The same convergence is playing out in other regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, where the U.S. has publicly mused about pulling its forces from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa and redeploying them to more pressing national security missions. This, again, misses the point. A recent article in Foreign Affairs, by Marcus Hicks, Kyle Atwell and Dan Collini, captures this contradiction, noting that, “far from being a distraction from great-power competition, Africa promises to become one of its most important theaters.” This premise has not been lost on either China or Russia, given their growing footprints on the continent. Contrary to the way they are often framed, great power competition and counterterrorism do not compete with each other for military resources. Counterterrorism involves the use of special forces and unmanned aerial systems, while great power competition requires tanks, ships and nuclear weapons. Yet still, officials in Washington continue to work within a binary mindset that hamstrings their ability to respond to military escalations. It has long been clear that U.S. adversaries like China and Russia are far more comfortable than Washington operating in ambiguity, or the so-called “gray zone,” which one U.S. military planner defines as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.” For example, Russia trains and equips armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Similarly, in Yemen, Iran has supplied Houthi rebels with highly sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones and missiles. But it is also evident in the way China allows its hackers to conduct crippling cyberattacks on U.S. companies, or in the way Russia deploys shadowy mercenary outfits to battlefields in Libya, the Central African Republic and Syria. Other countries, like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have followed suit. In some ways, the artificial firewall between great power competition and counterterrorism is a legacy of prior thinking about national security threats. Back in 2017, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford described American national security priorities in terms of a “4 + 1 framework,” with the “4” comprising China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, while the “1” symbolized the threat posed by transnational terrorism and violent extremism. But there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from the past two decades of counterterrorism, some—or perhaps, many—of which can be applied to great power competition. Above all, the U.S. has spent considerable time and energy developing and cultivating alliances and liaison relationships with countries around the world that have assisted in the counterterrorism fight. These relationships must be maintained, and U.S. access and influence with foreign partners will be an essential component of countering a rising China and a revanchist Russia. Following the 9/11 attacks, counterterrorism became a substitute for a comprehensive grand strategy. This was a mistake. But it would be a similar mistake today to simply slot in great power competition to replace counterterrorism and view all interactions through this binary lens. Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy headquartered in New York City.
The false dichotomy between counterterrorism on the one hand, and great power competition on the other, serves to undermine U.S. interests.
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