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.
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.
How We End the Forever War
The U.S. does not know how to end its wars. Even when US troops are withdrawn from another country, US involvement in the war there does not necessarily end. The Trump administration pulled troops out of Somalia last year, but US military operations in Somalia continue. President Biden has committed to withdrawing the remaining troops from Afghanistan, but it is simply understood that US special forces, drones, and jets will continue to conduct operations in the country for the foreseeable future. The troops move, but the wars continue.
As if to drive this point home, Gen. McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, recently stated that the war on terrorism “is probably not going to end.” He could have dropped the probably. When the goals of a war are unachievable, it is not possible for the war to end when our government is determined to keep fighting it no matter what. Like every other war the US has fought since 1945, the forever war is a war of choice. Unless there are major changes in policy, the “war on terror” will outlive the US troop presence in Afghanistan.