The Cost of Ending Counterterrorism
Why America should keep up the pressure on terrorist networks
Few Americans support wasting money trying to solve unsolvable problems. Fewer still support the continued deployment of U.S. troops in harms’ way for unclear and undefined objectives. Years of U.S. counterterrorism efforts have not brought total victory against al Qaeda and the Islamic State any closer. They only cost American blood and treasure, spent in conflicts in far-away places that have nothing to do with the United States.
Such critiques—and the near impossibility that al Qaeda or the Islamic State could attack the United States today—lay at the heart of calls to end the U.S. military deployments for counterterrorism operations that constitute America’s so-called “forever wars.” But the critiques miss the bigger picture: U.S. counterterrorism activities actually deliver results, and the real cost of simply pulling U.S. forces from the fight will likely be high.
An ongoing strategic rebalancing has already shifted resources from counterterrorism missions to countering rising Chinese influence and immediate Russian threats. Indeed, the U.S. military has gone from tens of thousands of troops on counterterrorism deployments to thousands. The majority of these forces—such as 1,000 troops in Niger, for instance, or 2,500 in Iraq—serve in over-watch positions at U.S. bases in Africa and the Middle East, where they maintain an over-the-horizon strike capability against emergent terrorist threats.
These few thousand U.S. forces supporting partnered security forces safeguard hard-won counterterrorism successes against al Qaeda and the Islamic State. These significant achievements include the dismantling of transnational terrorist attack cells as well as al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s ability to strike the United States. But they’re not lasting, and preserving them requires sustained military pressure on local groups to prevent them from reestablishing safe havens where they can plot attacks.
While these local fights might appear disconnected from transnational terrorist networks, it has rarely, if ever, remained that way for al Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked groups. The United States therefore has an interest in ensuring its counterterrorism partners can combat these local groups effectively—but most cannot without U.S. assistance or enablers. Put simply, America’s partners cannot sustain this fight on their own.
The resurgence of al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, illustrates just how rapidly conditions can backslide without even minimal U.S. support. President Trump ordered all 750 U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia in late 2020, for instance, and they repositioned in neighboring countries to continue supporting Somali commandos, the Danab, from afar. This new “commute” introduced more risk to American troops—entering and leaving contested territory is one of the most vulnerable periods for any military unit—and reduced efficiency and effectiveness as troops expended time and resources setting up and tearing down training sites. Within a year, al Shabaab’s ranks swelled, its cash flow improved, and it recaptured territory—in short, the group strengthened as pressure eased.
President Biden’s May 2022 directive to redeploy fewer than 500 troops to Somalia enabled the U.S. military to provide the support necessary for the Danab to slow al Shabaab’s offensive and shift the battlefield momentum. Crucially, it’s Somalis, not Americans, doing the fighting. Yet even though U.S. troops advise and assist the Danab, they won’t be completely out of harm’s way in Somalia. An al Shabaab attack on a base injured a U.S. service member in September 2020, for instance, and an attack on an armed convoy fatally wounded a CIA officer in November 2020.
But the difference in the Danab’s performance is telling. With U.S. support, the Danab launched a successful counteroffensive against al Shabaab that several clan militias have now joined. Notably, the American ground presence probably improved the intelligence picture of al Shabaab’s network, leading to an October 2022 strike that killed a senior leader. Since August 2022, al Shabaab has lost one-third of its territory under the combined pressure.
While the U.S. ground presence has helped turn the tide against al Shabaab, it won’t be decisive against the group. To do that, political issues, corruption, and inadequate national and local governance need to be addressed. Still, the U.S. military presence in Somalia does serve as the backbone for all other American diplomatic, humanitarian, and development activity in a country where security is an ever-present concern.
Some have interpreted these U.S. military actions as participation in Somalia’s civil war rather than pure counterterrorism. Pulling out of Somalia and relying on the U.S. intelligence community to eliminate any threats to U.S. interests may seem sound. But it’s doubtful the United States would be able to identify those threats without the insight into al Shabaab’s leadership and network gained by having a ground presence. In 2019, for example, the U.S. military only “stumbled” on intelligence uncovering a plot for another 9/11-style attack.
The U.S. military’s mission is not to defeat al Shabaab; it is to assist Somali partners in neutralizing the group’s threat to America and the rest of the world. It’s these partners’ efforts to take back territory and weaken the group that will ensure that al Shabaab doesn’t have access to resources and safe havens to coordinate attacks against American interests. U.S. counterterrorism capabilities—drone strikes or commando raids—remain an option should the very real possibility of an imminent threat arise. Al Shabaab may not be a recognizable name within American households, but it’s not for lack of trying.
As the Somalia case shows, the difference between keeping a small counterterrorism footprint and pulling out entirely is stark. Even if conditions are less than desirable and improvement improbable, preserving the status quo often stands as better than the alternatives. When the Taliban seized power as the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, for instance, its victory represented not only a defeat for liberal values and basic human freedoms but a severe setback to America’s counterterrorism efforts. In August 2021, the Taliban freed nearly three dozen senior leaders of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and has proven unable to contain the threat posed by the Islamic State-Khorasan. That Islamic State branch is strengthening, expanding into neighboring countries, and seeks to attack the United States. The options to counter these growing threats currently available to the United States are limited at best. Not losing in Afghanistan might have been better than leaving it.
Today’s U.S. counterterrorism missions are a small investment in partner forces that yield significant dividends with far less risk to American troops. The U.S. military can act as a force multiplier that at best helps partners degrade and disrupt al Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked groups and at minimum prevent worst-case scenarios in places like Syria, where limited U.S. and partner counterterrorism operations defeated the Islamic State and have kept it from rebuilding itself. U.S. forces in Syria may not be able to achieve an “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State any time soon, but their withdrawal almost guarantees the revival of the Islamic State. Moreover, U.S. troops in Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere are not in combat roles, and the number of American troop deaths remain in the tens annually—not the hundreds of Americans killed annually at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Proponents of continued U.S. military counterterrorism deployments and engagements, myself included, are not blind to these costs. But those advocating a rapid end America’s counterterrorism missions have yet articulate how their preferred policies do not result in a much more dangerous world for the United States and its interests around the global. Partners needing counterterrorism help will no longer turn to the United States for leadership and support—and that is how American influence wanes.
For those who want to do counterterrorism better, the answer is not to do less but to do it differently. This approach should address underlying grievances and conflicts that have allowed al Qaeda and the Islamic State to fester—bringing governance to the fore of the effort and placing the military in a support rather than leading role.
Until then, however, the United States should stay the course.
Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to AEI's Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter: @KatieZimmerman.