October 1, 2012  

A long war in the shadows

The future of U.S. counterterrorism

The United States is emerging from a brutal decade of ground warfare in the Middle East and South Asia with powerful new tools to wage counterinsurgency warfare and precision counterterrorism campaigns, but with diminished economic ability and political will to sustain large-scale, expeditionary combat operations. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the ongoing NATO drawdown in Afghanistan signal the shift to a new security model.

As the U.S. moves beyond the post-9/11 war against al-Qaida and its affiliates to confront a variety of highly capable transnational threats and non-state actors, its counterterrorism efforts will require increasingly precise applications of power, and not just the spectacular, highly kinetic direct-action capabilities of top-tier special operators. The U.S. must draw on all of its tools — legal, financial, diplomatic and lethal — with a particular focus on indirect and specialized methods, such as targeted financial sanctions. Moreover, cooperation with international forces, including allies, traditional partners and new proxies, will become increasingly important. These approaches represent both a more effective way to protect U.S. security interests and a more fiscally responsible path as budgets shrink.

Beyond al-Qaida

The coming decades promise to be difficult and chaotic for U.S. counterterror efforts. No longer will the U.S. be engaged primarily in a prolonged war of attrition against a relatively organized syndicate such as al-Qaida, although that group and its affiliates from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia will continue to be targeted. Instead, as described in the White House’s 2011 “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” U.S. forces will fight a variety of groups such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps; the panoply of cartels and transnational organized criminal groups operating in Latin America, especially Mexico; and other international terrorist and proliferation networks throughout the globe.

Intelligence and law enforcement resources must be continually yet judiciously applied to identify and target self-radicalized lone wolves who might launch devastating terror attacks with little transnational support or connectivity. Additionally, the U.S. military must prepare to execute limited engagements to secure high-value targets such as weapons of mass destruction facilities in the event of state collapse or hostile coups.

Such efforts will draw upon the extraordinary resources freed up from the hunt for al-Qaida’s senior leaders — not just kinetic force, but also security forces assistance, intelligence sharing, law enforcement collaboration, financial pressure and more. There will also be some limited role for conventional military forces, although political and legal considerations will likely keep them out of many of the countries where these groups operate. The coordination of federal, military, and allied and local organizations will become more important than ever. In particular, the employment of special operations and other military forces must be limited and precise, placed within broader global political efforts, and considered in light of strategic, not just tactical, goals.

New Hammers

The unexpectedly protracted Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns diverted attention and specialized capabilities from counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida affiliates around the globe, but they also produced extraordinary innovations that helped the U.S. government and its allies fight terrorists and insurgents. “What’s new over the last 10 years?” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January. “I would say notably three things: the capability and role of special operating forces, ISR and cyber.”

Hidden in Joint Special Operations Command are the most elite, highly trained and combat-experienced special operations forces the U.S. military has ever possessed. Born out of ad-hoc task forces created to hunt al-Qaida and other insurgent elements in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first few years after 9/11, these task forces grew into formidable intelligence and operations planning centers, able to launch several high-intensity special operations raids every night. Their increased size and capabilities allowed senior policymakers to direct precisely targeted operations against transnational networks.

Critical to these forces’ success was the rapid development of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, most notably in the areas of unmanned aircraft and electronic intercept and analysis. These have radically improved the precision of operations and military leaders’ battlefield awareness, even when the battlefield is spread across continents. Used in concert with traditional intelligence methods, these innovations enable SOF units to collect, analyze and exploit intelligence at a pace never before seen on such a wide scale.

The U.S. intelligence community itself substantially shifted its focus from collection and analysis to intelligence-driven covert operations mounted not just by the military but also by its own agencies. The CIA, for example, uses its unmanned aircraft to strike targets in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. Yet the intel community’s more active role in lethal combat is a change in the way the U.S. wages war and a challenge to traditional political and military authorities. National Journal reported that as Gen. Michael Hayden prepared to leave the office of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he told his successor, Leon Panetta, “Leon — don’t know if you expect this — but you are the nation’s combatant commander in the global war on terrorism.”

Finally, the national security community learned to better exploit enemy financial flows, vulnerabilities that the U.S. is well suited to attack through legal, diplomatic and military means. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. developed financial intelligence and enforcement capabilities, building on the work in the 1970s and 1980s campaigns against narcotics traffickers in Latin America. Following money trails has provided key insights into the operations and structure of terrorist groups; allows the targeting of financiers, facilitators and operational leadership cadres; and informs other capabilities that can be used to counter their networks. Moreover, the interagency cooperation necessary to carry out such attacks presages the complexity of future counterterrorism efforts.

Refining the Spears

As conventional units withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving behind advisers to assist Afghan units to secure territory and support local governance, the wide-area stability operations model of years past will recede. This will free up top-tier SOF units for use elsewhere around the world, where they will target terrorist and insurgent leaders and infrastructure. Such actions must be carefully coordinated with comprehensive efforts to counter violent extremism and protect U.S. interests.

Yet a related mission in Afghanistan will continue, likely for decades. U.S. special operators, along with other allied military personnel, will shoulder increased responsibility, as Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told lawmakers earlier this year. In what may prove to be long-term counterinsurgency efforts, these troops will advise and assist local security forces working to improve governance and eliminate threats.

In sum, the need for special operations forces is still increasing. In his most recent SOCOM posture statement, McRaven said current and foreseeable missions require that today’s level of 12,000 deployed operators remain engaged around the world.

Although the admiral’s estimate may be too high, these forces must continue their recent growth to regain some type of sustainable operations tempo.

And conventional U.S. forces are hardly off the hook. Assistance to local security forces, long a specialty of the Army’s Green Berets, will become a principal mission — likely the principal mission — for conventional forces in the continuing Long War. They will have to adapt, just as they did in learning counterinsurgency warfare over the past decade. They can start by emulating much of the advise-and-assist training provided to special forces.

Meanwhile, technological advances will remain critical to the advantages U.S. and allied forces possess over transnational threats. The development of armed remotely piloted vehicles, for example, has allowed the U.S. to target enemies in areas that are difficult to directly reach for political, geographic or temporal reasons.

Such extremely light-footprint operations increase the ability to strike time-critical targets anywhere while reducing the physical risk to military personnel and the political risk to U.S. decision makers. In particular, the U.S. and its partners must maintain and extend their robust intelligence collection capabilities. The U.S. intelligence community faces budget cuts and should seek to streamline redundant efforts and improve coordination and prioritization.

Today’s terror organizations operate regionally and adapt quickly. U.S. intelligence collection and operational capabilities should support a similarly regional and adaptable counterterror capacity.

International cooperation is key to confronting transnational networks; intelligence partnerships, both among traditional allies such as NATO countries and those with regional partners such as Jordan, Afghanistan, Colombia and Pakistan, are key to gaining access to denied areas and to targeting transnational networks with the correct level of pressure.


As the appetite and need for large-scale interventions declines, the U.S. will adapt its basic approach to warfare. Increasingly, the U.S. and its partners will support proxy forces that will do the majority of the fighting in localized conflicts. Such support will consist of specialized advisers, increasingly advanced ISR and other technology, and other key inputs. One likely model is the 2011 NATO operation in Libya; another is the 2001 effort by small teams of CIA and Special Forces personnel who worked with Afghan militias to overthrow al-Qaida and the Taliban. The U.S. has built strong and deep relationships with foreign partners, especially its NATO allies and its other major non-NATO partners, yet defeating the threat posed by transnational organizations — ranging from insurgencies and terrorist groups to cartels and weapons smugglers — requires unprecedented levels of international cooperation. In particular, the U.S. should continue to foster the development of special operations forces to support the growth of intelligence collection, operations planning, advise-and-assist missions and direct-action capabilities. Building that network through active liaison, training, and exchanges and joint operations will become more important.

This use of proxies whose capabilities and command structures and goals may parallel but will never perfectly match those of their foreign supporters will likely lead to outcomes that may not be complete expressions of “victory.” Nonetheless, proxies will help secure U.S. interests in many areas of the world, including those in which the U.S. is not willing to commit ground forces.

In these cases, proxies will be critical to gaining access to local networks of information, targeting and operational capabilities. To reduce blowback and keep proxies aligned toward U.S. interests, decision-makers must delicately balance the selection of partners and the shaping of these relationships.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully demonstrated, contemporary conflicts leave the “victor” with little to celebrate. Irregular warfare and the nonstate actors that wage it are difficult challenges for conventional Western powers.

Conflict against non-state actors will require persistent, yet limited, engagements by Western forces. Law enforcement, intelligence and military organizations will increasingly have to work together in such environments, ensuring that internationally legitimate authorities, techniques and procedures are used to maintain public support for protracted campaigns in the shadows. While developments in technology, special forces and methods have yielded great advances for U.S. forces, the tremendous tactical advantage they provide must be cautiously weighed against the human and political costs of civilian casualties and broader strategic goals.

The development of better hammers must not make everything look like a nail. In many circumstances, U.S. forces or intervention may not be politically appropriate or militarily beneficial, and instead, the U.S. must learn to leverage international partner capacity in pursuit of U.S. interests.

Future counterterrorism operations must target the most capable threats. Most importantly, as Audrey Kurth Cronin wrote in Orbis, U.S. strategy should prioritize destroying the most capable terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida and its globally oriented affiliates, while reinforcing the U.S.’s resilience against a potentially successful terrorist attack. Critical to the long-term success and sustainability of U.S. efforts are other key parts of the counterterrorism toolkit not adequately addressed in this article, to include enhanced diplomacy, countering violent extremism through messaging and outreach, domestic and international law enforcement, and public preparedness.

This war in the shadows will be long — but progress is clear, and should be reinforced. Matthew Irvine is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security. John Nagl is the Minerva research professor at the US Naval Academy and former pPresident of CNAS. This is a revised and updated version of an article published in the University of Kiel Institute for Security Policy’s ISPK’s Terrorism Yearbook 2011.