrorism that are longer-term and more holistic in nature. In the words of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, former director of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, as well as former head of Special Operations Command Central, “attacking terrorists does not, in and of itself, create lasting strategic success against terrorism.” The current pressure toward downsizing counterterrorism may force us to take these observations more seriously.
The renewed focus on great power competition is a sensible shift in strategy that directs attention and resources toward truly existential threats. However, like it or not, the global terrorism threat is persistent and is likely to continue draining resources in one way or another for the foreseeable future. Rather than viewing the two lines of effort as mutually exclusive alternatives, it would serve the United States well to recognize that counterterrorism is a part of great power competition. Doing so will help guide decisions on where, when, why and how to intervene in any given situation, while maximizing use of resources. Ultimately, this may lead to more favorable outcomes in both sets of endeavors.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, or the United States government.)