Over the Horizon: How to Improve the U.S.’ Counter-Terrorism Strategy

By Simeone Miller

An MQ-9 Reaper performs a low pass during an air show demonstration May 29, 2016, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr

Before the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden  assured, “We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and act quickly and decisively if needed.”   

This proposal for a bold, new recalibration of U.S. counterterrorism strategy has not been without its controversy and deservedly so. In the past, U.S. counterterrorism authorities have received sharp criticism from Congress and the public for their controversial record on targeted drone strikes. 

Moreover, without U.S. troops and other sources for intelligence collection, the challenge to effectively respond to terrorist threats while also preventing civilian casualties has become more complex, as the Afghanistan case has shown. Despite this, there has seemingly been a shift that could be favorable towards President Biden’s proposal for an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy with the recent targeted strike on al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri being a success, but it isn’t assured to work unless further implementation and changes are reasonably made.  

Develop on the Ground Intelligence Collection Capabilities  

One of the primary concerns that has persisted since the death of al-Zawahiri is that it will likely take more time for the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and special operations forces (SOF) to identify terrorist targets due to intelligence-collection limitations. For example, it took a year for them to determine his location based on the fixed intelligence assets they currently utilize, which creates challenges for acquiring positive identification and reducing civilian casualties. 

One approach that the United States should consider to improve its intelligence collection capabilities on the ground is one that it used to combat al-Qa’ida in Iraq and the Islamic State in Syria. In both scenarios, U.S. forces worked closely with local resistance units to collect intelligence and wage an insurgency against either al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State.

This strategy could work again if the United States and its allies developed closer ties with the National Resistance Front(NRF), who have continued to wage an insurgency against the Taliban’s forces amid limited resources and calls for support from the international community. 

These are calls that the United States can no longer ignore in the way the Trump Administration did with the Kurds in Syria. The United States must be willing to develop and sustain an effective security assistance program that would include, at the minimum, the provision of conventional weapons. At most, it should consist of training supported by SOF personnel. 

In exchange for this security assistance, the NRF could be willing to provide the IC and SOF with information related to foreign terrorist targets in Afghanistan. Failure to leverage such a significant opportunity would be a strategic error on the part of U.S. counterterrorism authorities across the federal government and policymakers.  

Renew Regional Partnerships and Alliances 

As Lawfare’s Jonathan Schroden has suggested, diplomacy can be an effective counterterrorism tool. In fact, it should be the most utilized tool as the United States continues to recalibrate its foreign policy to address challenges related to strategic competition with China. Utilizing diplomacy means relying more on regional allies and partners and consulting with them on how to contain and disrupt international terrorist activities effectively.  

For example, in the case of Afghanistan, the United States should extend its diplomatic approach to counterterrorism with Uzbekistan. While Uzbekistan has adopted a cautious approach to the new Taliban region, the Uzbek government may reconsider that for several reasons, including the Taliban’s refusal to disavow al-Qa’ida and inability to combat Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP)’s activities

With al-Zawahiri’s death and increased attacks in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the United States may now be able to better convince central Asian allies and partners that the proposal for security arrangements that were previously rejected may indeed be necessary. In particular, these security arrangements could include the establishment of forward bases for drones, which the United States has not had in the region after the Obama Administration abandoned them in 2014.  

While the U.S. Navy has been developing the capabilities to deploy drones from its ships, it is still far off from particular geographic locations such as Afghanistan. This distance may create challenges for the maintenance of drones and the frequency in which operators may fly them. 

A more effective drone deployment could be the re-establishment of forward bases, which the U.S. military can use to base drones closer to Afghanistan, and maximize the ability to provide support to proxies such as the NRF. The Tajik government is reportedly already using this policy as part of their counterterrorism strategy and it was also used by the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Strengthen Transparency and Accountability 

While the United States should continue to employ drones as part of its counter-terrorism strategy, it is evident that this approach requires a revised framework for both transparency and accountability.  

As part of this new transparency and accountability framework, Congress should pass legislation in line with specific recommendations by Amnesty International to further declassify details of targets, legal memos from the Justice Department, and legal and factual details surrounding “targeted killing” policies. This framework would allow the American people and Congress to understand better whether the U.S. drone policy is indeed effective at hitting only the appropriate targets and identify where it can make improvements. 

The second revision that the United States can make is for Congress to consider bipartisan agreements to amend the 1973 War Powers Resolution and repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). In doing so, Congress could prevent the White House more effectively from acting unilaterally in committing military resources without any accountability, as has been the case since the George W. Bush Administration.

Suppose the White House receives intelligence on the location of a foreign terrorist target. In that case it must work more collaboratively with congressional leadership to ensure that military force is used proportionately, appropriately, and with regard to civilian populations to eliminate terrorists. 

When the majority of Americans want fewer U.S. troops engaged in direct combat and a tougher focus on China over counter-terrorism, U.S. decision-makers should not be so hesitant to try something new and give over the horizon a chance.  

Simeone Miller is an incoming graduate student at California State University, San Bernardino where he also received his B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. He previously served as an undergraduate researcher for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Views expressed in this piece belong strictly to the author and do not reflect any official position by California State University, San Bernardino or the California State University system. 

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