Military Must Look Past 9/11

America’s security strategy needs to be rebalanced from the current post-9/11 singular focus on terrorism to one that addresses other serious threats as well.

Countering terrorism must remain a key security mission but other threats demand as much attention such as the threat posed by heavily armed, aggressive super power competitors, atomic-armed rogues, and threats posed by failed states which are becoming sanctuaries for radicals who seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Consider how we came to the current unbalanced strategy, the complex nature of our future threats, and what we ought to do to rebalance our strategy.

The 9/11 attack was not anticipated by our intelligence community and at the time we knew little about al Qaeda’s capabilities to guide our response. That’s why it is understandable that then-President George W. Bush responded to the attack by preparing the nation for the worst case: terrorist attacks using WMD.

Soon after the attack Bush announced a war on terrorism, with the goal of bringing terror leader Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network to justice. That announcement focused our security efforts on the Islamic world which led to interventions in Afghanistan and other countries to wage a campaign against radical jihadist groups.

It is now nine years later and there have been no large-scale Islamist attacks on America. That fact is attributable to our tightened security and taking the fight to the Islamists’ home turf.  But the Pentagon continues to focus on fighting terrorists at the expense of other security challenges.

Once the Pentagon began preparing to battle terrorists it never looked back. Its planning and resourcing were aligned with finding and destroying al Qaeda and its strategies were rewritten to focus on the anti-terror effort. 

That meant the U.S., the world’s only super power, traded its global strategy for one limited in scope: Islamic terrorism. This nearly decade-long strategy gave other security challengers a vacation from American scrutiny, but it put some under the microscope, such as Iraq.

President Bush promised in his inaugural address, “We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors.”

On numerous occasions Bush and other administration officials argued Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, threatened the Persian Gulf and America with WMD. Then Bush created the rationale for the 2003 invasion by linking the WMD allegation with Iraq’s support for terror groups.

The “anti-terrorist” war in Iraq coupled with ongoing “counterinsurgency” operations in Afghanistan drained America’s military flexibility to address other security challenges. That’s why, when in 2008 Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, the U.S. lacked the troops to respond. 

The problem of an overstretched military continues. Even though we withdrew all but 50,000 troops from Iraq, President Obama’s surge into Afghanistan keeps our Middle East force at levels close to what they were three years ago. And recent statements made by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, suggest our forces are likely to be in that country far longer than Obama is willing to admit.
That’s why we need a rebalanced strategy. 

At least three security challenges require immediate attention and will for the foreseeable future: a near-super power military rival, atomic-tipped ballistic missile-armed rogue regimes, and extremist groups manipulating governments stressed by global trends which create persistent conflict.

First, the People’s Republic of China has the world’s second largest economy and a military to match. This near-super power threatens America across all domains: space, cyberspace, sea, sky and land. 

Beijing has the potential to become America’s military rival and could eventually surpass the threat to American interests once posed by the former Soviet Union. 

Beijing’s actions are becoming more warlike. For example, its confrontations on the high seas using warships are increasing. Its cyber attacks on American networks and infrastructure are growing. China’s anti-satellite testing is very active and potentially devastating to our space network.  

Second, one of former President Bush’s pre-9/11 security concerns was the proliferation of WMD.  That led him to label Iran, North Korea, and Iraq “the axis of evil” because he believed they had WMD and the will to use them. Although Iraq is no longer a WMD threat, the others threaten their geographical regions and the U.S. and are known WMD proliferators to rogue wannabes like Myanmar and Syria.

Third, and possibly the most challenging, we face a future of escalating non-conventional threats fueled by 21st Century global trends: technology availability, climate changes, population growth, urbanization, increased resource demand, and the proliferation of WMD. The conflux of these trends stresses many governments to meet basic needs and a growing number of governments are unprepared—or failing—to satisfy popular aspirations which create situations that are exploitable by extremist groups. This situation could lead to a condition of persistent conflict which could destabilize entire regions.  

These challenges arguably require at least the same level of attention as fighting terrorists. That’s why our security strategy must be rebalanced and should take into account the following recommendations.

Begin by downsizing our Afghanistan mission to free-up resources for other equally important operations. President Obama is disingenuous when he says we must remain in Afghanistan to prevent al Qaeda from planning and conducting terrorist operations. Al Qaeda can launch operations from other countries like Yemen which arguably it did last winter with the Detroit underwear bomber. Tying down 100,000 troops in Afghanistan when the threats elsewhere are arguably at least as serious makes little strategic sense.

Our rebalanced strategy must counter China’s hegemonic moves throughout Asia. That will require more air, sea, and ground-based forces in the region to send a strong message to America’s allies and Beijing.

Our strategy must counter WMD rogues like North Korea. It must include implementing international protocols that permit anti-proliferation actions such as boarding ships carrying suspect—read WMD—cargo. We also need to improve our anti-ballistic missile defense programs should those rogues acquire a credible ballistic missile threat.

Finally, our strategy must include persistent engagement with troubled partners who need help building the capacity of their security forces. Our troops can train and equip them to secure their own territory and when possible they can help their neighbors. This is a more cost effective and commonsense approach than sending Americans to fight foreign wars.

The 9/11 attacks caused an understandable shift in America’s security strategy. But now that we have more and better anti-terror systems, it is time to rebalance our global security strategy to better protect America’s emerging challenges.


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