Who Says the Best Counterterrorism Strategy Doesn’t Lead with the Military? That would Be… The Military

There is a clear consensus emerging from our top military leaders:  effective counterterrorism requires a whole-of-government – not exclusively military – approach.

At congressional hearings over the past two weeks regarding force posture and budgeting for the coming fiscal year, senior commanders of the U.S. Armed Forces have spoken out in favor of a counterterrorism strategy that is not dominated by extrajudicial killings and a perpetual war footing. General after general has argued that that exclusively kinetic policies (military-speak for killing bad guys) are not sufficient, and may in fact be harmful to American national security interests. General Lloyd Austin, Commander of U.S. Central Command, summed it up:  “the threat cannot be eliminated simply by targeting individuals.” As a career military intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy with combat tours in Iraq and deployments with U.S. Special Operations Command, I couldn’t agree more.

Admiral William McRaven, current Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, (and my former boss), knows a little something about counterterrorism; he was the chief strategic architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Testifying in front of the House Armed Services Committee on February 27, Admiral McRaven argued that building the capabilities and capacities of partners abroad “is our best counterterrorism asset” because “no nation alone can stem the rise of extremism.” Advocating a more nuanced counterterrorism strategy, he added that “a whole-of-government effort is required to be successful.”

Speaking to the same committee a week later, General David Rodriguez of U.S. Africa Command praised international cooperation as the key to disrupting the activity of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. The Commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, responded to a question about the violence in Iraq by explaining that “a major part of the solution would be political,” using advisory capacity as well as diplomatic pressure to urge Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to govern in an inclusive and accountable manner rather than alienating the Sunni minority.

In a similar hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 6, General Rodriguez argued that “leveraging strategic communications and military information support operations as non-lethal tools” to push back against extremist rhetoric was a critical component of the long-term strategy for counterterrorism. General Austin echoed this concept, saying that “To defeat an idea, you need a better idea.”

This entire line of reasoning – advanced by career generals and admirals who are apolitical figures and national security experts – drives to a single conclusion: the future of counterterrorism relies on a robust, whole-of-government strategy. Kinetic action may well be necessary in some cases, but policymakers must strive to be more proactive and less reactive in how we counter threats abroad. Rather than agitating for increased war authorities or widening the conflict, leaders in Congress should heed the judgment of our most decorated and capable military leaders and work to develop a well-rounded, long-term, and comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.


Published on March 7, 2014


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