Chris Miller should know better.
Before serving as acting defense secretary, he was the recent head of the National Counterterrorism Center and former special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC). Given this, counterterrorism strategy and objectives should be strong guiding principles for Miller in his new role leading the Pentagon. But the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, plus the breach of partnership with the CIA that he is now directing in the 11th hour of President Donald Trump’s administration, risk serious harm to hard-fought counterterrorism gains and American safety. With these recent moves, Miller appears to be disregarding important lessons about terrorists’ resilience and the value of partnerships when conducting counterterrorism, while embracing a politically expedient but strategically nonsensical notion of “ending forever wars” to appease the president during his final weeks in office.
Miller’s missive to Department of Defense (DOD) employees, in which he set the stage for these moves, contained a critical contradiction as he claimed that the United States is “on the verge of defeating al-Qa’ida” and noted the need to avoid “our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” while also making the audacious statement that “Now, it’s time to come home.”
Miller is now orchestrating a simultaneous retreat from all three of the primary hotspots of jihadist terrorism. This is particularly shocking because while at the NSC, Miller oversaw the completion of a new National Counterterrorism Strategy in 2018 – a strategy whose vision runs at odds with these moves.
We both helped draft the initial version of that document while at NSC as career detailees from DOD and CIA, our time bridging the Obama and Trump administrations, and drew from our own counterterrorism experiences in Afghanistan as we worked on it.
While the final version of the Trump administration’s strategy was more of a kitchen sink-approach against all terrorism rather than a focused strategy against a defined enemy, it still contained new principles to guide U.S. counterterrorism efforts that reflected key lessons learned since September 11th, 2001.
One of the most important lessons from the past two decades is how resilient jihadist terrorist organizations are. Following the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a displaced al-Qaeda regrouped in Pakistan and launched a second wave of transnational plots against the U.S. homeland and Europe in the mid-2000s. ISIS rose from the ashes of a dismantled al-Qaeda in Iraq after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal, growing sectarian conflict in Iraq, and outbreak of civil war in Syria, to spread across the globe and conduct or inspire attacks in the United States and Europe.
Jihadist terrorists have consistently displayed their ability to reconstitute their capabilities as pressure against them has diminished.
Relatedly, a key to success in preventing catastrophic attacks has been persistent pressure that denies jihadist terrorists freedom to plot and, instead, forces them to focus on their own safety and survival. Such persistent pressure requires proximity to the enemy, not just for the application of force but also for the fidelity of intelligence collection on jihadist terrorist plans, intentions, capabilities, and locations.
In many places – especially Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia – U.S. intelligence agencies and special operations forces cannot operate without the force protection and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) support of the U.S. military — support and partnership that Miller is now threatening to cut.
Perhaps the most crucial lesson Miller betrays is the critical importance of partnerships. Working by, with, and through international and local partner forces has been the greatest evolution in counterterrorism effectiveness and equity of effort against shared threats. But the haste of this drawdown has left our most important partners and allies in the dark, further eroding trust and confidence in the United States. This comes on the heels of Trump’s reckless withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria in 2019, which betrayed the Kurds, one of our most important partners in the fight against ISIS, leaving them to be slaughtered by Turkish forces.
Indeed, one of the top objectives of the 2018 Counterterrorism strategy is for partners to take a greater role in addressing terrorist threats, but if none of our allies and partners can trust the United States to stay in the fight with them, how can we ever expect them to join us in future conflicts or take on more responsibility against jihadist terrorists?
A fundamental problem underlying these recent moves is Trump’s framing of current U.S. military deployments of any size as part of “forever” wars, a politically convenient red herring that allows Trump to withdraw from the world while shirking responsibility for protecting the vital U.S. national security interests outlined in his own counterterrorism strategy. To be sure, use of this framing has been bipartisan across administrations, and U.S. counterterrorism successes have often been overshadowed by broader counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts that have been flailing unsuccessfully without clear and achievable objectives. But one of the strategic errors of our past has been thinking that the choice for the United States in these regions is binary, that it is all or nothing.
There is a middle-ground strategy that preserves counterterrorism gains while retaining a U.S. force posture large enough to snuff out emergent threats before they materialize into something capable of striking the United States and the West. A small but enduring presence of U.S. and international forces in these vital locations, with the requisite intelligence enablers and logistics support, could give the United States and its partners the wherewithal to maintain pressure on al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups, and quickly stopping nascent threats before they amass the capacity for transnational attacks.
The United States has already demonstrated that this model — of a low-key, special operations and intelligence platform — is effective in Somalia for over a decade. But there too, Trump is hastily withdrawing U.S. forces.
The risk of not maintaining proximity to terrorism hotspots is that if the embers of al-Qaeda or ISIS reconstitute into the raging blaze we’ve seen before, intervention to extinguish the fire will be more costly in U.S. blood and treasure than if we had stayed and dealt with the sparks while they were small and manageable.
“Counterterrorism Containment” is the best strategy to effectively transition to this next, sustainable phase of counterterrorism beyond the perpetual “War on Terror” and at the same time allow for a pivot of resources to threats like China and Russia. Making this transition will require an understanding and application of the lessons we’ve learned since 9/11, including the resilient nature of the enemy and the important role our partners must play in maintaining persistent pressure with U.S. support.
Miller has failed to articulate a clear strategy for the scant number of troops that will remain in these locations. Although the incoming Biden administration could return troops to their pre-drawdown levels, we should not assume how quickly and easily thousands of U.S. troops can be redeployed. And if forcing Biden’s hand to “increase” troop levels is the motive for these moves – then shame upon Trump and Miller for using U.S. forces as partisan political pawns while imperiling our national security.
So, instead of acquiescing to the whims of a lame-duck president and precipitously withdrawing thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, Acting Secretary of Defense Miller should insist upon maintaining sufficient capability in these regions to prevent the resurgence of terrorist threats. Miller’s tenure as Pentagon chief may indeed be brief, but if he continues on the current course, he will leave behind him an enduring legacy of harm to the security of the United States.
The views expressed in this post are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their employers.