How the US can balance counterterrorism and the great power competition

CENTCOM/Michael West


This month’s successful raid on Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al- Qurayshi represents a surgical counterterrorism operation in the middle of a broader great-power competition with Russia and China.  

Counterterrorism and great-power competition is not a viable either-or national security choice: The United States can do both. The revisionist powers of Russia and China are aggressively challenging the U.S., and those malign influences must be countered in ways short of war.  

In military jargon, counterterrorism is an economy of force, while great-power competition is the main effort. If Syria is a strong example of working on two U.S. national security priorities simultaneously, over-the-horizon capabilities for counterterrorism in Afghanistan — which likely rely upon resources such as, very limited reliance on satellites, U-2s, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), for the foreseeable future — contrastingly fall short. For example,  ISIS-K can compete there, al-Qaida can rebuild and in terms of great-power competition, the U.S. ceded the field for another yet-to-be-written chapter in Afghanistan’s long history in the Great Game for influence in the region. 

When I departed the National Security Council in 2018, I was deeply concerned that a pivot of U.S. attention and resources to an era of great-power competition may lead to long-term setbacks for U.S. counterterrorism goals. In light of recent operations against ISIS in Syria, I remain optimistic that the U.S. can balance both tasks. I’m less sanguine for Afghanistan, where the U.S. left no one on-the-ground and plenty of political space for Russia, China and Iran to fill the vacuum.  

To answer counterterrorism challenges in so-called ‘grey zones’ — areas that conduct hostile actions such as disinformation and influence campaigns that fall short of actual conflict — Syria is a good template. In Syria, the U.S. employed a small footprint of its Special Operational Forces capabilities to achieve counterterrorism successes, with support from foreign partners like the Syrian Democratic Forces. With human sources on the ground and surveillance platforms above, U.S. Special Operational Forces flawlessly executed an 800-mile raid to accomplish its mission against al-Qurayshi.   

To put a finer point on it, ISIS in Syria was not defeated in 2018, nor is it defeated today, which means U.S. counterterrorism pressure must continue. The Islamic State can still initiate opportunistic terrorist operations. This is a predictable evolution from a terrorist insurgency to a more dispersed underground terrorist network. Syria may well be the first of many future Cold War-like challenges that will play out for the U.S. globally. There, the U.S. waged a multi-year counterterrorism campaign against ISIS while the Assad regime was — and still is — actively supported by Moscow’s intelligence services.  

If the al- Qurayshi raid in Syria stands out as how counterterrorism operations can be executed — even while Russia competes in the same geographical space — it raises the question of what more can be done on both counterterrorism and great-power competition in Afghanistan.  

On counterterrorism, launching a unilateral U.S. Special Operational Forces raid into Afghanistan to go after terrorists is a low probability — for presumed political reasons — as well as practical risks to the mission. The absence of any base of operations inside Afghanistan means that U.S. lines of communication would be stretched and, in turn, potentially untenable for a raid that would have to come from as far away as the Persian Gulf. On the question of great-power competition in Afghanistan, at least in the short term, there is little to be done because the U.S. has left the field.

It’s worth recalling that the first major counterterrorism operation in the Trump administration took place in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when U.S. military forces had to operate in a hostile territory from an offshore platform. The dangers of a similar raid-based approach to gathering intelligence and going after terrorists in a hostile Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban would entail too many risks. Second, the U.S. can rely on episodic drone strikes, but during the last U.S. drone strike before American troops withdrew from Afghanistan 10 civilians died. Still, armed drones remain an option but risks to civilian casualties must be factored into any decision to employ lethal strikes. 

 As former CIA officer and colleague, Doug London has rightly pointed out, “it’s more about how limited intelligence collection and the absence of a local partner offer little by way of lethal solutions with sufficient certainty as to striking who or what we think.” That’s the quixotic challenge of over-the-horizon intelligence capabilities in a nutshell. 

Regardless, the United States can potentially enable on-the-ground intelligence networks to support future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Call this over-the-horizon plus local partners. One such opportunity is to work with the National Resistance Front, which is mostly made up of the remnants of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. But working with any resistance group is a major policy decision that may have to be made depending on how the terrorist threats evolve in Afghanistan, or if the United States decides on a future humanitarian intervention with U.S and partner boots-on-the-ground.  

Any way you look at it, over-the-horizon capabilities must be complemented by human intelligence and a reliable local partner. Getting that right is crucial because great-power competition is converging in other places like Mali, for example, where Islamist terrorists are filling vacuums in the same space that Russian mercenaries operate.

 Meanwhile, Ukraine is the immediate front-burner issue for the Biden administration, which is responding to a Russian-manufactured war there. This is a new era of muscular geopolitical competition that will test U.S. capacities to do both counterterrorism and great-power competition in places where Russia will play the role of spoiler.  

Christopher P. Costa, the executive director of the International Spy Museum and a former career intelligence officer, was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018. 

Tags Aftermath of the September 11 attacks Al-Qaeda Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism international terrorism Islamic State Military National security War in Afghanistan

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