September 28, 2020

Making the U.S. Military’s Counter-Terrorism Mission Sustainable

By Stephen Tankel

One of the many hallmarks of the Trump administration has been its capricious approach to troops deployments, especially ones related to counter-terrorism. President Donald Trump has zigged and zagged on whether to maintain troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, sometimes sending Pentagon planners scrambling to keep up. Over the weekend, his administration threatened to pull out U.S. forces from Iraq as a way to pressure the government there to rein in Iran-backed militia groups. Meanwhile, in the background, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been conducting a review of each combatant command to ensure they have the right mix of personnel and resources to meet the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s priorities. The review has not been entirely devoid of drama. It advocates reducing the U.S. military footprint in Africa, a move that has engendered pushback from Congress and U.S. allies. One should not equate Trump’s manic demands, which appear driven almost entirely by electoral calculations, with Esper’s more sober review, but both highlight the challenges of reducing the military’s counter-terrorism mission.

Focusing on interstate strategic competition requires investing the mental energy necessary to develop a more sustainable approach to counter-terrorism.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy made a stark declaration, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The military’s counter-terrorism mission is not going away, however, and likely will require attention, resources, and manpower for the foreseeable future. In addition to exerting ongoing pressure on terrorist organizations, American forces enable intelligence collection — especially in hostile environments — and provide the means to conduct swift action against individuals and networks involved in plotting, directing, or attempting to inspire attacks against the United States. A military counter-terrorism presence can facilitate activities conducted by civilian departments and agencies as well as make U.S. partners more effective. This is not an argument for maintaining the status quo, which appears unsustainable and disproportionately large relative to the current terrorist threat, but rather an affirmation that the military still has an important role to play in counter-terrorism. The issue at hand is, or should be, how to adjust this role relative to the terrorist threat and other U.S. priorities.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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