Abstract: Many senior officials believe that emphasis on counterterrorism for the past two decades has compromised the ability of the U.S. armed forces to perform other critical military missions and that strategic competition, not terrorism, must now be the primary concern. This essay provides observations on the future role of the armed forces in counterterrorism and the future role of counterterrorism forces in great power competition. It notes that it will be difficult to demote counterterrorism while terrorists still remain a threat. However, there will be a further shift to counterterrorism without counterinsurgency. Dividing the military into near-peer warfare and counterterrorism camps makes little sense. Future wars will require U.S. commanders to orchestrate capabilities to counter an array of conventional and unconventional modes of conflict, including terrorism. Reduced defense spending in the post-pandemic environment will further increase pressure to cut counterterrorism—but the savings will be modest. Shifting priorities should not mean discarding competence. The hard-won skills that result from decades of counterterrorism operations are fungible, indeed valuable to future military challenges, including great power competition. Terrorism itself is constantly evolving, demanding new approaches. The ability to rapidly adapt to changing threats is applicable to strategic competition.
For almost two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the paramount mission of the U.S. security establishment has been counterterrorism—specifically, defeating the jihadi terrorist enterprise and preventing it or any terrorist organization from mounting another devastating attack on the U.S. homeland. U.S. armed forces have played a major role in this national effort and have borne much of the human cost.
In the view of many senior military officials as well as civilian critics, however, pursuit of the war on al-Qa`ida and later the Islamic State, along with their affiliates, allies, and spin-offs, has commanded too much attention and has consumed too large a share of national defense resources for far too long. As a result, the ability to perform other critical military missions and responsibilities has been compromised.
And although the operational capabilities of al-Qa`ida have been degraded, the territory seized by the Islamic State has been recaptured, and there have been no further large-scale terrorist attacks anywhere near the magnitude of 9/11, the cost in blood and treasure has been high and the results are seen by many as disappointing. The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, seems unlikely to end in anything resembling a traditional military victory—or even end at all. Meanwhile, circumstances have changed. New threats have emerged, causing many to argue that U.S. armed forces need to change their priorities accordingly.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) summary describes a complex array of threats and challenges to U.S. national security. These include the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition as the United States is only just awakening from a period of strategic atrophy. The NDS also points to a weakening post-WWII international order and increased global disorder. It mentions new challenges to U.S. military dominance as the United States’ competitive military advantage has eroded, rapid technological advancements, and the changing character of war. Its catalogue of threats includes rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction; non-state actors including terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, cyber hackers, and others with increasingly sophisticated capabilities. Finally, it notes a U.S. homeland that is no longer a sanctuary from foreign attack.1 Some of these concerns come from assertions that could be challenged, but the appearance of new and complex challenges over the past 20 years is undeniable.
Defense officials have called for re-balancing, meaning that while U.S. armed forces engage in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East as well as other counterterrorism-related contingency operations worldwide, these missions must not erode the United States’ ability to fight more conventional wars against increasingly aggressive major powers.2 The second paragraph of the NDS summary goes further, stating bluntly, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, [emphasis added] is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”3 The argument that the U.S. military must devote its attention to preparing for a possible shooting war with China or Russia is not new, although it is more emphatically presented in the NDS summary. It is the negative part of the phrase relating to terrorism that commands attention. It raises a series of questions.
How will the United States conduct counterterrorism during an era in which great power competition has been defined as the number-one national security priority? Will the United States be able to address both problem sets at the same time, or will concentration on near-peer threats lead to the inevitable erosion—or deliberate dismantling—of the United States’ hard-won counterterrorism experience, capabilities, and gains? What effect will the shift in priorities have on the military institution itself? What are the potential risks? What are the political consequences? It is time for a comprehensive review of the United States’ counterterrorism strategy. For reasons I will come to later in the essay, this has to be a national discussion, not exclusively a military debate.
As General Michael Nagata stated recently during a West Point Combating Terrorism Center roundtable—and I agree—it is a mistake to view decisions regarding the trade-off between defense planning and resources to great power competition or counterterrorism as a zero-sum game.4 This essay will argue that the United States faces a wide spectrum of threats. It is not a matter of guessing the right one. And it is not a matter of making a case for counterterrorism—that is not my purpose here. Future warfare may involve messy combinations of conflict modes (some of which may be new, such as cyber) and call upon all U.S. national defense resources to adapt and respond accordingly.
While the 2018 NDS is emphatic that terrorism is no longer the priority, two factors may serve as countervailing forces. Counterterrorism is events-driven. Terrorists events can command public attention and prompt public reactions that outweigh defense priorities.
The second factor, as General Nagata pointed out, is the strategic and political calculations of leadership. A president may seek to avoid military intervention, figuring that it will drag the country into a no-win, no-exit mess for which he or she will be blamed. But he or she will be criticized for projecting an image of American weakness, thereby inviting new terrorist outrages.
A president may, on the other hand, calculate that the situation demands an immediate military response or, alternatively, that withdrawal of already deployed forces brings unacceptable political risk. Or a president may reckon that his political base wants out of endless wars, regardless of the longer-term risks.
This is not to say that military strategy does not apply, or assert that the public opinion is fickle and politicians are feckless. Rather it is to note that public opinion is often divided on these strategic choices. The differences reflect deeply held philosophical views and do not change easily (although the emotive power of terrorism gives it short-term advantage). It is the absence of overwhelming consensus in favor of one or the other strategic priorities that makes strategic and political calculations so difficult and helps explain some of the reversals we have seen.
To address the future course of counterterrorism, it will be helpful to step back in time to explore how we got here. Where we are now reflects decades of events and responses—political and strategic decisions made in response to changing threats, but often reflecting past experiences. As often as it seemed necessary to use military power, avoiding the repetition of past debacles like the Vietnam War or the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq pulled equally in the opposite direction.
This essay provides a series of observations, grouped into eight sections, with implications for the role U.S. armed forces will likely play and need and ought to play in counterterrorism, based on the author’s own experience and perspective. The first section of the essay will examine the difficulties in backing away from counterterrorism while terrorists still remain a threat and withdrawal from certain conflict zones poses national security as well as political risks. That leads to the question of whether the United States can effectively suppress or at least contain terrorist groups abroad without being dragged into costly counterinsurgency campaigns and nation-building missions, which is the subject of the second section. Without attempting to predict the shape of future wars, the third section of the article argues that future near-peer contests may be very different from past military contests with major powers. Dividing military operations into normal-war and everything-else columns makes little sense.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on society and the economy is profound. Defense spending currently accounts for approximately half of total discretionary spending. That may not continue in the post-pandemic environment. What this means for counterterrorism budgets is discussed in the fourth section.
Shifting priorities from counterterrorism to strategic competition does not mean discarding competence. That is the subject of the fifth section, which outlines the long march away from counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War and the gradual, often reluctant, military engagement in counterterrorism operations from the late 1970s onward.
The sixth section argues that the hard-won skills that result from decades of counterterrorism operations are fungible, indeed valuable to future military challenges, including great power competition and near-peer warfare. At the same time, counterterrorism should not be seen as deriving from immutable doctrine handed down through the years. Terrorism itself, the seventh section argues, is constantly evolving, demanding new approaches and new capabilities. The ability to rapidly adapt to a changing threat landscape is a prerequisite in counterterrorism—and a more broadly applicable capability in strategic competition.
The eighth and concluding section takes us back to the original question of how the United States will conduct counterterrorism as great power competition becomes the priority mission and summarizes the final reflections. Reflection is the operative term here. What to many young men and women in today’s armed forces is almost ancient history is to my generation personal recollection. A personal perspective is unavoidable.
As noted, my comments reflect a personal perspective: My formative military experience as an officer in the 7th Special Forces Group during the intervention in the Dominican Republic and in the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam; my subsequent tours in Vietnam as a member of a newly created Long Range Planning Task Group; and my experience as a reserve officer (still assigned to Special Forces) admittedly influence my views.
Throughout this period, I remained deeply critical of the U.S. Army’s performance in Vietnam. The Army, in my view, viewed the Vietnam War as an exotic interlude between the wars that really counted—World War II and a future conflict with Soviet forces in Europe—and therefore, it never fully embraced a counterinsurgency strategy.5 Instead, it remained wedded to large-scale conventional operations, which killed a lot of Viet Cong, but also killed a lot of civilians and destroyed the lives of many others. We did not protect and could not gain the allegiance of the people. The immensity of U.S. military power precluded learning many lessons along the way. After withdrawal, the Vietnam experience was all but erased.
In 1972, I initiated the RAND Corporation’s research program on terrorism, believing then that it should be viewed as a new mode of conflict. Terrorism and irregular warfare have dominated my professional life since then. As terrorist violence escalated and terrorist attacks increasingly had strategic consequences, I became convinced that there was an appropriate military role in counter-terrorism—a role, not a solution.
Immediately after 9/11, I argued for a more formal declaration of war on those responsible for the attacks.6 The country had to mobilize for a national effort. Military force would be an essential part. The United States had already responded to terrorist attacks with military force on several occasions. The critical difference this time was that in previous cases, the United States responded to terrorist attacks with a single strike, then waited to see what terrorists or their state sponsors would do.
To me, “war” meant that the United States would not stop at one strike, but would initiate a continuing campaign aimed at destroying the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks and bringing as many of those responsible to justice. There could be no respite for the historic core of al-Qa`ida. And if we were going to send young men—and increasingly women—into combat, they deserved an expression of national support. There was no declaration of war, but Congress’ Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and in my view, it provided a reasonable substitute. As we were to later learn, the term “war” had unforeseen consequences.
The campaign, I thought back then, would remain narrowly focused on al-Qa`ida. I had no doubt it would require a long-term effort, one possibly lasting decades. New networks would have to be created to exploit intelligence across national frontiers. The strategy would have to include political warfare, aimed at reducing the appeal of the extremists and encouraging alternative views. The goals of the war could not be accomplished unilaterally—international cooperation would be a prerequisite for success.
However, I warned against keeping a large number of American troops in Afghanistan and expressed deep skepticism about getting into nation-building. National institutions hardly existed in the country. Once al-Qa`ida had scattered, I favored the deployment of small numbers of special forces to recruit and coordinate the actions of local proxies or tribal forces to prevent al-Qa`ida from reestablishing bases in the country. This was not about winning a war, but about a relentless pursuit, continuing intelligence collection, and when required, brief military interventions. For the most part, few in the Pentagon agreed with my thinking.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, in my (and many others’) view, was a costly diversion and a strategic blunder. It distracted from the campaign in Afghanistan, significantly increased the burden on U.S. forces, and created new space for terrorist recruiting. In more recent years, I have worried that exaggerated apprehension on the part of politicians and a fearful public that sought to abolish all risk was keeping the United States engaged in perpetual wars on distant frontiers and a never-ending quest for absolute security at home. Over time, this obsession would have a corrosive effect on our political system.
My purpose here, however, is not to settle old scores, defend the role of special forces, or argue against reallocating military resources. Rather, I aim to provoke a broader discussion about the nature of future wars, the future of counterterrorism as a military mission, and the possible effects of shifting priorities.
Observation 1: It will be difficult to demote counterterrorism
Military planners cannot claim that terrorism is no longer the primary concern because the counterterrorism mission has been accomplished and terrorists are no longer a threat. The 2017 National Security Strategy,7 the 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy8—both prepared by the current administration, and the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, which reflects the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community,9 all agree that terrorism remains a persistent threat to U.S. national security. Some analysts go further and argue that the worldwide jihadi menace—our current foe—is more dangerous than ever.10
The ‘caliphate’ declared and defended by the Islamic State was defeated as a territorial expression of the group, but the organization itself was not destroyed. It went underground or scattered to other jihadi fronts in Africa and South and Southeast Asia.11 The operational capabilities of al-Qa`ida have been degraded, but the organization survives and has proved resilient. U.S. officials thought that al-Qa`ida fronts had been contained or that the United States was close to a strategic victory over al-Qa`ida more than once only to be disappointed by comebacks. Al-Qa`ida now waits in the wings for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban will keep the jihadis under control as they have promised is questionable. As a recent U.N. report points out, the senior leadership of al-Qa`ida remains in Afghanistan and relations between the Taliban and al-Qa`ida remain close.12
The United States currently has about 8,500 troops actively engaged in Afghanistan,13 approximately 5,200 in Iraq (a figure set to be reduced to 3,000 this month),14 and under 1,000 still deployed in Syria.15 These numbers do not include the thousands more stationed throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Bringing U.S. troops home has proved difficult.
President Barack Obama wanted to end U.S. participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while avoiding outright defeat, but was unable to do so. When the military situation in Afghanistan appeared to be worsening, President Obama ultimately opted to send in reinforcements, although he accompanied the decision with a schedule for the eventual departure of all U.S. troops. He was later forced to abandon this timetable.16
While campaigning for president, Donald Trump promised to pull out of the war in Afghanistan. As president, he said that he had been persuaded that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda,”17 and in September 2017, he too sent in additional troops.18
It has been equally difficult to walk away from the Middle East. Iraq’s refusal to sign a status of forces agreement that would protect U.S. troops in Iraq against local prosecution gave President Obama the opportunity to bring those troops home.19 However, the disengagement proved to be temporary. Two years into his administration, President Obama had to deal with rapidly evolving events resulting from the tumult that began with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. In the months that followed the troop withdrawal, protests and armed uprisings occurred across the Arab world. Syria descended into a civil war that the jihadis exploited. Ultimately, jihadi formations dominated the rebellion while the Iraqi-led Islamic State broke with al-Qa`ida’s subsidiary and dramatically expanded its control over eastern Syria and rolled across Iraq.
The collapse of Iraqi defenses in 2014 as Islamic State forces swept east obliged the United States to renew military operations to prevent further massacres and to preclude the Islamic State from becoming a new base for terrorist operations against the West. Washington assembled an international coalition and led an ongoing air campaign, which supported ground offenses by Iraqi and U.S.-led Kurdish and Arab recruits.
President Trump’s trajectory on Syria and Iraq has been complicated as well. As a businessman in 2008, Trump expressed support for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, but later blamed President Obama’s premature withdrawal for creating the chaos that led to the rise of the Islamic State.20 As a presidential candidate, he said in 2016 that he would send up to 30,000 more troops to defeat the Islamic State.21 That did not happen when President Trump took office, although the U.S.-led bombing campaign intensified and the number of drone strikes on jihadi leaders increased.22
In late 2019, President Trump announced that the United States would immediately pull U.S. forces out of Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies who had led the ground campaign against the Islamic State.23 That decision was reversed and U.S. military units remained in Syria, reportedly to protect the oil fields, but the administration indicated that it was still committed to getting U.S. forces out of Iraq.24 However, in January 2020, in response to anticipated Iranian action provoked by the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassim Soleimani, President Trump sent 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East although discussions aimed at withdrawal continue.25
The policy reversals reflect events. The United States’ goal remains to remove itself from endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but defense decisions have been driven by the fear that withdrawing U.S. forces will lead to chaos in which al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, or new jihadi entities will establish themselves and be able to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. It is the dark shadow of 9/11 that condemns the United States to perpetual fighting on distant frontiers.
Military commanders understandably want to turn their attention to what they consider to be greater threats to U.S. national security. At the same time, they do not want to ‘lose,’ and in the past, they argued for the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently advise against precipitous withdrawals. Presidents want out as well, but must also calculate the political risks. A major terrorist attack on U.S. soil could be politically ruinous, especially in today’s bitter partisan atmosphere. It could also prompt demands for new military interventions. The safest political course has been to accept the continuing military burden, kicking the can down the road, rather than risk being blamed for a new major terrorist attack or being propelled into new military adventures.
Observation 2: There will likely be a further shift to counterterrorism without counterinsurgency
Even without a shift in priorities, the U.S. military is already moving toward a more narrowly focused counterterrorism effort. Direct U.S. participation in the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign is declining as U.S. forces continue to withdraw.26 Negotiations with the Taliban are intended to produce a political arrangement that ends the U.S. role in the fighting without permitting a return of al-Qa`ida or the expansion of Islamic State operations. Ensuring that al-Qa`ida does not make a comeback and that the Islamic State is not allowed to establish a base for international terrorist operations will remain the primary United States’ residual concern. The U.S.-led campaign to destroy the Islamic State territorial expression has ended, and the number of U.S. troops still in Iraq is likely to be further reduced. Counterterrorism operations, however, will continue in the Middle East and elsewhere. How did we get here?
Unfolding events after 2001, plus hubris, overreach, strategic error, and mission creep pushed the United States into large-scale counterinsurgency and nation-building missions. In the immediate shadow of 9/11, pundits were predicting that terrorists would acquire weapons of mass destruction and carry out attacks with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fatalities.27 Terrorism at that level approached an existential threat. Instead of the predicted vertical escalation, terrorism violence spread horizontally.
As it turned out, al-Qa`ida would not be able to pull off another 9/11-scale attack, although this was a reasonable supposition immediately after the attacks and, in my view, the driving force for immediate action against al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan. Scattering al-Qa`ida’s leaders and disrupting its operations prevented the group from mounting further large-scale operations, although they kept planning major operations and splinters of al-Qa`ida carried out attacks across the globe. Most of these occurred in Muslim majority countries (Tunisia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey). That produced an untold amount of suffering, but it had one positive effect. Directly threatened, governments that might otherwise have preferred to remain bystanders joined the global counterterrorist campaign. However, major terrorist attacks also occurred in Spain and the United Kingdom, and smaller-scale attacks occurred in the United States along with the continued discovery of terrorist plots. These lent credence to the continuing terrorist threat.
Meanwhile, the United States found itself dealing with escalating insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi resistance grew out of the chaos created by the removal of the ruling political structure, the disbandment of the Iraqi army, and the failure of the invading forces to maintain control. The deteriorating situation in Iraq diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to make a comeback.
It is extremely difficult to divide expenditures into counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, but counterinsurgency tends to be far costlier. Counterinsurgency operations required larger deployments of U.S. troops, which resulted in more American casualties and higher expenditures. Nor were counterinsurgency operations a domain where the U.S. armed forces could claim expertise or advantage. Coming 30 years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, almost all of the Vietnam veterans had retired by 2002—what the military had learned about counterinsurgency had been long forgotten and would have to be relearned at great cost.
In his superb introduction to the new “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” issued in 2006, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl noted that “the American Army of 2003 was organized, designed, trained, and equipped to defeat another conventional army; indeed, it had no peer in that arena. It was, however, unprepared for an enemy who understood that it could not hope to defeat the U.S. Army on a conventional battlefield, and who therefore chose to wage war from the shadows.”28 The insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq provided the impetus and the classroom. By 2006, the U.S. military on the ground had a better understanding and were better prepared to deal with the situation.
With only the embryo of a new national army in Afghanistan and with the Iraqi army disbanded, the burden of fighting fell largely on the United States (and, of course, those allies willing to engage in combat). No matter how strict the rules of engagement or how careful military operations were conducted, this put U.S. soldiers in the position of killing locals—combatants but, unintentionally, bystanders as well. That would not endear them to the local population. It also contributed to jihadis recruiting locally and internationally.
There were a number of proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from both Afghanistan and Iraq. General Colin Powell’s warning—if you break it, you own it—summarized the thinking against just walking away, but an obligation to fix things was not the only concern. The security situation improved enough in Iraq to permit bringing U.S. forces home. But while the United States focused on Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated. Toppling the Taliban and going after al-Qa`ida was a counterterrorist operation. Fear that a Taliban return would allow the return of al-Qa`ida turned it into a counterinsurgency mission. It was counterterrorism that got us into counterinsurgency; it was fear of future terrorist attacks at home that kept us there.
By the late 2000s, some, notably then Vice President Joe Biden, argued that the necessary counterterrorism mission could be separated from the undesirable counterinsurgency task.29 While the prevailing thinking focused on a boots-on-the-ground strategy of nation-building and counterinsurgency aimed at defeating the Taliban, Vice President Biden argued for focusing on al-Qa`ida—defending Kabul and Kandahar instead of chasing Taliban insurgents around the country—and training Afghan soldiers to replace departing Americans while avoiding nation-building.30 Vice President Biden was not a dove as described in some news media accounts.31 He favored a continued strong American military presence, albeit with a reduced footprint, but sought to shift their role from aggressive pacification of the Afghan countryside—only the Afghan forces could do that—to a more narrowly targeted U.S. campaign, relying on drone strikes and special operations against the remnants of al-Qa`ida.32
This was not the course taken in 2009, however. U.S. troop reductions, especially since 2013, have reduced direct U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. The Joint Staff’s 2014 publication, Counterterrorism, Joint Publication 3-26, narrowed the definition of counterterrorism “to actions and activities to neutralize terrorists, their organizations, and networks,” thereby removing from the definition, “countering root causes.” It also drew a line between counterterrorism operations and “counterinsurgency, security cooperation, and stability operations.”33 Over the past 10 years, refraining from deployments of large expeditionary forces, avoiding direct U.S. participation in counterinsurgency campaigns, confining the American role to smaller training missions, and relying mainly on special forces and precisely defined airstrikes to go after terrorist cadres have become the precepts of the military’s current and future role in counterterrorism. Despite the differences in rhetoric, there was continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations on these principles.34 They will guide any future responses.
Observation 3: Future wars will likely be blended, mixed, and gray
Pentagon planners identify Russia and China as near-peer adversaries.35 Both countries have large nuclear arsenals and are investing in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic and cyber weapons that will dramatically change how future wars are fought.36 North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and is believed to have missiles that potentially can reach the U.S. mainland,37 and Iran, which has nuclear ambitions that many believe cannot be stopped as well as a large and diverse missile program, are also mentioned as regional threats or what might be called ‘near, near-peers.’a
It is difficult for a country to predict what the next war will be like unless that country is planning a surprise attack. Then, at least, military planners may know what the opening battle might look like. That gives a potential advantage to a hypothetical Russian move into the Baltics or an assault by China on Taiwan, which would be hard to prevent and difficult to reverse without ascending to all-out war. Strategic war games simulating such scenarios do not turn out well for the West.38 It is therefore understandable that the Pentagon wants to re-assert military dominance—assuming it ever existed—in order to deter war and if deterrence fails, to win a shooting war.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to question the assumptions that underlie the likelihood of wars with near-peer adversaries or the necessity to prepare for them. However, it would be a mistake to assume that wars with near-peer adversaries will be exclusively large-scale conventional military engagements. To say that the United States has near-peer competitors is not to say that potential wars will take the form of what are historically viewed as near-peer contests. Major war in the future will not resemble major wars in the past. The decision to refocus on peer warfare should not be driven by nostalgia, the desire for tank parades, or the bottom lines of defense contractors.
There is a tendency to divide warfare into two domains. Some senior military leaders talk about “normal war,” meaning large-scale conventional military operations, and other forms of armed conflict. These are variously described as irregular warfare, low intensity conflict (LIC), conflict other than war (COTW), military operations other than war (MOOTW), guerrilla warfare (GW), counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or hybrid warfare. Political warfare, psychological warfare, information warfare, cyber warfare, and measures short of war are thrown into the mix. Although some of the entries have more precise meanings in military doctrine, other entries are generic or overlap. This is not a taxonomy. It is a catalogue of the “other”—and like all things other, these forms of conflict are considered as strange, outside, departures from the canon, and of less significance than normal war.
Creating a divide between “normal” war and other forms of armed conflict would be a mistake. Recent history suggests a more complex future. Since departing from Vietnam, a conflict that saw both conventional and unconventional operations, the United States intervened in El Salvador’s civil war, backed Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, intervened in Lebanon where American forces increasingly became participants in the country’s civil war and targets of terrorism, landed marines in Grenada, bombed Libya in response to its backing of terrorist attacks on the United States, protected Kuwaiti ships from Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf, and invaded Panama to arrest its president for drug trafficking.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted an American-led mission to liberate the country—a large-scale conventional operation followed by continuing air operations aimed at enforcing a no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq and Shi`a Muslims in the south. In 1993, the United States increased its military presence to protect U.N. operations in Somalia, found itself dragged into its internal conflicts, then withdrew from the country after a psychologically devastating loss in the battle of Mogadishu. The United States sent troops into Haiti in 1994 to ensure a peaceful turnover of power, took the lead in intervening to prevent further slaughters in Bosnia in 1995, and intervened in the Balkans again in 1999 to support Kosovo independence and prevent ethnic cleansing. In response to terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the United States launched a missile attack on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998.
As a candidate, President George W. Bush had criticized the Clinton administration’s multiple military interventions, but following the 9/11 attacks, launched the “Global War on Terror,” which under different names continues to this day. To prevent Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, thus initiating what became America’s second longest war and its most costly engagement since the Vietnam War. It was initially a successful conventional operation but was followed by a long, bloody insurgency.
Although determined to avoid further military involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, the United States under the Obama administration participated in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, half-heartedly supported those fighting against Syrian leader Assad, and in 2014 increasingly became involved in military operations against the Islamic State. That same year, Russia seized Crimea and sent masked Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms—the “little green men”—to participate in Ukraine’s civil war. Also in 2014, China began building scores of bases on atolls in the South China Sea as well as a base in Djibouti.39
This military history at a gallop is relevant. It underscores the observation that events, not strategic preferences, determine military operations. It should be a cautionary tale to political leaders who make the ultimate decisions about when and where to employ military force. It is also a warning to military leadership that the country faces diverse challenges to its security that cannot simply be banished from consideration.
The brief recent history also shows an assortment of military operations. Foes of the United States are diverse and have used varied means to overcome America’s perceived technological superiority and greater military might. Even near-peer adversaries have conducted their activities in ways that stop short of provoking a direct military response. And clearly the United States has struggled to craft effective responses, yet found it difficult to avoid engagements or depart from them. As former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Michael Carns pointed out to me just before this article was published, “We can (and should) recognize that we face terrorism from parties who recognize that the ‘terror’ choice of political engagement is the best choice for them and the worst choice for us, given our mindset and our resultant ‘way of war’ once engaged.”
One can sympathize with those who argue that these endless distractions drain our attention and resources to the point that the United States may now be in danger of losing its military superiority, despite defense expenditures that dwarf its competitors’ combined defense budgets.b But it also suggests that as the United States devotes itself to recovering an undeniable edge in advanced military capabilities, it will only further oblige its foes to invent ways they can obviate America’s advantage. (Israel is already in this conundrum.) Achieving overmatch will increase challenges in the gray area. To put it simply, the other forms of war are inescapable. The United States needs to examine the entire realm of warfare in the gray area.
Deterring nuclear adventurism may require maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal. Deterring conventional challenges may require acquiring and learning how to exploit the most advanced technologies to demonstrate that the United States will win any shooting war. However, tomorrow’s wars may also include adversaries exploiting vulnerabilities created by the United States’ increasing dependence on the internet, sabotaging the nation’s critical infrastructure, or crippling its space-based surveillance and communications systems. Tomorrow’s wars may also take the form of grinding long-term contests that avoid open battle—special operations, proxies, detached and deniable actors. And tomorrow’s wars may include a terrorist component, remotely recruited or inspired by events—can we imagine a war with Iran that does not include Hezbollah’s worldwide capacity for violence?
China and Russia have also learned by watching America’s experience during the past 20 years of the “Global War on Terror.” They may view proxy warfare and sponsorship of terrorism as effective ways to distract American attention and divert American resources.
Future wars will require U.S. commanders not merely to fight opposing armies, but to orchestrate a broad arsenal of capabilities to counter a blended array of conventional and unconventional modes of conflict, including terrorism.
Observation 4: Competition for defense dollars will increase pressure to make cuts to counterterrorism
With priority shifting to great power competition, expenditures for counterterrorism are already coming under increasing pressure as the Pentagon looks for money to develop significant new military and supporting technologies to overmatch what the Chinese and Russians are believed to be doing. At the same time, the competition for defense dollars will intensify as the defense budget itself comes under pressure. Given the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, a ballooning annual deficit (forecast to be $3.7 trillion for fiscal year 2020), and massive national debt (currently at around $26 trillion), it is difficult to envision continued increases in defense spending at the level seen over the past several years.40 Future defense budgets are likely to be flat or even trimmed.
Economists at the RAND Corporation estimated in April 2020 that contraction of the U.S. economy caused by the pandemic could reduce defense spending, if held at 3.2 percent of GDP, by $350-600 billion over the next 10 years. This was before the surge in new cases of COVID-19 across the United States in June and July 2020 and not taking into account likely political decisions to shift government spending to other post-pandemic priorities.41
Major savings can be made by base closures or cuts to some of the big weapons acquisition programs, but these are politically protected by members of Congress who will not allow closures or cuts to certain acquisitions because of their impact on local economies and jobs. Political leaders may also see defense spending as a way to accelerate economic recovery. Under budgetary pressure, the armed forces tend to cut personnel. There were major cuts after the Vietnam War and again after the end of the Cold War. Very modest cuts occurred between 2011 and 2015. Counterterrorism operations are carried out primarily by Special Forces and Special Operations Forces, which also play a key role in near-peer contests. The question is how likely budget cuts/constraints may affect not just the forces, but the mission.
Defense budgets are Byzantine. There is no single counterterrorism budget, and it is difficult to isolate what is spent on counterterrorism. Part of the problem is agreeing upon what should be included. The broadest iterations of the total U.S. expenditures for counterterrorism include the costs of the war in Afghanistan—and the war in Iraq, since this was portrayed as part of the war on terror. Military counterterrorist expenditures would also include the costs of the campaign to destroy the Islamic State, military operations in other countries like Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, and the continuing military assistance missions in many countries. The broadest cost calculations also include not only the actual costs of military operations, but the long-term costs of caring for those wounded and disabled in the wars, the interest costs of fighting on borrowed money, and other indirect effects.42 This puts the totals well into the trillions of dollars since 9/11, and it misleadingly suggests that great savings can be saved by pivoting away from counterterrorist missions.c
In fact, the potential savings by cutting counterterrorism expenditures in future defense budgets is likely to be relatively small. If counterterrorism expenditures are defined as the cost of military operations directed against terrorists, including special operations, drone strikes, support of proxies in conflict zones, and military training missions to build capacity in countries confronted with terrorist threats, then counterterrorism comprises only a small portion of the current $721.5 billion defense budget.
The 2021 budget request for the Special Operations Command is approximately $16.6 billion.43 Most, but not all special operations are currently devoted to counterterrorism.
The cumulative costs of operation “Inherent Resolve,” the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State that began in 2014, reached $23.5 billion by March 2018—about $5-6 billion a year.44 With the destruction of the Islamic State, the bombing campaign, which was the most expensive component of the operation, is over, and the savings already have been realized.
The total costs of the U.S. drone program are difficult to calculate. Drones are operated both by the Pentagon and the CIA. Accurate figures are hard to come by. In its fiscal year 2019 budget, the Department of Defense requested approximately $9.4 billion for drones and associated technologies.45 Another assessment put the administration’s request at $3.4 billion for drone procurement, research, development, testing, and evaluation.46 While the primary use of drones at present is in counterterrorism, it is widely assumed that drones will play a major role in future wars, including near-peer contests. Even if the Pentagon were to leave all counterterrorist drone strikes to the CIA, it would still be investing in drone technology.
Moreover, reductions in the number of Americans deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and a tighter focus on counterterrorist operations could increase the reliance on air operations, including the use of drones. (The efficacy of drones as a counterterrorist weapon, their cost-effectiveness, legality, and morality versus other types of military operations continue to be matters of intense debate.)
Greater savings can theoretically be obtained by reducing the number of American boots on the ground. Expeditionary warfare is hugely expensive, hence the push to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, although U.S. military commanders, while noting that withdrawals are political decisions, warn against a premature or total withdrawal.47 Again, U.S. troops are in Afghanistan fighting Taliban insurgents, but these counterinsurgency operations are part of a broader counterterrorism strategy aimed at preventing the return of al-Qa`ida or other dangerous jihadi groups. When it comes to a hard decision, no president yet has wanted to take the risk.
This brings us back to the fundamental underlying dilemma. Americans understandably want and expect security against terrorist attacks, and many probably believe that, with sufficient force, terrorists can be defeated once and for all and the threat of further terrorism ended. That is what going to war with al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State was about. I realize now that the error in framing the counterterrorist campaign as war, which made sense at the time, was that it implied a finite ending, as most American wars have ended in the past.
But Americans are no longer willing to pay the price if that appears to be involvement in endless, unwinnable wars. Perhaps the jihadi terrorist enterprise can ultimately be suppressed, or it may fade away, although that could take decades—generations. Or today’s terrorist campaigns may be subsumed by bigger wars or existential threats to civilization.
War fatigue does not mean, however, that public expectations of security have changed. We do not know that Americans are now more willing to accept increased risk. Military operations, in my view, have reduced the ability of our jihadi foes to launch large-scale attacks into U.S. territory from abroad, and these terrorist organizations have had only limited success in remotely inspiring homegrown jihadis to carry out attacks. But there are no equations that link military expenditures with measurable risk.
Statistically, the danger terrorism poses to any American is minuscule, but terrorism is not about statistics. It is about perceptions—fear, alarm, anger—and perceptions can be framed and manipulated. Deep divisions in American society and intense political partisanship ensure that any terrorist incident will be framed to maximize political advantage. One need only look at how Americans have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of this essay, I said that the future role of the military in counterterrorism is not just a debate about strategy, but rather requires a national discussion, which we as a nation have yet to conduct. Meanwhile, the challenge to the military is to address how counterterrorism operations could be reframed to avoid terms that imply “victories” in the traditional sense.
Over the years, official documents, published articles, and public comments by active and retired military commanders and defense analysts have communicated ambiguous messages: Counterterrorism operations are essential, but military force cannot by itself defeat terrorists or end terrorism. Reinforcements are necessary. Complete or accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces (from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria) entails increased risks. Terrorism is no longer the priority; we must shift attention and resources to great power competition. All of these statements reflect specific military assessments and may be true, but the public may well be confused. The solution would be an honest national conversation about these trade-offs, but how to bring that about in the current political environment is not obvious.
Thus far, the savings from troop reductions have been disappointing. In 2011, the United States had 94,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated annual cost of $107 billion. In 2019, 9,800 American troops remained in the country at an estimated annual cost of $52 billion—a 90 percent reduction in troops resulting in a 51 percent reduction in costs.48 Further reductions in troops levels are likely, but with proportionately less savings.
Thousands of additional U.S. troops are deployed in Africa and elsewhere, training, advising, and fighting alongside local security forces, in some places battling extremist fighters with airstrikes and ground operations with local commandos. Although the Trump administration has been critical of overseas deployments in so many countries, these are comparatively low-cost operations and can be considered good investments. Not much money can be saved by reducing them, although a constrained defense budget render them vulnerable to cuts.
It is not merely a matter of budgets. U.S. troops are in Iraq not only to help the Iraqis fight terrorists, but also to counter Iranian influence in the region.49 U.S. counterterrorism assistance to various countries also encourages and facilitates international cooperation in sharing intelligence about terrorism. This cooperation has in the past proved vital in protecting the United States and its allies against terrorist attacks. The importance of U.S. counterterrorist capabilities and intelligence sharing was illustrated in June 2020 when French special forces killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, al-Qa`ida’s longtime commander in North Africa. The United States assisted the operation by providing intelligence that located the target. France, which has 5,000 of its own troops in West Africa,50 and the United States are cooperating in preventing jihadis from establishing new strongholds in the Sahel.
Many of the places where the United States provides counterterrorism assistance are also arenas of great power competition—for example, Africa, and the Philippines. Terrorists in these countries directly threaten their governments, which need help. Offering training and assistance enables the United States to maintain access and develop influence.
The bottom line is that reductions in counterterrorism operations will come, but—counterinsurgency costs aside—these reductions will not free up large amounts for the development of capabilities to wage near-peer warfare. And cutting too deeply will have adverse strategic effects both in protecting the United States against terrorism and achieving other strategic goals. As the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa General Dagvin R. M. Anderson noted in a recent interview in this publication, “pretty much every nation in Africa, has a concern about violent extremism and terrorism. And we bring great credibility and great value—Special Operations—to help them address that security concern. Being able to partner with them and address that security concern gives us access, gives us engagement opportunity and influence in order to then compete with these other global powers—China and Russia—to ensure we have access and the world has access to these resources as well that are vital to our economies.”51
Observation 5: Shifting priorities should not mean discarding competence
The Unites States’ armed forces emerged from the Vietnam War scarred and grieved. Ten years of war, a troop commitment that in 1968 reached over half a million, vastly superior weapons, the loss of 58,000 dead and 300,000 wounded (with a higher percentage of survivors than in previous conflicts suffering multiple amputations or disabling wounds that likely would have resulted in death in previous wars), the heavy toll did not bring victory.52 Not only had the American public turned against the war, many had turned against the military establishment itself. Returning veterans found no welcome, only scorn.
Unwilling to learn the lessons of the war, American military leaders were instead determined to never let this happen again. To ensure that it would not, the army purged itself of everything that had to do with irregular warfare. Its counterinsurgency capabilities were systematically dismantled. Counterinsurgency, which had been a major preoccupation since the early 1960s, was almost totally erased from the training curricula. Special Forces—often disparaged and resented by many senior officers—were reduced. The military went back to preparing for fighting conventional wars—almost exclusively.
Initially, U.S. armed forces saw no military role in dealing with the growing phenomenon of terrorism. Until the late 1970s, this position was understandable. The terrorist groups operating in the cities of South America, Europe, and Japan at the time, despite the Marxist orientation of most, posed little direct threat to the United States, although some of them attacked U.S. targets, including diplomats, military personnel, and corporate officials. There was little the Pentagon believed it could do other than protect U.S. military assets abroad. Otherwise, it was not seen as the Pentagon’s problem, and there were good reasons to avoid involvement. In the face of public disorder and escalating terrorist violence, British troops had deployed to Northern Ireland, but the United States faced no such domestic threat and, in any case, it was not a model that the United States could or wanted to emulate. Dealing with America’s own domestic terrorist groups remained a law enforcement responsibility, not a military mission.
Events in the Middle East followed a different trajectory. From the early 1970s on, Middle Eastern militants increasingly targeted Americans and some plotted terrorist attacks in the United States. In many cases, moreover, their terrorist campaigns were supported by national governments in the region—Libya, Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, Sudan, and Iran—as a mode of surrogate warfare. That changed the equation. State-sponsored terrorism became a growing U.S. national security concern, putting the option of military force on the table. The Pentagon continued to resist.
Airline hijackings, embassy seizures, and kidnappings during the late 1970s pushed the Pentagon into developing a hostage rescue capability, especially after the successful hostage rescues carried out by Israelis at Entebbe in 1976 and German commandos in Mogadishu in 1977. Unfortunately, the new U.S. force failed its first time out in April 1980 in an attempt to rescue Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The aborted operation revealed serious shortcomings in planning joint special operations.
The October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American service personnel died, was a turning point. At the direction of Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a commission led by Admiral Robert Long was created to review the military disaster. It concluded that the military had failed to adequately address and prepare for the terrorist threat. But the commission’s conclusions went beyond events in Beirut to point out that the United States, and specifically the Department of Defense, was inadequately prepared to deal with the terrorism. “It makes little sense to learn that a State or its surrogate is conducting a terrorist campaign or planning a terrorist attack,” the commission observed, “and not confront that government with political or military consequences …”53
That position coincided with the views of Secretary of State George Shultz, a World War II Marine himself, who saw the use of military force as necessary to back up American diplomacy against terrorism, but still the military resisted. The argument continued through the mid-1980s. The United States eventually did employ limited military power in response to terrorist attacks on a handful of occasions as we will come to later in this essay, but it was not until 9/11 that the U.S. armed forces were given the counterterrorist mission that has occupied them since.
The current shift in priorities, explicitly downgrading terrorism, could easily slide into a repeat of the post-Vietnam dismantling of counterinsurgency capabilities. This could occur through budgeting reallocations, abandonment of advisory and support missions, or targeted reductions in force aimed at specialized units or personnel. The budget reallocations already occurring suggest they are likely to produce only modest savings. Abandoning missions and losing core competencies, in my view, should be avoided.
The shift in emphasis from counterterrorism to near-peer warfare is intended to be a makeover, not a turnover. If it is accompanied by a denigration of the counterterrorism mission this generation of U.S. military personnel have worked toward, retention could become a problem.
The Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East have affected the armed forces differently. Although 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam (out of 9.1 million military personnel on active duty sometime during the Vietnam era) compared to 2.8 million who served in Afghanistan or Iraq between 9/11 and 2015),54 the Vietnam experience may have had a less lasting effect on the U.S. military than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for a variety of reasons.
The armed forces during the Vietnam deployment were much larger. The active duty strength of the armed forces in the late 1960s was approximately 3.5 million in the late 1960s—a post-World War II peak.55 Since 2000, the number of active duty personnel has ranged around 1.4 million. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were longer. The big buildup in Vietnam began in 1965, and by 1969, the withdrawal was underway. About a fifth of those who served in Vietnam were draftees, most of whom left the service after two years (although even in the all-volunteer force, most departures from the service occur after the first tour). Experience evaporated quickly. People serve longer in today’s professional armed forces. As a result, multiple deployments to conflict zones are more common in today’s armed forces. The post-9/11 personnel are also more likely to have seen actual combat. Repeated tours of duty have imposed a heavy burden on them and their families. Those who started their careers after 9/11—meaning most of the military—have yet to experience peace.
The retention issue is most critical for the Army. Army personnel (including the Regular Army, Reserve, and National Guard) account for 58 percent of the total deployed-troop years since 9/11 with the Marines, Navy, and Air Force accounting for the remaining 42 percent. There already has been considerable attrition of this deployment experience. Recent research shows that, as of 2015, soldiers accounting for 55 percent of this deployment experience no longer remain in the army. Those who served three or more tours represent an especially critical resource. As of 2015, about 40 percent of these “highly deployed” soldiers have left the military.56 Many of those who remain seem likely to finish their full military career.57
The career environment is critical. Many of these men and women could still be in uniform for another 10 to 20 years—a valuable source of institutional knowledge that the services should try to retain. Telling soldiers that they have spent their entire career fighting wars that the country no longer gives a damn about and that its political leaders now describe as dumb, stupid, or lost, inevitably affects morale. Veterans who saw service in Afghanistan or Iraq tend to be ambivalent about whether the wars were worth fighting.58 Although half thought fighting in Afghanistan was worth it, only a third thought both wars were worth fighting while another third felt that neither war was worth fighting.59 How closely this reflects the attitudes of those still on active duty is hard to say. If those who have devoted the last 10 or 20 years to counterterrorism perceive their experience and therefore themselves devalued as the military shifts its priorities to fight the ‘right’ wars, departures could accelerate.
If I could speak personally to each and every person currently in uniform, I would tell them, “The people of this country and its armed forces owe you more than today’s polite but perfunctory ‘Thank you for your service,’ but instead a deep debt of gratitude for your devotion to duty and your sacrifices. The current effort to address new military challenges does not diminish your past contribution, your hard-earned military experience, or your future value to our nation’s defense. These remain relevant and will be needed.” That ought to be the hymn of senior military leadership, especially those setting personnel policies.
Observation 6: The need to catalogue and exploit counterterrorism skills
Those with years of military experience dealing with insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and the Middle East may not be the best qualified to drive armor divisions across the plains of Europe, command major naval battles in the Pacific, or engage in aerial dogfights with enemy aircraft. (We did not have these skills when we entered World War II either.) What exactly are the counterterrorist capabilities and skills that should be preserved?
Counterterrorist operations encompass a broad variety of tasks and missions. Many of the assignments fall into the category of advisory and support missions. These vary greatly from country to country, even from province to province. Small American contingents work with local military establishments to improve their effectiveness, enabling them to contain the insurgent and terrorist organizations without need for direct U.S. intervention. The American teams also provide independent assessments of the threat. The teams can assess the situation and determine when additional support might be required and what might work best. They are also a direct conduit of intelligence.
The military has also learned to enlist and work with proxies, both of which are traditional special forces missions. The United States supported the Afghan mujahideen to ultimately defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In 2001, it combined Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, an irregular force, U.S. Special Forces (some on horseback), and U.S. airpower to defeat the Taliban and scatter al-Qa`ida. In 2006, the United States exploited the discontent of local Sunni tribes to displace al-Qa`ida-aligned insurgents in western Iraq. In 2014, the United States assembled and supported a Kurdish and Arab ground force to recapture territory held by the Islamic State. The first of these was a part of the Cold War—a continuing contest between near peers. The others fall into the domain of counterterrorism broadly defined. All of these operations were innovative and successful. They did not bring lasting peace or produce the democratic governments that some hoped for; they did contribute to national security.
Success in these operations depends on detailed local knowledge of the physical terrain and human geography, and in some cases requires an ability to operate as isolated small units amid a civilian population filled with potential hostiles. The psychological pressure is enormous. The skills are as much diplomatic as military. Not everyone can do it well.
Special operations have changed since the 1960s when the emphasis was on the deployment of area-trained Special Forces teams that could assist local armies and recruit proxies where knowledge of language and culture were important, but that could also carry out active military operations in enemy territory. Since then, special operations have increased emphasis on kinetic operations—one-off strategic strikes by U.S. personnel as opposed to living with local forces.
The kinetic component of counterterrorism is essentially a manhunt. Continuing intelligence collection and analysis to understand the hierarchy and roles played by individual terrorist leaders is prerequisite to operations. Key figures become subjects of continuous surveillance over long periods of time to track their whereabouts at any given moment. That can lead to opportunities for a drone strike or the insertion of a specialized team, which requires its own specialized infrastructure—months of patient work culminating in a few minutes, even seconds on target. The 2011 killing of Usama bin Ladin in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is an example.
A key counterterrorism skill set that is relevant and should be honed further is the identification, mapping, and dismantlement of networks. For example, while the physical landscape and ‘actors’ are different, similar skills are needed to map out an al-Qa`ida cell in Pakistan and map out the specific activity of key vessels, state affiliated and proxy ones, utilized by China as part of its gray zone strategy in key areas of the South China Sea.
Information operations that seek to amplify or highlight fractures and inconsistencies in the ideals and behaviors of terror actors is another area where counterterrorism skills are transferable.
Rather than being a continuous, large-scale military campaign against enemy military forces, counterterrorism is a global campaign of thousands of tiny operations against an elusive foe. (The campaign against the Islamic State, which chose to defend territory, was an anomaly.) The operations are not sequential; there is no defined end-state beyond degrading and eventually disabling an organization—relentlessly pursuing its leaders and key personnel, preventing them from communicating, keeping them on the run, depriving them of an opportunity to assemble, cutting off their supply of weapons and sources of financing, discouraging their recruitment. Achieving “victory” in the traditional sense is not applicable.60
Operations must be conducted within the constraints imposed by tight rules of engagement while protecting friendly forces and supportive populations against terrorist attack. Counterintelligence capabilities depend heavily on human skills more than on weapons superiority, although capabilities for airstrikes and insertion are critical.
There are also deeper, critical but less obvious skills. All battle requires knowledge of the opposing forces, but none requires such detailed understanding of the enemy as counterterrorism—not just his military capabilities, but the terrorists’ political strengths, beliefs, mindset, and concepts of strategy—and the physical, social, and psychological terrain in which the terrorists operate.
In addition to leadership skills honed in combat under trying conditions, counterterrorism brings experience in dealing with complex, multi-level, and multidimensional conflict situations. Obtaining a profound understanding of the adversary, rapid exploitation of intelligence, adaptability to different situations and conditions, and the ability to develop innovative solutions are skills that are clearly fungible to near-peer warfare.
These are the readily observable parts of counterterrorism. Those involved in military operations over the last two decades no doubt will have different views of what they do and how they do it, as well as different ideas about their own skill sets. It would be useful to catalogue these, distill lessons learned, and identify best practices before memories dim and war stories take over. The objective is not to write a new counterterrorism manual, which would soon be out of date and might even inhibit creative thinking, but rather to capture a history that can inform and inspire how the United States might address future terrorist threats, which are almost certain to arise.
Those deeply involved in counterterrorism operations over the past two decades might also be able to offer very different perspectives on how the United States might fight future near-peer wars. Counterterrorist practitioners have learned, for example, that very small forces can be deadly, that large military formations, concentrations, and platforms are vulnerable, that possession of superior weapons does not guarantee military success, that military success does not always translate to political success, and that war is very much a matter of manipulating perceptions. How might these skills apply to challenges from Russia or China?
However, years of practice in dealing with insurgents and terrorists brings more than lessons learned through trial and error; it may alter how one thinks about the art of war itself. In both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, field experience overrides doctrine. In conventional warfare, doctrine carries greater weight. We fight fewer large-scale conventional wars; therefore conventional warfare doctrine derives from wars fought in the distant past or models of unfought wars. In contrast, counterterrorism doctrine derives from continuous operations and is constantly being amended.
The last time the United States fought a conventional war against true near-peer adversaries was in the Second World War—75 years ago (although some might argue it was against the Chinese in Korea 70 years ago). It is true that the First Gulf War and the opening weeks of the Iraq War involved conventional operations, but Iraq was a third-rate military power, hardly a near peer. While these engagements reflected the latest developments in weapons and information technologies, basic doctrine survived.
The U.S. military entered the “Global War on Terror” with no counterterrorism doctrine and virtually no experience. And as already discussed, it had deliberately all but erased its memory of counterinsurgency. What it knows now derives from experience. In the case of counterinsurgency, it had to recover its memory, but then apply it to completely different sets of circumstances. In the case of counterterrorism, it had to learn from scratch. This has great importance in the professional formation of officers and senior NCOs.
Conventional warfare doctrine reflects weapons systems, which have long lives. The arsenal of counterterrorism is human. I am using the term “conventional warfare” instead of near-peer warfare because I have already argued that future near-peer wars are likely to be multidimensional and include both conventional and unconventional components. We are likely to prepare for them from a more conventional warfare perspective. That could be a limitation.
There is no single counterterrorism or counterinsurgency experience; even a campaign in a single country often comprises a hundred little wars. Beyond specific lessons, those who have spent the better part of the last two decades in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency roles have the benefit of multiple and diverse experiences. It creates a mindset that looks at each new situation not from the standpoint of existing doctrine, but as a fresh problem to be solved. Constantly walking into new situations, they have learned to be nimble thinkers. They might, therefore, have completely novel approaches to current near-peer challenges.
Observation 7: Terrorism is changing, too
Counterterrorism is a continuously changing repertoire in response to a dynamic threat. As the terrorist threat evolves, strategy and tactics must change accordingly. The history of counterterrorism operations shows this evolution.
From the 1980s to the end of the 20th century, the United States used military power in response to state-sponsored terrorism—against Syrian and Druze positions in Lebanon in 1984 following the 1983 bombing of the American Marine barracks in Beirut, against Libya in 1986 in response to that country’s continuing support of terrorist operations against American targets, against Iranian targets in 1987 following an Iranian attack on U.S.-flagged vessels in the Persian Gulf, and against Iraq in 1993, after that country was allegedly involved in a plot to kill former President George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait. These were one-off operations in retaliation for terrorist attacks and intended to support U.S. diplomatic efforts to discourage state-sponsored terrorism. In response to the bombing of the 1998 American embassies in Africa, the United States more directly targeted terrorists, albeit ineffectually. Each of these responses was different. They were limited and mostly intended to send a message rather than cause serious military damage.
Since 9/11, the United States has conducted continuous military operations against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and irregularly in other parts of the world. Between 2014 and 2019, the United States conducted air operations and provided artillery support of Kurdish and Arab efforts to retake cities held by the Islamic State. Concurrent with these operations, there have been targeted killings of key terrorists. During the same time period, military forces have carried out a number of hostage rescues. The need for this specific capability will remain.
The counterterrorist campaign since 9/11 has been intense, global in scope, but (putting aside the invasion of Iraq) focused on a narrow set of jihadi foes connected with or issuing from those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The notion of expanding the “Global War on Terror” to include other terrorist foes—Hezbollah, for example—briefly came up during the more hubristic moments of the campaign, but efforts remained focused on those inspired by jihadi ideology. “Combating terrorism,” the term used for decades to encompass broader U.S. efforts against worldwide terrorism, continued as a parallel, but separate effort from the narrower campaign against al-Qa`ida and its jihadi spin-offs.
The jihadi threat is not the same as that confronted in 2001, and operations against other terrorist organizations are likely to be different. As a consequence of military operations and law enforcement efforts, the jihadi enterprise is now more decentralized. And it is more locally focused as its cadres and recruiters seek to establish new fronts, which they have been doing for 30 years.
No longer able to assemble and train thousands of recruits in Afghanistan, al-Qa`ida has been unable to coordinate large-scale strategic attacks at anything near the scale of 9/11. Instead, it relies on its affiliates, which are also hard pressed, and on exhortation via the internet to inspire homegrown terrorists to carry out attacks in its name.
The Islamic State was able to bring tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq to support its newly declared caliphate, but its leaders generally did not exhibit the same commitment that al-Qa`ida did to strategic strikes directed against the United States. The barrage of attacks in France and Belgium between 2014 and 2016 was a notable exception, though no evidence has emerged that the Islamic State’s then leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was personally involved in planning those operations in the way bin Ladin was with 9/11. However, the new leader of the Islamic State, who was previously al-Baghdadi’s deputy, led some of its global terrorist operations.61 It is not clear yet how he may alter the group’s trajectory.
The Islamic State destroyed itself in an ill-considered attempt to create a state and defend its territory in open battle against a vastly superior opponent. The caliphate, its principal achievement, ultimately became its graveyard. This implies no claim of strategic victory. The jihadi narrative remains a powerful draw to some, although there is often a myriad of personal reasons for this attraction. Both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State survive in the shadows and are capable of comebacks, but the current threat is different from what it was.
Jihadi groups continue to wage war in South Asia, the Middle East, across the Sahel, East Africa, increasingly in Mozambique. Jihadi groups are also active in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. That al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, or some new jihadi assemblage might set up shop in the wake of American withdrawals from Afghanistan or in new territory drives current counterterrorist concerns.
Meanwhile, the terrorist threat to the United States comes primarily from remotely inspired, but homegrown terrorists, who are less tethered to a central organization or even specific ideology. Their capabilities do not approach another 9/11, and that is progress. The worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, which killed 49. This event accounts for almost half of all of the jihadi-caused fatalities on U.S. soil since 9/11. Ironically, reducing the risk of large-scale terrorism has decreased American tolerance for any risk at all—even small-scale attacks provoke alarm and outrage at failures of security.
Other terrorist foes exist as potential threats on the horizon. Hezbollah, which has American blood on its hands from its terrorist operations in Lebanon in the 1980s and during the war in Iraq, has thousands of combatants, an impressive arsenal of rockets, and a global network engaged in drug trafficking, smuggling, money laundering, and other criminal activities. It has carried out terrorist activities in Europe, Asia, and South America.
Hezbollah has operatives in the United States as well;62 however, it is unlikely to take independent action against the U.S. homeland or launch an attack causing major loss of American lives. It would expose Hezbollah’s patron Iran to retaliation by the United States, which would suspect (or choose to presume) that such action would not take place without Iranian approval. From Tehran’s perspective, however, a small-scale terrorist attack could remind Americans of the trouble they will invite if the United States attacks Iranian interests.
A war with Iran would almost certainly provoke a sabotage and terrorism campaign carried out by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah adherents worldwide, and other Iranian assets including its proxies in Iraq and Yemen.63 Beyond these, there currently are no other identifiable terrorist organizations that have identifiable geographic bases and global reach. State sponsors may recruit local groups to act as proxies, but again, the risk of retaliation imposes constraints.
Lockdowns and restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic appear to have decreased the risk of terrorist attacks in non-conflict zones, according to the United Nations, but the Islamic State has increased its activity in the Middle East and Africa since the beginning of 2020.64 In addition to the immediate economic contraction, the pandemic may produce long-term economic stagnation. Some developing economies (those dependent on tourism or on certain commodities exports) may be particularly hard hit with increased unemployment and possible social unrest.65
The mass destruction scenarios that terrorists imagined and officials feared in the dark days immediately after 9/11 remain very remote possibilities, although they cannot be entirely dismissed. The pandemic has renewed concerns about bioterrorism.66 It is not that the pandemic gives terrorists new capabilities or points them to a new path they have not thought of before, but it has inspired a new cohort of political fanatics to think about how they might weaponize dangerous pathogens.67
We can only speculate how the coronavirus pandemic might affect American attitudes toward terrorism. Will the daily deaths of thousands of Americans—an experience that will last a generation—inure Americans to the far lesser body counts caused by terrorists in the years since 9/11? Does COVID-19’s higher toll end of the 9/11 era just as the carnage of World War I eclipsed the wave of anarchist terrorism that began in the 1880s? Or have the virus, the protests, the economic hardships, and the deep political divisions so scraped the nation’s nerves that even a minor attack will prompt unreasoning terror and fury?
The last several years have seen a resurgence of violence by ideologically-motivated terrorists, predominantly white nationalists, but also anarchist elements. Both of these dark streams are prevalent in American and European history. They widen or narrow according to economic and social stress. They are, however, loosely organized and lack geographic bases. The violent fringes share attitudes, but individuals operate autonomously. Galaxies rather than groups, they offer no targets for military operations. While potentially very dangerous, they pose more of a societal problem for political leaders and police to solve.
State governors can utilize the National Guard when necessary to maintain public order. Federal forces have, on occasion, been deployed to assist them in dealing with riots. In my view, the U.S. armed forces should avoid involvement in dealing with domestic terrorism. The current fraught political environment guarantees that any domestic military role in responding to terrorism will awaken suspicions that the armed forces are being used as an instrument of political oppression and could discredit the military institution itself.
There have been a number of discussions over the years about expanding the definition of terrorism to include drug traffickers or other transnational organized crime groups. This may have some statutory value to federal investigators, but it could also open the way for direct U.S. military involvement. The U.S. armed forces have carried out or supported military operations against insurgents and terrorist organizations that are also directly engaged in or benefit financially from drug trafficking—for example, the insurgents in Colombia, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, the Taliban, and Hezbollah. With these exceptions, combating transnational organized crime lies beyond counterterrorism and would represent a significant expansion of the military role. It should be viewed with extreme caution.
Concluding Observation: So where do we go?
We return to our original question: How will the United States conduct counterterrorism during an era in which great power competition has been defined as the number-one national security priority? Here are some final reflections and observations:
It is not the purpose of this essay to challenge the assumptions underlying the shift in priority from counterterrorism to near-peer warfare. Russia and China along with new technological developments pose threats that must be addressed. We cannot be certain what future wars will look like. However, we can say: The United States faces a broad spectrum of military challenges—both conventional and unconventional—and will need an array of capabilities to confront multiple modes and combinations of conflict, including terrorism.
The capability of the jihadis to mount large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States has diminished, and jihadis are currently more focused on local struggles, but they are resilient and opportunistic and remain a threat. A new situation could facilitate a comeback. State sponsorship could rapidly give them additional resources. A terrorist threat remains—there are powerful arguments against dismantling or discarding the military’s counterterrorist capabilities. Military operations will remain a component of counterterrorism, and counterterrorism will remain a component of military operations.
U.S. counterterrorism training to countries in rough neighborhoods of the world enhances local capabilities but also creates relationships and opens access to local intelligence and augments U.S. diplomatic influence. Counterterrorism assistance is a currency.
The current shift in focus to near-peer warfare seems unlikely to replicate the military’s purge of counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War. It will, however, mean less attention to counterterrorism. The war on terrorism has been the preoccupation of the military establishment since 2001—the only on-going war. A shift in mindset could result in counterterrorism being treated increasingly as a backwater.
Increasing constraints on defense budgets seem likely and will affect all plans. Counterterrorism operations will be a target of cuts, but expenditures for counterterrorism have already declined as the bombing and ground campaign to recapture territory seized by Islamic State has ended and U.S. troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq. Further cuts to counterterrorism will produce marginal savings.
Direct U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency abroad came about as a consequence of efforts to prevent further major foreign terrorist attacks in the United States. Counterterrorism drove us into counterinsurgency. This has been costly and is now being reduced.
Large-scale American deployments will likely be avoided. Future counterterrorism operations will likely be more narrowly focused, without engaging U.S. forces in counterinsurgency operations. Whether this can be done successfully is uncertain.
We have learned from experience to rely on indigenous forces assisted by small numbers of U.S. forces and backed by U.S. airpower. The campaign to destroy the Islamic State highlights the difference. The major U.S. contribution to counterterrorism worldwide today is training, technological assistance and the provision of equipment, special operations, drone strikes, and—when necessary—U.S. airpower.
Success in protecting the homeland against terrorism from abroad derives in part from a massive intelligence effort, which, in turn, has been assisted by unprecedented sharing of intelligence among security services and law enforcement organizations worldwide. This is a major achievement that requires continued cultivation. The willingness of many countries to share vital information about terrorism will require motivating partners with continued American involvement and assistance—often military—in dealing with the terrorist threats they face. The same relationships will be valuable in dealing with great power competitors.
Dividing the military into near-peer warfare and counterterrorism camps makes little sense. It is not either/or. Future near-peer wars may well involve a counterterrorist component as well as the orchestration of capabilities in other dimensions of conflict outside of the traditional battlespace. Almost certainly, it will require the special operations capabilities that have been honed in the counterterrorist campaign.
More importantly, the experience, skills, and attitudes acquired in counterterrorism are fungible and may provide unique and creative approaches to more conventional military contests.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and domestic protests have pushed terrorism off the top of the national news agenda, political leadership will likely remain cautious about troop withdrawals or any other visible reduction of U.S. counterterrorist capabilities, fearing that they could be blamed for any new terrorist attack. At the same time, politicians will likely be reluctant to commit U.S. forces to new deployments abroad.
Political leadership will likely be willing to continue, even intensify airstrikes and special operations to decapitate and/or place pressure on terrorist groups. There will be a willingness to strike back hard if the United States is attacked so long as it does not engage U.S. forces in another continuing campaign. Presidents in the future may prefer to retaliate with dramatic displays of force at a distance—a standoff approach to counterterrorism, which is understandable but will likely produce limited effects.
Continuing efforts to reduce the need to deploy U.S. troops by means of increasing local capabilities, advising and assisting local allies, and enlisting proxies will require traditional special forces skills—area knowledge, language, field diplomacy. It is closer to what special forces were doing in the 1960s and will be a specialized career path—not a career dead end. It provides an opportunity to utilize the vast skills of the United States’ immigrant population or to offer paths to citizenship for foreigners.
Counterterrorism was never predominately military. The critics are wrong. The role of the military was always limited to what other elements of counterterrorism could not do. Military force was employed where law enforcement could not operate, where persuasion failed, where diplomacy had little effect, where government authority was hostile or non-existent.
As the terrorist threat evolves, so will counterterrorism. There are basic principles, but no fixed doctrine. The past is a guide, but each major campaign is an ad hoc response to unique circumstances. This is true for all warfare, but especially for counterterrorism operations.
Direct participation by the armed forces in counterterrorism operations has declined. Only a handful of terrorist organizations pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. There may be no military role at all in responding to some of the new terrorist threats on the horizon. And the armed forces should be wary of being pulled into countering domestic ideologically-driven threats.
If recent history tells us anything, it is that the role played by the U.S. military in counterterrorism was driven by events—the emergence of al-Qa`ida from a progression of events in Afghanistan including the Soviet invasion; the Iranian revolution and takeover of the American embassy; chaos in Lebanon and a bombing in Beirut; Libya’s sponsorship of terrorist attacks on Americans; the 9/11 attacks; the Arab Spring; civil war in Syria; the rise of the Islamic State and collapse of the Iraqi army; the Islamic State’s advertised atrocities. Most of these were surprises, although some, like the turmoil created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, are consequences of our own making. Terrorism is the reflection of a volatile world. Events, not plans or preferences, will determine how much the United States will be able to shift or not shift resources away from counterterrorism and toward near peer competition. CTC
Brian Michael Jenkins is a former Green Beret and currently serves as Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation, where he initiated one the nation’s first research programs on terrorism in 1972. His books and monographs on terrorism include International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict Aviation; Terrorism and Security; Unconquerable Nation; Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?; The Long Shadow of 9/11; When Armies Divide; and The Origin of America’s Jihadists.
While the author alone is responsible for the views expressed in this essay, it benefited greatly from the thorough review and substantive suggestions provided by the CTC Sentinel’s editorial team and editorial board as well as from the helpful observations and comments by others, including General (Ret) Michael P. C. Carns and a number of former Special Forces officers.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of the Combating Terrorism Center, the United States Military Academy, or RAND.
© 2020 Brian Michael Jenkins
[a] Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, an author of the National Defense Strategy, includes North Korea and Iran in the near-peer problem sets. Jim Garamone, “National Military Strategy Addresses Changing Character of War,” U.S. Department of Defense, July 12, 2019. Both countries are named along with China and Russia.
[b] According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the United States spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. “U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries,” Peter G. Peterson Foundation, May 13, 2020.
[c] There are multiple ways to calculate the costs of the war on terrorism, which is a higher figure than military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. For just congressional appropriations for the wars, the figure was about $2 trillion in September 2019. See Emily M. Morgenstern, “Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status,” Congressional Research Service, R44519, September 6, 2019. The gold standard for these calculations is Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Neta C. Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion,” 20 Years of War, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University and The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, November 13, 2019. See also Leo Shane III, “Price tag of the ‘war on terror’ will top $6 trillion soon,” Military Times, November 14, 2018.
 “2018 National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense, 2018. Fulfilling a congressional mandate, the NDS replaced the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the full document itself is classified. The Department of Defense released an unclassified summary, which is what is cited here.
 Dave Majumdar, “America Reveals ‘Great Power’ Plans against Russia and China,” National Interest, February 3, 2016; Elbridge A. Colby, “Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Implementation of the National Defense Strategy,” January 29, 2019. See also Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Charlie Savage, and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift,” New York Times, December 24, 2019.
 “2018 National Defense Strategy.”
 “A View from the CT Foxhole: A Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and Counterterrorism with Audrey Kurth Cronin, Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata, Magnus Ranstorp, Ali Soufan, and Juan Zarate,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).
 Brian Michael Jenkins, The Unchangeable War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1970).
 Brian Michael Jenkins, “This Time is Different,” San Diego Union Tribune, September 16, 2001.
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 Seth Jones, Nicholas Harrington, Charles Vallee, Clayton Sharb, Hannah Byrne, and Danika Newlee, The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2018).
 “How the Islamic State Rose, Fell, and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb,” International Crisis Group Report 178, July 24, 2017; “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State.
 “Letter dated 19 May 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council,” United Nations, May 27, 2020.
 Lee Shane III, “Trump suggests US troop levels in Afghanistan could be cut in half by Election Day,” Military Times, August 4, 2020.
 Eric Schmitt, “Top General in the Middle East Say U.S. Troop Levels Will Drop in Iraq and Syria,” New York Times, August 12, 2020; Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne, “US announces troop drawdown in Iraq,” CNN, September 9, 2020.
 Christi Parsons and W.J. Hennigan, “President Obama, who hoped to sow peace, instead led the nation in war,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2017.
 Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Mapped: The Taliban’s Strongholds in Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy, August 30, 2017.
 “US sends 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan,” BBC, September 18, 2017.
 James F. Jeffrey, “Behind the U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2014; Tim Arango and Michael S. Schmidt, “Despite Difficult Talks, U.S. and Iraq Had Expected Some American Troops to Stay,” New York Times, October 21, 2011.
 Zack Beauchamp, “Trump’s ‘Obama founded ISIS’ comments are outrageous. They’re also deeply ignorant,” Vox, August 11, 2016; Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott, “Trump Cites Iraq Withdrawal He Passionately Supported To Say Obama ‘Founded ISIS,’” Buzzfeed, August 11, 2016.
 Matthew Nussbaum, “Trump calls for ground troops in Iraq, Syria,” Politico, March 10, 2016.
 Jennifer Wilson and Micah Zenko, “Donald Trump Is Dropping Bombs at Unprecedented Levels,” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2017; Christopher Woody, “Trump is ordering airstrikes at 5 times the pace Obama did,” Business Insider, April 4, 2017.
 Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Troop Withdrawal Upends Syria Policy, Leaving a Search for Solutions,” Wall Street Journal, updated October 15, 2019.
 Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan, and Michael Birnbaum, “Trump decided to leave troops in Syria after conversations about oil, officials say,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019.
 Katrina Manson, Chloe Cornish, and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Donald Trump threatens 52 targets if Iran takes revenge,” Financial Times, January 5, 2020.
 Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain, “U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan down to close to 8,600 ahead of schedule – sources,” Reuters, May 27, 2020; Jonathan Schroden, “Will the United States Really Go to Zero Troops in Afghanistan?” Lawfare, June 15, 2020.
 Robert Wright, “America’s Sovereignty In a New World,” New York Times, September 24, 2001.
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 Peter Baker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Obama Considers Strategy Shift in Afghan War,” New York Times, September 22, 2009.
 Mark Landler, “The Forerunner of Trump’s Plan for Afghanistan: Joe Biden’s,” New York Times, August 22, 2017; Max Fisher, “In White House, Biden Pushes Back on Afghanistan,” Atlantic, October 14, 2009; Peter Beinart, “How Biden’s Win on Afghanistan Policy Has Shaped Obama’s Arab Approach,” Daily Beast, August 21, 2013.
 Jonathan Allenjon, “Biden’s the dove and Hillary’s the hawk on foreign policy,” Vox, August 4, 2015.
 Baker and Bumiller.
 “Joint Publication 3-26, Counterterrorism,” Joint Chiefs of Staff, October 24, 2014.
 Joshua A. Geltzer, “Trump’s Counterterrorism Strategy Is a Relief,” Atlantic, October 4, 2018; Seth Loertscher and Nick Kramer, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Chris Costa, Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism,” CTC Sentinel 13:7 (2020).
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 Kelley M. Sayler, “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 46458, August 4, 2020. See also Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky, “Etched in Stone: Russian Strategic Culture and the Future of Transatlantic Security,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 8, 2020, and Forrest E. Morgan and Raphael S. Cohen, Military Trends and the Future of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020).
 David Brennan, “North Korean Ballistic Missiles Can Now Reach Anywhere in the U.S., New Military Report Confirms,” Newsweek, July 12, 2019.
 David Ignatius, “Think we have military primacy over China? Think again,” Washington Post, May 12, 2020; Ryan Pickrell, “The US has been getting ‘its ass handed to it’ in war games simulating fights against Russia and China,” Business Insider, March 8, 2019.
 Monica Wang, “China’s Strategy in Djibouti: Mixing Commercial and Military Interests,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 13, 2018; Sam Ellis, “Why China is building islands in the South China Sea,” Vox, February 17, 2017.
 Scott Lanman, “U.S. Budget Gap May Surge to $3.7 Trillion This Year, CBO Says,” Bloomberg, April 24, 2020; Joseph Zeballos-Roig, “The national debt tops $26 trillion for the first time as the federal government ramps up coronavirus relief spending,” Business Insider, June 14, 2020.
 Dan Egel, Howard J. Shatz, Krishna B. Kumar, and Edward R. Harshberger, “Defense Budget Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The RAND Blog, April 7, 2020.
 Neta C. Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion,” 20 Years of War, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University and The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, November 13, 2019.
 Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, RS21048, updated March 11, 2020.
 Christopher M. Blanchard and Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” CRS Insight, Congressional Research Service, R43612, updated September 25, 2018.
 Dan Gettinger, “Summary of Drone Spending in the FY 2019 Defense Budget Request,” Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, April 2018.
 Rachel Stohl, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy,” Stimson Center, 2018.
 Kyle Rempfer, “Here’s what the CENTCOM commander says about the possibility of Syria, Afghanistan withdrawals,” Military Times, June 10, 2020. See also Ben Connable, Weighing U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Iraq: Strategic Risks and Recommendations (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020).
 Niall McCarthy, “The Annual Cost Of the War In Afghanistan Since 2001 [Infographic],” Forbes, September 12, 2019.
 Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “French Military Says It Killed Top Qaeda Leader in Africa,” New York Times, June 6, 2020; Ryan Browne, “French military kills north African al Qaeda leader with US help,” CNN, updated June 6, 2020.
 Jason Warner, “A View from the Foxhole: Brigadier General Dagvin R.M. Anderson, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Africa,” CTC Sentinel 13:2 (2020).
 “Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics,” National Archives; Gerald W. Mayfield, “Vietnam War Amputees,” Orthopedic Surgery in Vietnam, Office of Medical History, U.S. Army Medical Department.
 Report of the DOD Commission On Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983).
 Jennie W. Wenger, Caolionn O’Connell, and Linda Cottrell, Examination of Recent Deployment Experience Across the Services and Components (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2018); “Military Health History Pocket Card,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2011.
 David Coleman, “U.S. Military Personnel 1954-2014,” History in Pieces.
 Wenger, O’Connell, and Cottrell.
 Author discussion with RAND senior economist Jennie Wenger, August 2020.
 Bruce Drake, “Veterans of Post-9/11 Wars Ambivalent about Whether Iraq Was Worth It,” Fact Tank, Pew Research Center, March 19, 2013.
 Amichay Ayalon and Ayal Hayut-man, Redefining Victory in the War on Terrorism: A Great Challenge to Democracies (July 2020).
 “Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla,” Rewards for Justice.
 Matthew Levitt, “‘Fighters Without Borders’—Forecasting New Trends in Iran Threat Network Foreign Operations Tradecraft,” CTC Sentinel 13:2 (2020).
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 Oscar Jorda, Sanjay R. Singh, and Alan M. Taylor, “Longer-Run Economic Consequences of Pandemics,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Working Paper Series, June 2020; United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The pandemic will worsen global inequality,” World Economic Situation and Prospects: May 2020 Briefing No. 137, May 1, 2020.
 J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Michael Washington, Stephen Hummel, and F. John Burpo, “Engineered Pathogens and Unnatural Biological Weapons: The Future Threat of Synthetic Biology,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020).
 Brian Michael Jenkins, “How the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd protests could give rise to terrorism,” Think, NBC News, August 16, 2020.