U.S. Soldiers assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment participate in a blank-fire rehearsal.

U.S. Soldiers assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment participate in a blank-fire rehearsal. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. David Beckstrom

Pentagon Studying How Counterterrorism Fits Into Great Power Competition

The Pentagon has not previously discussed how to use counterterrorism capabilities for great power competition. Now that’s changing.

The Pentagon is looking at how counterterrorism capabilities honed over the past two decades fighting insurgents can contribute to future competition with Russia and China, a Pentagon official said Tuesday. 

The Defense Department has called China its pacing threat, and the Biden administration has focused much of its attention on the Indopacific, including two state visits with Asian allies. At the same time, the White House announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan this year, marking a dramatic shift in the military’s counterterrorism mission that will force troops to track and stop insurgent plots that threaten the homeland from a distance.

But the people and platforms that spent the past two decades fighting terrorists must also contribute to great power competition if the Pentagon wants to successfully do both missions at the same time, said Milancy Harris, the deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and combatting terrorism. 

“I’d really like to...by the end of this year have a solid understanding of how we’re going to kind of fit the puzzle pieces of CT and great power competition together…[including] where we can credibly say, ‘We’re doing this CT thing, but it also helps with these great power objectives,’” she said at an event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance

The Pentagon has spent 20 years building up its counterterrorism capabilities, including preparing local forces to deal with local threats. Harris, who also served on BIden’s Intelligence Community Review Team during the transition, said the Pentagon is looking at whether those trained partners can now help with a more high-end fight.  

“I think we’re going to see a question of whether or not we can do two things at the same time [and] whether some of the ways we’re doing partner capacity or [having troops] stationed around the world can help us meet great power objectives as well,” she said. “That’s just not been part of the conversation to date.”

The Pentagon has treated counterterrorism missions as something separate from the investment and training that will be required to compete with China and Russia, Harris said, adding that she’s seeing “that landscape come together,” as defense officials consider how the entire military can work together to address the biggest threats facing the country

Even from her perch as a top counterterrorism official, Harris agreed fighting terrorism should not be the Pentagon’s only priority. 

“Terrorism is an enduring threat, but not an existential threat to the United States, so this pivot to great power competition is completely justified,” she asid. “We have an opportunity to take all these lessons and figure out how to do CT with a little bit less and working a little bit smarter.”