Harmonizing Counterterrorism and Great-Power Competition

Harmonizing Counterterrorism and Great-Power Competition

For all the talk of a shift away from counterterrorism and toward great power competition, the reality is that with a modicum of strategic planning the two are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive, efforts.


Editor’s note: This essay was drawn from the recent study Rethinking U.S. Efforts on Counterterrorism: Toward a Sustainable Plan Two Decades After 9/11

The defining characteristic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism approach has been an aggressive, forward defense global posture. As former defense secretary Robert Gates put it, “better to fight them on their 10-yard line than on our 10-yard line.” This counterterrorism enterprise has been remarkably successful from a tactical perspective, foiling attacks and disrupting terrorist networks. Protecting against future attacks demands continued vigilance, but nearly twenty years after 9/11 there is growing consensus that America’s forward defense counterterrorism posture is neither financially sustainable nor strategically balanced against the resource needs of other national security threats. The past two administrations concurred that the United States should reduce its military presence around the world, invert the longstanding model of a U.S.-led and partner-enabled global counterterrorism model, and focus U.S. efforts on those groups most capable of targeting the homeland. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy makes clear, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” But as the Biden administration begins to implement its decision to pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, putting such ideas into practice has proved an elusive goal.


“Tell Me Where We Should Spend Our Resources”

Terrorist attacks grab the public’s attention, skewing the inherently political process of developing and resourcing the national response to terrorism, especially over time. But the United States faces a wide array of national security threats—nuclear programs, cyber security, environmental challenges, foreign espionage, transnational organized crime, election security, failed states, to name a few—and the reality is that decades of investment to address one acute threat can, over time, come at the expense of investing in other equally pressing threats. “We will never eliminate terrorism,” then-Acting Director of National Counterterrorism Center Russell E. Travers noted in November 2019, “but a tremendous amount of good work has been done, which facilitates a conversation about comparative risk.”

In 2013, the Obama administration instructed the Pentagon to pivot to Asia, but the Benghazi attack disrupted these plans. Instead of moving soldiers from Africa to Asia, Barack Obama ultimately sent more resources to Africa than had been there before the pivot. The result was not a pivot to Asia but to Africa, described by some officials as the “360 degree pivot to Asia.” In 2016, President Obama made the case for taking a “long view of the terrorist threat,” which would necessarily have to be “a smart strategy that can be sustained.” The key to developing a sustainable counterterrorism strategy, he added, “depends on keeping the threat in perspective” and avoiding overreach. President Donald Trump’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism asserted that “Whenever possible, the United States must develop more efficient approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on our allies to degrade and maintain persistent pressure against terrorists. This means collaborating so that foreign governments take the lead wherever possible and working with others so that they can assume responsibility in the fight against terrorists.

Recognizing that events overtook the Obama administration’s efforts to put such a framework in place, the Trump administration issued a series of national security strategic documents in an attempt to provide a framework for such an approach. But when it came to counterterrorism, the strategies provided conflicting strategic direction. Speaking in February 2017, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph E. Dunford laid out a “4+1” framework guiding Defense Department prioritization of international threats and the capabilities needed to address them. The four top priorities related to strategic competition with China and Russia, followed by regional threats Iran and North Korea. Countering terrorism and violent extremism represented the “plus one” in the “4+1” framework.

In the years that followed, confusion dominated discussion about how to operationalize this declared shift in terms of resource allocation or mission prioritization. The production of three largely unaligned national security strategies under the Trump administration only exacerbated the problem. In the words of one former senior U.S. counterterrorism official, “I would challenge anyone to read the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the National Counterterrorism Strategy and tell me where we should spend our resources.” Within weeks of taking office, the Biden administration released an interim national security strategy guidance paper which notes the need to “meet the challenges not only from great powers and regional adversaries, but also violent and criminal non-state actors and extremists,” among other threats from climate change to infectious disease and more. But like Trump administration strategies, this interim guidance lacks direction on how to budget limited resources across these threats.

Counterterrorism as Currency in Great Power Competition

In the eyes of some, the United States can either prepare for great power competition or fight “peripheral wars” in places like Syria or Yemen that are remnants of an outdated war on terrorism, not both. In fact, for all the talk of a shift away from counterterrorism and toward great power competition, the reality is that with a modicum of strategic planning the two are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive, efforts. The few military deployments necessary to maintain an effective counterterrorism posture are the polar opposite of “endless wars” in terms of size, cost, and risk, and should be pursued in support of international coalitions and local allies. Beyond their counterterrorism value, such alliances will prove critical to pushing back on great- and near-power competitors.

Global competition with the likes of Russia and China will demand that the United States take into consideration not only its own set of interests but the needs and threat perceptions of its local partners. Focusing solely on great power competition in our relationship with other countries risks ignoring those countries’ counterterrorism (and other) concerns, which are often among their top priorities. As Brian Michael Jenkins notes, “Counterterrorism assistance is a currency.” That currency buys goodwill and partnership on a wide array of other interests, including great power competition. The flipside is also true: if the United States declines to help other countries address their counterterrorism needs, it creates a vacuum that states like Russia and China, or Iran and Turkey, will fill. These states will not intervene in helpful ways, but they will use limited power to outsized effect. The key to dealing with China, Secretary of State Tony Blinken explains, “comes first and foremost from working in close coordination with allies and partners who may be similarly aggrieved by some of China’s practices. When we’re in the business of picking fights with our allies instead of working with them, that takes away from our strength in dealing with China.” Counterterrorism relationships with countries for whom that is the primary security concern can also be leveraged for other purposes, including great power competition.

Consider, for example, U.S. counterterrorism activities in Africa, which account for about 0.3 percent of Defense Department personnel and budgetary resources and involve primarily training and advising roles. In December 2019, as part of his review of global deployments, Defense Secretary Mark Esper tabled “proposals for a major reduction—or even a complete pullout—of American forces from West Africa” with an eye toward “a push to reduce post-9/11 missions battling terrorist groups, and instead to refocus Pentagon priorities on confronting so-called Great Powers like Russia and China.” Just a few months earlier, in March 2019, General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) testified before Congress that “the threats we are working against aren’t necessarily a threat to the homeland and may not be a threat to the region overall.” Despite being chronically understaffed, AFRICOM saw cuts of up to 10 percent of its continental forces to address security challenges elsewhere. Fast forward to December 2020, when the Department of Justice indicted a Kenyan national for conspiring to hijack an aircraft to carry out a 9/11-style terrorist plot on behalf of the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabaab. These threats develop quickly when terrorists operate in relative safe havens, undermining the efficacy of the homeland threat litmus test.

Whether or not Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or other terrorist groups in Africa pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland today, Africa has become a fast-growing terrorist hotbed with violent extremist incidents in the Sahel doubling every year since 2015. It would be folly to wait until that threat metastasizes and suddenly does present a threat to the homeland before deciding to put some skin in the game to help counterterrorism in Africa. Such efforts could be partner-led and U.S.-enabled with a focus on leveraging the United States’ unique intelligence capabilities, and they need not involve the deployment of large numbers of soldiers. To be sure, they should focus not only (or even primarily) on military support but rather civilian counterterrorism capacity building. Premising a redeployment from Africa, which is small, affordable, and effective, on the need to shift to great power competition rings hollow given that the continent is a hotbed of Russian and Chinese activities.

Not All Deployments Are “Endless Wars”

Looking back at 2020, CENTCOM commander Gen. McKenzie noted, “Russia and China exploited the ongoing and regional crises, financial and infrastructure needs, perception of declining U.S. engagement, and opportunities created by Covid-19 to advance their objectives across the Middle East.” Syria, in particular, provides another clear example of a small, inexpensive, low-risk military deployment that yielded high counterterrorism dividends and prevented the spread of a dangerous regional conflict. In contrast, “The Kremlin’s primary motivation in Syria was limiting American influence in world affairs and projecting its own great power status, not fighting terrorism.”