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Counterterrorism Partnerships Sharpen America’s Competitive Edge
Why modest investments in counterterrorism relationships in places like Africa and the Middle East can yield outsized dividends for the United States
Counterterrorism may not be America’s top national security priority anymore, but counterterrorism partnerships play a larger role in America’s foreign policy than simply preventing transnational terror attacks against America and its allies: they build the very bilateral relationships the United States needs to keep its competitive edge in the wider strategic competition against the likes of China and Russia. Yet U.S. policymakers treat counterterrorism and competition with China and Russia as two separate efforts, an either-or choice in a world where terrorism is no longer America’s primary national security threat.
This geopolitical contest drives the realignment of national security resources toward building defense capabilities to deter Chinese aggression and reinforcing NATO, particularly through support for Ukraine, while prioritizing more conventional Indo-Pacific partnerships. Seemingly left behind by this shift are those U.S. partners whose shared interests with the United States—namely counterterrorism—fall lower on a list of U.S. strategic priorities than, say, climate and energy security, global health, and nuclear non-proliferation.
Partially justifying the shift away from counterterrorism is the near elimination of the direct threat terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State pose to the United States and its allies. Counterterrorism operations have almost erased their ability to carry out mass-casualty attacks within the United States itself. Better border security, better international counterterrorism infrastructure, and better remote targeting capabilities—i.e., drones, surveillance, and the like—provide layers of defense against such attacks within a counterterrorism machine that essentially runs on autopilot (though this over-the-horizon posture may prove less effective than advertised). Moreover, the local conflicts in which al Qaeda and the Islamic State have embedded themselves are messy and complex—stoking fears in Washington of foreign entanglements and long-term military commitments.
But counterterrorism assistance serves to develop and deepen relationships with partners, doing as much to advance U.S. interests as keep Americans safe and secure. Some obvious elements include reinforcement of military-to-military ties and requirements for robust and frank dialogue about the sources of the terrorism threat. A counterterrorism presence also positions Americans in the field, able to serve as motion sensors for deeper shifts in geopolitics and collect early warnings of more nefarious activities unrelated to counterterrorism.
U.S. support outside of the security sector to strengthen governance and civil society can also help nurture the spread of liberal values. Most importantly on this front, the United States provides an overarching counterterrorism framework that helps guard against the use of counterterrorism measures to weaken political opponents or quash dissent.
Discussions and decisions regarding the U.S. defense budget and foreign assistance tend to consider only the direct effects counterterrorism support has terrorist threats rather than its wider impact on bilateral relations or its potential as a tool to strengthen American influence. Multiple Pentagon policy and posture reviews, for example, have sought to cut resources from U.S. Africa Command—which constituted only 0.3 percent of the entire defense budget—to bolster spending for new competition-related initiatives without recognizing what the U.S. military’s presence on the continent delivers in terms of ongoing influence. Moreover, longtime U.S. counterterrorism partners such as the UAE have chafed at perceived slights attributed to new U.S. priorities, limiting their willingness to support U.S. initiatives to counter Russia and China.
As Washington pulls away from counterterrorism, the Kremlin has leaned in to fill the resulting void and reap benefits outside of the terrorism domain. Russia used the guise of counterterrorism support to justify its meddling in Libya, for instance, while actually pursuing other objectives in the country and on the African continent. In April 2019, U.S. forces withdrew from Libya after defeating the local Islamic State branch—but just over a year later, Russian fighter aircraft were in Libya alongside 800 to 1,400 Russians linked to the Wagner Group and other Russian private military companies (PMCs). Today, these forces are concentrated around Libyan oil facilities where Russian state-backed oil and gas companies own stakes.
Moscow has likewise leveraged its military and PMCs to woo other African governments struggling with growing insurgencies. They offer military hardware, training, and even mercenaries to help with no restrictions on use nor lectures on civilian harm in exchange for gold, natural resource concessions, or other forms of payment. As in Libya, Russian troops help secure these resources rather than actually fight al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Moreover, the combination of human rights abuses by Russian and local state security forces, authoritarian rule, and bad governance often inflames rather than suppresses a local insurgency. Russian counterterrorism assistance ultimately has little to do with terrorist threats and much more to do with sanctions evasions, buying votes at the UN, and otherwise securing Russian interests abroad.
Still, that has not deterred other nations from seeking or accepting Russian support—even after the Russian approach failed spectacularly in Mozambique in 2019. Some are governments that came to power in Mali and Burkina Faso through military coups, which effectively precludes U.S. security assistance due to legal restrictions. French forces had been conducting counterterrorism operations in both countries until relations frayed, exacerbated by France’s post-colonial legacy and by anti-French Russian disinformation operations influencing public sentiment; the French were expelled followed by seemingly popular demands for Russian assistance instead. The Malian junta recently welcomed support from Russia and the Wagner Group, nominally for counterterrorism purposes but almost certainly with an eye toward shoring up its own control. Russian support has also propped up the government of the Central African Republic, and the same offer seems to be on the table for the Burkinabe junta. In both Mali and Burkina Faso, al Qaeda-linked groups have also strengthened during and after Moscow’s military interventions.
Yet most African and Arab leaders still turn to Washington rather than Moscow for counterterrorism support. And many of these leaders still see terrorism as the primary threat to their own security, placing counterterrorism support near the top of their requests of the United States. They—and African states in particular—want the U.S. to help them build the capabilities needed to combat al Qaeda and the Islamic State effectively; they neither expect nor want the U.S. military to lead the fight. Sharing U.S. officials’ counterterrorism concerns but unable to manage terrorism threats on their own, some leaders will inevitably need to seek help from others (including Russia) if the United States says no.
Washington should take advantage of its position as a counterterrorism leader by working with partners and finding ways to support them without falling into to the sort of massive commitments like Iraq and Afghanistan that marked the past two decades. That might mean identifying possible military training assistance programs or intelligence support for partners. As it stands, however, fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops are deployed globally—including in support roles—to counter al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a fraction of the 80,000 deployed to NATO or the 54,000 stationed in Japan.
As the Pentagon races to keep pace with China’s military threat, moreover, perhaps Washington’s smarter move over the long term is to adapt its overall approach to focus the specific drivers behind the various local conflicts in which al Qaeda and the Islamic State thrive. Improving a government’s ability to govern well will yield dividends in weakening extremists’ grip over populations, stabilizing regions, and advancing America’s liberal values.
Instead of viewing partners’ requests solely through the prism of counterterrorism, then, the United States should see them as a means to other ends—including successfully competing with China and Russia. China outspends the United States across the board in Africa, while Russian small arms remain cheap and practical for austere environments—both facts unlikely to change in the near term. In the Middle East, U.S. partners still seek the United States to be the security guarantor, even as they hedge their bets with China and Russia. America still retains a competitive edge when it comes to counterterrorism, and counterterrorism remains a shared interest with various countries.
The United States no longer needs to spend billions of dollars on counterterrorism operations to keep Americans safe from transnational terror attacks. Meeting other challenges and countering other threats—namely the rising Chinese influence and Russian aggression—are now strategic priorities. Funding, troops, and equipment have shifted from the fights against al Qaeda and the Islamic State and toward building up the requisite expertise, intelligence, and capabilities to protect American interests and influence in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. But this hard pivot has also frustrated African and Arab partners and as a result has hurt relations in regions where Chinese influence is increasingly visible.
Rather than divesting from counterterrorism partnerships in the name of strategic competition with China and Russia, Washington should recognize they’re part of America’s comparative advantage over its geopolitical rivals—and continue to invest in them accordingly.