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Nothing New with the 2018 Counterterrorism Strategy

Seventeen years after launching attacks in Afghanistan, the United States is in a quagmire of not only trying to win the war but also defining concisely its purpose, goals, and outcomes for the global war on terrorism (GWOT). A war against a tactic — terrorism — does not enable a military or political solution without a definition of the root causes and grievances. The semantics of an ill-conceived strategy has hampered any new thinking to resolve these conflicts.

On Oct. 4, the Trump administration’s National Security Council released the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT) claiming to “set forth a new approach.” The 25-page document is not new by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the NSCT is a continuation of Bush and Obama’s efforts in counterterrorism with a stark reminder that “we are a nation at war — and it is a war that the United States will win.”

The NeoCon(text)

The NSCT is the product of an “America First foreign policy” announced by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017, which continues under his successor Mike Pompeo. It emphasizes national sovereign interests as opposed to outstanding multilateral commitments to resituate U.S. national security, economic and geopolitical interests. Proponents of this perspective have historically resided in the GOP neoconservative faction, whose heavy hitters like Jeane Kirkpatrick have often said, “There cannot be an adequate foreign policy without an adequate defense policy.”  

Neocon thinkers and strategists, steeped in anti-communist, anti-socialist, open-market capitalism, promulgated the GWOT in Afghanistan and Iraq not only to reverse the rise of al Qaeda and topple the Taliban government but also to secure U.S. geopolitical and economic interests against Russia and China. The reverse happened. With massive policy failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s increasing influence from Lebanon to Afghanistan, the spread of ISIS franchises in more than 16 countries, and the loss of Syria to Russia and China, the NSCT is another lame effort to assert a muscular agenda.

John Bolton, currently the National Security Advisor and former ambassador to the United Nations for George W. Bush, is the architect of the NSCT. The document purports to be a strategy against threats to the homeland, including transnational terrorism and Iran— “the most prominent state sponsor of global terrorism, through its network of operatives and its ongoing support to an array of terrorist groups.”  

The NSCT emphasizes neoconservative idealism, excessive nationalistic affirmations of defending America’s borders, allies, and interests abroad, and a dependence on back-to-the-future policy aspirations. Being a leading neoconservative policy maker in the Trump administration, Bolton fortified the NSCT with counterterrorism “strategies” which will “harness the full span of U.S. power and use every available tool to combat terrorism at home, abroad, and in cyberspace.”

Back to the Future

Let’s recall President George W. Bush’s national security team: John Negroponte, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Gen. Tommy Frank. Their “Operation Freedom” in Afghanistan – and other war plans – marketed terrorists as a destructive group blindly following a totalitarian ideology that fuels violent radical “Islamic movements.” There are no social, political, economic, or geopolitical grievances – just an ideology that needs to be obliterated.

The NSCT is drenched with similar ideological references to a radical Islamism committed to destruction. It reminds us, again, that the world is filled with evil and good forces; “the U.S. — forever the sentinel of democracy and freedom — will prevail over terrorism. … American strength remains a lasting force for good in the world.”  Of course, what better place to reinforce America’s saintly nature than in a national counterterrorism strategy document?

In a Jan. 31, 2018 AEI article, Bolton emphasized the move from a “strategy of tactics” to a new strategy of innovation. The NSCT reflects Bolton’s treatise on utilizing American power without reservation. However, with massive research literature in the fields of counterterrorism, conflict studies, and countering violent extremism available, why did the Trump administration’s NSCT return to 2001-2005 strategies that were a colossal failure?  

Here and Now

The NSCT’s supporters promote the idea that it formulated and integrated “all instruments of power,” but it did not actually design a new counterterrorism strategy. It is applying DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic) efforts to combat insurgencies or terrorist organizations.

The kinetic-military approach to destroying terrorism that is over-emphasized in the NSCT could, according to a Georgetown Security study, have lasting psychological effects beyond the battlefield. Moreover, the NSCT strategy will not tackle the institutional power and attractive presence of radical extremist movements and the mini-societies they construct for their fighters.

A noticeable use of the term counterterrorism as opposed to “countering violent extremism,” which the Obama NSCT coined to stress the soft power of civil society stakeholders, is an explicit rebuttal of previous policy priorities. There are limitations of civil society stakeholders who live in war zones and live under authoritarian regimes with rampant corruption. Dangerous conditions and lack of autonomy are undercutting lofty goals. But the United States is only complicating its struggle with violent extremism and terrorism by neglecting the strides achieved in countering violent extremism approaches and only emphasizing counterterrorism policies.

The National Strategy to Counterterrorism is a tool for policymakers to think about cybersecurity, global networks of terrorists, financing and recruitment of these networks, and digital and information warfare. However, aside from these very general areas, policymakers and strategists alike need to revisit the GWOT and the fundamental reasons why Washington is expending resources in this war.

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Vice President of Development and Strategy at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He tweets at @qbhuda. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.