It is an undeniable fact that the U.S. military has been gradually shifting its focus from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to near-peer threats, such as China and Russia. Navy SEALs have been practicing with increased frequency in the Pacific in anticipation of a potential conflict with the former. Special Forces teams are rotating more frequently in Europe, training alongside allied and partner nations to address the latter. Yet there are some in the foreign policy, defense, and intelligence communities who argue that the future will still be rife with counterterrorism operations such as those against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Shabaab.
Earlier in July, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a panel that debated the future of American foreign policy and military operations. Two members of congress with military and intelligence backgrounds presented their views on the topic.
Representative Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said, “I worry that the pendulum is going to swing too far away from counterterrorism, and we’ll lose those valuable lessons learned, as we did after Vietnam. I can almost imagine the champagne popping in the defense industrial base because now we can get back to our comfort zone of building bombers and tanks and aircraft carriers. Having special operators learn languages doesn’t create a lot of jobs in middle America.”
Rep. Waltz served more than 20 years in the Army as an infantry and Special Forces officer. He completed numerous combat rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he led the on-the-ground search-and-rescue operation for Private Bowe Bergdahl. He is Ranger qualified.
Although some are bound to argue that Rep. Waltz is favoring his own tribe, he brings up solid points about the future of U.S. counterterrorism operations. History shows that low-intensity conflicts are more probable than an all-out war with Russia in Eastern Europe or a clash with China in the South China Sea.
Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA operations officer, echoed Rep. Waltz’s concerns. She went on to argue that there is often a misunderstanding of what the term “counterterrorism” means for U.S. forces. “Sometimes the conversation about our counterterrorism efforts is about stopping terrorists from attacking us. But our counterterrorism efforts are so much more than that. Like with Yemen, like with Syria, the list goes on, Afghanistan, Iraq, East Africa, it’s the destabilization that these terrorist organizations are able to create that is a much broader, long-term strategic threat.”
The above definition allows for prioritizing counterterrorism operations, as it suggests an almost never-ending process of identifying, targeting, and eliminating terrorist networks. Such rationale, however, could become dangerous; a solid counterterrorism strategy ought to incorporate foreign internal defense and partner nation support, otherwise it becomes an endless game of whack-a-mole.