The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Choose Between Counterterrorism and Great Power Competition

The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Choose Between Counterterrorism and Great Power Competition
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, right, and Taliban fighter, stand guard on their respective sides of the border at a crossing point in Torkham, Khyber district, Pakistan, Aug. 21, 2021 (AP photo by Muhammad Sajjad).
In an address to the nation in early July, President Joe Biden suggested that one of the factors leading him to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan was the “need to focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future.” For the past several years, the zeitgeist in Washington has been all about great power competition, or the need to prepare for potential conflict with countries the United States considers “near-peer” adversaries—namely Russia and China, but to a lesser extent, Iran and North Korea as well. The Trump administration adopted this concept as the central pillar of its national security strategy in 2017, supplanting the previous focus on counterterrorism, and Biden’s interim national security guidance has kept that approach in place. Listening to policymakers, one gets the impression that the United States can do either counterterrorism or great power competition, but not both. This false dichotomy between counterterrorism on the one hand, and great power competition on the other, serves to undermine U.S. interests. In fact, the United States can and must do both in order to protect its national security. Moreover, upon closer examination, there is significant overlap between these two approaches, both in the way U.S. adversaries operate but also in the way Washington can respond. As terrorism expert Matthew Levitt has noted, “with a modicum of strategic planning [great power competition and counterterrorism] are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive efforts.” Following 9/11, the United States and its allies embarked on the poorly named Global War on Terrorism, spending trillions of dollars to construct a worldwide counterterrorism infrastructure that could support special operations forces deployed to hunt terrorists in far-flung corners of the globe, from the deserts of North Africa to the jungles of Southeast Asia. After two decades of fighting jihadist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, a degree of counterterrorism fatigue is understandable. After all, terrorism is just one of several high-level challenges that the U.S. government must contend with, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and nuclear arms control. But framing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a sideshow to more important missions like great power competition is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept itself. If Biden is concerned with limiting the influence of countries like Russia, China and Iran, withdrawing from Afghanistan will actually have the opposite effect. With the United States now gone from Afghanistan, MoscowBeijing and Tehran see opportunities to move in. As regional powers look to shore up their respective interests in Afghanistan, the country will become a point of convergence between the concepts of great power competition and counterterrorism. Pakistan will look to reinvigorate irregular proxy forces that could be used to strike against India in Kashmir. And Iran has suggested it could redeploy a group of Afghan Shiite fighters that it has trained, known as the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade, from Syria to Afghanistan.

The false dichotomy between counterterrorism on the one hand, and great power competition on the other, serves to undermine U.S. interests. 

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.

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