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After 17 Years of Fighting Terror, the U.S. Makes a Disastrous Pivot

Despite the ongoing ascension of non-state armed groups in the Middle East, the U.S. military seems to be pivoting to a power competition against Russia and China.
Members of the U.S. Army conduct a joint military exercise with the Afghan National Army on February 23rd, 2009, in the Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

Members of the U.S. Army conduct a joint military exercise with the Afghan National Army on February 23rd, 2009, in the Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

It's been 17 years since the United States launched the War on Terror. In that time, the state of international terrorism has only grown worse.

A new International Committee of the Red Cross study revealed that the number of "non-international" conflicts (those not between two nation-states) more than doubled between 2001 and 2016; as ICRC analyst Brian McQuinn told the New York Times, more armed non-state actors have wreaked havoc on their home nations "in the last seven years than in the previous 70 years." While the United States effectively claimed a victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in February, it then immediately ramped up airstrikes as the group re-emerged in the latter. Even now, the U.S. is desperate to deny the group a new foothold in Afghanistan.

The chaos unleashed on the global system by the existential threat of terrorism in the last two decades can't be ignored: The number of refugees around the world jumped to around 22.5 million, a metric the Institute for Economics and Peace claims is indicative of a world less peaceful than it's been in more than a decade.

Now once again battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. knows that it failed to solve the problem that plunged it into the War on Terror in the first place. This washout is perfectly captured in a single sentence from the latest "lessons learned" report to Congress issued by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction: "Between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed." The underlying message is simple: The military doesn't know when the region will be stable, and so it will continue its indefinite stay.

But instead of surveying this reality and speculating whether non-intervention might sometimes be the right move, the Trump administration appears on the verge of a strategic pivot exactly in the opposite direction. The White House's National Security Strategy, released to the public in December of 2017, proclaimed that the U.S. has almost totally crushed ISIS in its primary strongholds in Iraq and Syria, and must turn its focus on a new (but old) threat on the horizon: the return of the "great power competition" that defined earlier geopolitical eras, this time against Russia and China. The Department of Defense's subsequent 2018 National Defense Strategy echoed the priorities outlined in the security strategy: a focus on China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran rather than ISIS's caliphate.

Despite the ongoing ascension of non-state armed groups, the U.S. military seems to be pivoting back to that great power competition, waged mostly against Russia and China. To wit, the Pentagon has funneled short-range air defenses into Eastern Europe under urgent capability requirements last seen at the end of the Cold War, ostensibly for use against Russian aircraft and munitions. Meanwhile, despite the rise of terror groups in Libya, Uganda, Yemen, and Somalia, the Pentagon reportedly plans on shifting the U.S. special operations forces (SOF) increasingly on the front line of the War on Terror away from combat situations under the purview of U.S. Africa Command. And while the Army specifically has, in some ways, doubled down on counterterrorism training in countries like Niger in the aftermath of the October of 2017 ambush, the SOF personnel who often operate with lax oversight don't even have the resources to extract them in a manner to avoid repeating such tragedies.

To be clear, Russia and China are certainly strategic challenges to the U.S. government, and previous administrations prematurely pivoted away from Iraq and Afghanistan before fully addressing their various problems. But where the cycle of drawdowns and surges that defined the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies appeared rooted in the U.S. military's overextended nature as world police, Trump's appears to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern geopolitical landscape. The president is suggesting a complete and fundamental reorientation of the U.S. military away from its two-decade mission of counterterrorism and back toward the sort of superpower engagements that defined the Cold War. Such a transition won't just fail to effectively respond to both threats, but will once again give terrorism room to flourish, just as the premature drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan did.

The administration's premature great power pivot isn't really about President Donald Trump himself, or about the military alone; it reflects the inability of modern nation-states to deal with the rise of non-state actors who defy the conventional principles of borders and diplomacy. Terrorism, which can't be effectively deprived of geographical sanctuaries, is only one example of how non-state actors have challenged existing institutions in recent decades. The populist moments at the heart of Trumpism and the Brexit movement, decentralized and powered by social media fervor, have taken a sledgehammer to transnational agreements from the Paris climate accords to the European Union; Russia meddles in elections behind the safety of the computer screen; the largest singular influences in the entire 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been Facebook and WikiLeaks. War is no longer fought on Westphalian terms, where rulers control their borders and religion; the global game has effectively changed.

The Trump administration, however, can't see the writing on the wall for the old way of politics in the ICRC report. The pivot back to the great power rivalries that defined the golden age of American hegemony may reflect the U.S.'s ongoing diplomatic dance with Russia and China, but it doesn't reflect the reality about non-state actors.