General Joseph L. Votel is a retired U.S. Army Four-Star officer and most recently the Commander of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for U.S. and coalition military operations in the Middle East, Levant, and Central and South Asia. During his 39 years in the military, he commanded special operations and conventional military forces at every level. His career included combat in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Notably, he led a 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State Caliphate. He preceded his assignment at CENTCOM with service as the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.
Votel graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1980. He is the Class of 1987 Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.
CTC: 9/11 shaped your service. You went on to serve as the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. You then led Special Operations Command. As the head of Central Command, you led the fight that liberated large areas of Syria and Iraq from the Islamic State. Can you talk us through how that day, 9/11, was for you, the sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the way you were able to contribute to the CT mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are some of the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable high and low points?
Votel: It’s a great question. Let me just start at the day of September 11th, and I think like many, it was shocking to see the images of that morning. At the time, I had just become the Ranger Regiment commander, only been in command for about a month, and there [was] this kind of disbelief in what I was seeing—trying to understand the confusion, shock of what was happening—but almost simultaneously, an instant recognition that everything was changing for us. And as we collectively gained this appreciation, not fully knowing where this was going to go, I think all of us in uniform knew that something had changed for all of us, and that this would change the direction of our organizations and the direction of our country for the foreseeable future. So a morning of initial confusion, but a moment of clarity afterwards that this attack on our nation had changed everything.
My participation after 9/11 started with our initial combat operations into Afghanistan in October of 2001, which I would describe as limited operations focused on disruption of the AQ Taliban leadership and the al-Qa`ida network. Over time, these limited operations gave way to actual campaigning. And, of course, we saw this not just in Afghanistan, but we saw it in Iraq after our incursion in 2003, and especially in the fall of 2003 when the insurgency really started to change things on the ground. Eventually, we were conducting large-scale, conventional counter-insurgency operations with integrated special operations capabilities while also sustaining unilateral CT operations throughout all of this period.
Along the line, we began to really focus in on targeted CT operations. One of the early challenges that I think we had—and I can remember talking about this with other commanders and with my higher-level commanders—is the idea of man hunting. How do we go about doing that? Al-Qa`ida represented this very unique, human-centered network that we had to go after, and we knew we had to identify the people and go after them. It really led us to a man-hunting approach, as we began to understand it better.
As well, we began to recognize the importance of partnerships, how we worked with different people—not only with our international partners but really within our own government—these campaigns really forced people to begin to work together. There were dichotomies between the Department of Defense’s CT approach and the intelligence community’s CT approach. And so those had to be reconciled over time, and these were issues that we grappled with for years. And, of course, all of this ultimately resulted in much better-defined CT strike policies, processes, and approaches that I think were largely very, very successful for us.
The one thing that I would share with you is that as somebody who was involved in this right after 9/11 and then really up through 2019 after the completion of the military campaign against the caliphate, our ability to work together, not just with other partners but really within our own government, just improved significantly. As I look back on it and then as I look forward, this is something that I hope we’re able to maintain; this was so important to us, and it presented our national leadership with such great capabilities, when we could all come together and leverage the unique capabilities that we had.
Along the way, there were high points and low points. For me, one of the high points was the campaign we prosecuted against the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I had a front row seat to that as the CENTCOM Commander. Just very, very proud of the way that we learned from our previous experience doing counterterrorism operations and brought them forward into this campaign. From a military standpoint, we did a very, very good job, and I think we accomplished what we were asked to do by the national leadership.
And, of course, there were lows along the way. Certainly all of us who have been involved in this for a long time have lost friends and others that we’ve served with. We’ve seen the impact on families and on individuals after repeated tours. And again, those are things that we’ll always continue to live with.
For me, I think the most difficult point came in August of 2011 and specifically in the early morning hours of August 6th when Extortion-17, a helicopter that was conducting an operation under my command, was shot down in the Tangi Valley and, with it the loss of 37 operators, Afghan partners, and crew members. This shootdown occurred in enemy-held terrain. It was a really, really difficult challenge for us. But even in that difficulty, I can point to the signs of increased cooperation and support from all of our partners on the battlefield. We had conventional forces that came to our assistance, literally helped us fight into that area and secure the location, so we could recover our fallen heroes from enemy-controlled terrain. And, of course, we had all the support we needed to get these heroes back into the arms of their families in the United States.
CTC: This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the daring counterterrorism operation that ended up killing Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. Over the past decade, as you well know, there has been a considerable amount of debate about the state of al-Qa`ida and the broader al-Qa`ida network, especially its capabilities, status, and ability to endure. What is your assessment of the United States’ campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa`ida and the nature of the threat posed by the group today? And what areas have the United States and its allies achieved some level of ‘success’ or ‘won’? In what areas has the United States performed less well with challenges still remaining? Given the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the late summer 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, what is your level of concern that al-Qa`ida may bounce back as a major threat to U.S. security?
Votel: This is also something which is important to reflect [on] and talk a little bit about as well. As I look at the campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa`ida, I do believe we’ve had a large amount of success against them. We’ve certainly been successful in disrupting and suppressing this network over a long period of time; we’ve prevented places like Afghanistan, a variety of other places from being platforms from which al-Qa`ida could continue to pursue their externally focused attack plans against the United States and other Western powers. It hasn’t been absolute in terms of that and there have been certainly some external attacks that have taken place and certainly some attempts that have taken place since 9/11, but certainly nothing on the scale of what we saw on 9/11. And largely over the last number of years, their external capabilities have been really diminished to a degree that we have the ability to keep them in check at this particular point. So, I think we’ve been successful from that standpoint.
Where we have not been as successful is in addressing the underlying issues and reasons for the rise of organizations like al-Qa`ida. This still exists. I mean, we saw this in spades in 2011, 2012, 2013 with the emergence of ISIS in the Levant and the impact that that organization had, and while they started out maybe loosely aligned with al-Qa`ida, they sprung off in a different and much more violent direction. So the underlying reasons that give rise to organizations like al-Qa`ida, a lot of those still remain. We still have challenges with areas of no or poor governance. We still have corruption. We still have disenfranchisement of populations. We still have a problem with education and employment. We have disparities in terms of the economics in many of these areas. All of these things are the underlying reasons that create great motivation for people to seek organizations like this. It was always interesting to me when we were trying to learn about ISIS that what ISIS basically did for the people that came to it [is] it provided them a job, it provided them belonging, and it provided them a family. Now, the way they went about that certainly wasn’t in any way to be admired, but they were addressing basic needs of these people that were moving to the areas where ISIS was operating, and that still exists. We have to be very, very concerned about it.
In places like Syria, you have these large encampments where we are holding ISIS fighters, where we are holding ISIS families, and I think in all of this are the seeds that are going to germinate the next terrorist group that we’re going to deal with. And so, we have got to see this through. It’s more than just military pressure. We’ve got to do more with our partners to address these underlying issues that contribute to this particular problem.
The images of the last few weeks have been very disturbing. I’m disappointed and angry that our departure from Afghanistan is coming without achieving our strategic objectives and with an apparent level of humiliation that will have strategic effects for a while. As the CENTCOM Commander, I was really focused on trying to create the conditions for reconciliation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Of course, that has not been achieved, and the Taliban is back in power. I can’t help but think that this will come back to haunt [us] and at the worst possibly will require that we respond with military power. With the Taliban’s strategic alliance, I think the conditions are very, very favorable for a resurgence of al-Qa`ida and other groups in Afghanistan. Vacuums are always going to be filled, one way or the other. In this case, I think we have to recognize that there’s a very real possibility that these groups will rise again.
The threat from terror organizations will remain. We have to continue to look at ways that we keep pressure on these networks, directly or indirectly. We have to be concerned about these ungoverned spaces and trying to address the voids that they create that allow organizations to arise out of this. And we’ve got to look at our partners, and we’ve got to get long-term, sustainable approaches in place to help them secure themselves with modest assistance and support from us. So I am concerned about this. We made some progress in this. We worked well with our intelligence community partners against al-Qa`ida, and I think we’ve largely nullified their external threat capability for the time being, but again, these organizations can come back. And if we take our thumb off them for too long, I believe that they will.
CTC: To follow up further on the subject of CT evolution, over the past 20 years, the United States has developed an impressive array of investigative expertise, new tools, methodologies like F3EAD,a operational capabilities, and partnerships such as the global coalition to counter ISIS that have been integral to the CT fight. Over that same span of time, the United States has successfully prosecuted many terror offenders and also demonstrated its ability to deploy new or enhanced capabilities and tools tactically and operationally around the world in precise and impactful ways. How would you describe the evolution of U.S. CT over the past two decades? What stands out to you? When you think about the future of U.S. CT over the next five to 10 years, what does that picture look like?
Votel: I think there’s a variety of things that we learned over time that really improved our approach to counterterrorism operations. Certainly the idea of a network to fight a network was a really important recognition. It took us a little bit of time to figure that out, but once we did, we recognized this isn’t just about going after fighters; it’s about going after the leadership, it’s about going after the finance, it’s about going after the media aspect. It was about going after the other external support resources that enable these organizations, and ultimately, it’s about taking away the terrain that allows them to plot, prepare, and operate from. So it’s multi-dimensional, and we have to make sure that our full network of partners and capabilities is leveraged. This was really a fundamental thing for us to understand.
But, of course, there were a variety of other things: the integration with our interagency partners, in particular with the intelligence community, and with our very, very good partners as well, was absolutely key. We developed a number of ways and techniques that we could work better together, integrated in new operations, and we managed to get over our concerns with who was getting credit and who [was] going to take responsibility for doing actions. And we began to look more at how we leverage the inherent strengths of each of the various partners: what the U.S. military brought, what our intelligence community brought to this, what our international partners brought to this.
When I came back into Iraq—I had been there in 2003 and then stepped out for a couple years—I was surprised by the proliferation of interagency task forces and JIATFs [Joint Interagency Task Forces] and entities that we created that were designed to bring people together. These were really, really important developments along the way. And, of course, technology played a big role here. I can remember being in the JOC [Joint Operations Command] in 2001, and we had like one Predator [drone] supporting our operations and we were relying heavily on national intelligence means and imagery, depositories that we could call back on to get pictures that were taken in the past. When you look at it now, it was absolutely prehistoric in terms of some of the things that we were doing. But if you just look at drone technology and how that evolved over the course of the last 20 years, I think that’s a really good way of looking at how we have moved this forward—the proliferation of these, the adding of sophisticated ISR pods and capabilities on them, the integration of fire support platforms on them, and then being able to work those in unmanned-manned operations, and really ultimately creating, as General McChrystal’s described, the ‘unblinking eye,’ that really gave us this very, very distinct advantage as we conducted our operations.
Our drive for technology has only increased over time, and when you look at cyberspace, you look in the information space, and you see we’ve continued to move forward in these areas. These have all been really great developments that helped our CT effort. They’ve more broadly helped our overall national security approach and made us safer as a nation because we’ve harnessed these things. We’ve begun to understand, and we certainly have a long ways to go, but we generally have done really, really, really well in this.
We’ve learned how to partner better. We’ve made mistakes in this area in terms of taking on too much, taking on too little, trying to create forces in our own image as opposed to trying to really reinforce their inherent cultural strengths. This is one of the things that I think I’m most proud of about the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not only with the Iraqis the second time around; we [were] really about building them back up and getting them out there to fight. We didn’t try to over-organize them. We let them fight the way that they did, and we provided them the necessary support and advice. We helped them rebuild after their collapse. But if you look across the border into Syria, what we did with the Syrian Democratic Forces is a real maturing of how we looked at partnered operations. The ‘by, with, and through’ approach that we applied with them really represented the high point of our learning about how we most effectively partner with people on the ground. And then understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of that. The fact that they own this after the operations: this is a great strength that we built into this approach. It also means that they’re going to control the timeline, they’re going to have a vote in this, and they’re not going to do things exactly the way we might do them as U.S. or Western forces, but that’s OK, we can work through that. So this idea of partnering is another area where we’ve seen a lot of improvement, and all of these things have not only improved our CT approach, but they’ve really helped in other areas of our military security operations and made us better as a military, and hopefully will help us as we continue to move forward and address the threats of today.
But CT is not going away, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to deal with in the future. There are a lot of things we’ve got to get our head around. I recently traveled to Israel; I was there just a couple of weeks after the latest Gaza flare-up. I had a lot of opportunities to talk to our Israeli partners there about that, and I was quite struck with how they are now integrating artificial intelligence into their operations and the impact that that is having on their targeting cycles and their ability to generate usable information that makes them more effective and at the same time I think helps them conduct operations with greater care to collateral damage. It’s never going to be perfect in terms of this, but this was certainly foremost in their minds as they were conducting these operations.
As we move forward, how we deal with the large amounts of data out there, the information that is available from so many sources, the so-called publicly available information, is going to be an area we will continue to contend with. I do think one of the other areas we have to pay attention to is our global reconnaissance. One of the concerns that I have as we pull back from places like Afghanistan and maybe a little bit more from Iraq and other places where we have dealt with terrorist threats is that we will lose sustained visibility into those areas.
So I do think the future will be dominated by those who understand it the best, whether it is through publicly available information sources, managing large data, or whether it is the ability to see and understand what is happening in areas so that it preserves our decision space and informs our policy choices. To me, these are the areas that we will need to be thinking about in the future as we continue to contend with more sophisticated terrorist threats. I think as we have learned, they have learned as well. And we should expect that they’re going to become more sophisticated, and so we will need to work hard to stay a step ahead of them as we continue on in our counterterrorism efforts.
CTC: It’s been said there was a “failure of imagination” to anticipate the threat that materialized on 9/11 and today at a time of ongoing, transformative technological change in fields such as synthetic biology, drones, and artificial intelligence, and as the United States emerges from a global pandemic that has renewed concern over biological threats, what are the potential threats from terror groups and non-state actors that most concern you over the next 10 years?
Votel: Certainly the pandemic has redefined for all of us how we think about things like weapons of mass destruction, when you see the impact that a virus can have, not just on our population but literally around the globe, and the impact that it has economically, socially, culturally, politically in all of these countries. Observant adversaries looking at this have got to be thinking, ‘How do we exploit this going forward?’ as they watched not just the United States, but literally every country around the world struggle with how they dealt with a virus like this.
I’m thinking very hard about this particular question right now, and it would be great to be able to tell our listeners that, ‘Yes, I think we’re going to see terrorists go this direction or we’re going to see them move more towards biological things or more towards this particular type of attack.’ But I don’t know that it is that clean. I think what terrorist organizations have probably learned over the course of the last 20 plus years is that there are a variety of tools that are available to them, and their approaches may be trying to combine these to create the greatest overall effect—the death of a thousand cuts, so to speak. It forces you to pay attention to it, to divert resources when you really want to be someplace else. Or [it forces you to] make hard decisions not to apply forces or other elements of national power. This is what concerns me.
We’ve seen in our own country and other places: attacks on infrastructure and the impact that that can have on economies and politics.
We’ve seen the impact of large refugee moves. Anybody who isn’t heartbroken by watching the images that we saw in 2013, 2014 of thousands of people exiting Syria in search of some place to be safe and the chaos that that created in Europe and in all the countries along the way there and the death toll that took place. It is playing [out] in Kabul as we speak.
We’ve seen the impacts of kidnapping and hostage-taking. When you look back at our own counterterrorism capability, it is through readiness for these missions that we really developed some of our most exquisite capabilities. That is still, I think, a real significant concern for us as we move forward.
We’ve seen the impact of cyber ransomware. I don’t know exactly what we’re seeing with some of these ransomware attacks that take place, but in most cases, it looks like they’re organizations that are principally financially motivated. What happens when effective ransomware capability falls into the hands of those who are ideologically motivated, not financially motivated? This to me represents a different threat.
And, of course, just attacks on U.S. interests in a variety of different areas—whether it’s our embassies, whether it’s our people, whether it’s our economic vitality in overseas locations, these things are all vulnerable.
So the picture that I’m trying to paint for you here is that I think what we have to think about in the future is that the terrorist organizations will look at the things that have been successful in the past and has caused disruption to the United States and other Western countries.
We have to look at how they may combine these things to actually achieve this death of a thousand cuts, presenting us with multiple dilemmas that require different responses to safeguard our own people and protect our own interests. This is what I’m really, really concerned about as we move forward and as we necessarily shift to our strategic competition with China. We have to be prepared to address the CT threat as well. What we should expect is a more sophisticated enemy who is going to apply a variety of approaches and strategies—not just IEDs and physical attacks—to disrupt our way of life and our interests.
CTC: What is the most important personal lesson that you have learned that you think would be helpful for the many men and women in the United States and our partner countries around the world who will lead and take part in the next generation of counterterrorism efforts?
Votel: One of the things that we have to really appreciate, particularly as we watch what’s happening in Afghanistan right now, is the limits of our military capabilities and our military effort. There’s no doubt we have the greatest military in the world, and perhaps the greatest military that has ever walked the face of the earth, but even with that, without being able to bring other things to bear, we can’t be as successful as we want to be. I think it’s important that we understand the limits of military power as we step forward and recognize that none of this gets done just by the military. It takes diplomats, it takes economic work, it takes the power of our information and our ideas to do this, it takes partners that we leverage along the way to do all of this. And all of this needs to be wrapped together in a coherent, long-term strategy that transcends presidential administrations. Frequent changes in policy and strategy not only complicate military efforts but they also weaken our overall approach, confuse our partners, and make it difficult to preserve our interests.
Corollary to all this is sorting out our approach to partnership. Over the last several years, we have sent confusing signals to our partners on the ground and in capitals around the world. We simply are better when we have a long list of allies and partners.
CTC: In the face of competing strategic priorities, including the geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia, and rebuilding at home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can the United States ensure that it maintains a long, sustained focus on the global jihadi threat as it also seeks to prioritize other challenges with the continued rise of countries like China?
Votel: First off, I think it’s important to make sure that we maintain our capabilities, some very exquisite capabilities we have. We have to have the ability to respond quickly. This is something that’s really been a cornerstone of our counterterrorism operations for a long period of time, and we have to maintain that. We can’t think that this is something we’re not going to deal with in the future, even as we begin now to necessarily move our focus to strategic competition with China. We have got to maintain our exquisite CT capabilities. That doesn’t mean everything that we have in the inventory needs to be maintained right now. It means there needs to be a very thoughtful look at the capabilities that we have, the benefits they are providing to us, and then the maintenance and the sustaining of those things going forward. And that’s both platforms and organizations that we’ve developed over time. I think this is a big challenge for U.S. Special Operations Command in the future. There is a real need for special operations capability in strategic competition. SOF is going to need to come to grips with how it provides capabilities for both CT and strategic competition. And it will mean that we have to not only have the support of our leadership in the Department of Defense and across the administration, but also in Congress. We’ve got to make sure we’re very clear-eyed about these threats and what it takes to address them, and that the maintenance of high-quality capability is the surest way that we can address these things quickly and effectively as we move forward. So, first and foremost is making sure we maintain the right capabilities.
Second of all, I think we’ve got to look at our security cooperation programs, particularly in places like the Middle East. It’s been my view that as we begin to draw down in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places and we have less of a physical military footprint on the ground, security cooperation programs become more important. These are the touchpoints with our partners out there, and we have some really great examples of it out there. They’re much more economical. It is an economy of effort, so to speak, but what you can do with hundreds of troops that support security cooperation programs can offset the need for thousands to be present. And so we have to look at our security cooperation programs and make sure that these become the cornerstone of our approach in places like the Middle East, Levant, Central/South Asia where we won’t have large forces on the ground any longer but where we will still have U.S. interests that we’ll have to address, and I think the security cooperation programs give us the best platform for doing this. They’re naturally linked to the ambassador, and they bring along the full power of the U.S. country team, and I think that’s an important aspect of it. And so, I really think we have to look at how security cooperation gets done: how we make decisions about selling or providing equipment to our partners, making sure we give them what they need and not just what they want, and then putting the onus on them to achieve the capability to look after their own security interests. And then very closely related to that is the development of our partnership capabilities out there.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe we’ve taken a hit in our partnership approach over the last couple of years with some of our policy decisions and stepping back in some areas, in some cases leaving our partners who have fought and bled for us in the lurch. We should look at that and how we begin to build that back to make sure that we can be viewed as a very reliable partner in the future. This is incredibly important. In a place like the Middle East where I’ve spent most of my time, every country I went to wants to be aligned with the United States; they want to have a strong relationship. Good security cooperation programs are a key ingredient to partnership. When we look at things like CT, we’ve also had some very good, very small programs in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Jordan, and a variety of other places where we worked with host nation and indigenous CT forces with a very finite U.S. footprint. These are highly effective programs, and we need to continue to preserve these kinds of authorities and approaches as we move forward. These will pay off for us in the long run.
It’s been said, I think by leaders down at U.S. Special Operations Command recently, that combating terrorism is a form of strategic competition. Being good at this, demonstrating our value to partners in this particular area, building relationships around this is really important. And I think there are direct and perhaps maybe even indirect ways that we support the overall great power competition approach that we are taking about, and I think that’s how we have to look at it. We’ve been talking a lot about the Middle East because that’s my experience, but if you look out in the Pacific and you look at parts of Africa, other parts of the globe, this threat of terrorism is ever present, and this is an area where we have some great capabilities and we have some proven success, particularly at the operational level. And partners want to learn from us. Just look at the proliferation of special operations forces by our international partners. I mean, this is the surest sign that they appreciate and value what we’ve been able to do for ourselves with that. This is something we should be building on as we move forward. And so I actually look at combating terrorism as another way to compete and another way to demonstrate our own value and influence—not just in the Middle East, but in a variety of areas.
CTC: Do you have any further thoughts that you might like to add for our readers?
Votel: With the developments in Afghanistan over [recent] weeks, I think we are at a strategic inflection point. Our entire national security enterprise needs to take a serious look at strategy, partnerships, and strategic communication to the American people and our partners and adversaries abroad. I think we lack coherence right now, and it is undermining our national security interests.
I would also add that recently many people have asked me “Have our efforts been worth it over the last 20 years?” And what I would say is, “Yes, they have been.” Afghanistan may not have turned out the way we wanted it to turn out, but it’s not been used as a platform to attack our countries or our friends and allies. We have done a good job of suppressing these terrorist threats out there. We provided the Afghan people with hope and opportunity—and a knowledge that there is a better life for them. The fact that things have not turned out as we wished does not diminish the service and sacrifice of many of whom answered the nation’s call and served honorably and nobly in a variety of causes.
I still remember the feeling getting onto an MC-130 as we were getting ready to parachute into Afghanistan in October of 2001 and the feeling of pride of every Ranger that we were doing something right and good for our country. I think it’s important that we never lose sight of why we did all this; it was for a noble purpose. CTC
[a] “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate (F3EAD), pronounced “F-three-e-a-d” or “feed,” is a version of the targeting methodology utilized by the special operations forces (SOF) responsible for some of the most widely-publicized missions in support of overseas contingency operations.” “F3EAD: Ops/Intel Fusion ‘Feeds’ the SOF Targeting Process,” Small Wars Journal, January 31, 2012.