Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta delivered a wide-ranging address on December 18, 2012 at the National Press Club in Washington DC on the United States' overall national security strategy. The speech was part valedictory lap prior to Panetta stepping down after the New Year, part plea against "sequestration" and its effects on DOD if the US goes over the "fiscal cliff," but it was most importantly a statement and defense of US national security strategy for the years ahead. I listened to the whole thing broadcast live on CSPAN while stuck in traffic on DC's Key Bridge, and was particularly struck by the several bits and pieces of the speech in which Secretary Panetta described counterterrorism strategy. Among other things:
Continued focus on counterterrorism attacks and targeted killings directed against Al Qaeda and its affiliates' leadership, whether in Pakistan's tribal territories, Yemen or Somalia, or potentially other places where it seeks to establish new havens:
We have made progress. We have made progress against Al Qaeda's core leaders and its affiliates in the FATA. We continue to do it in Yemen and in Somalia. But Al Qaeda is seeking new footholds throughout the Middle East and in countries like Mali, in North Africa. It remains determined to attack the United States and remains one of the serious threats that we must deal with.
Expansion of special operations forces for counterterrorism operations (and, in the future, perhaps increasingly operations directed against states, particularly their WMD capabilities):
In order to boost priority counterterrorism and build partner capacity efforts, we're continuing a planned growth in special operations forces which will reach 72,000 by 2017, more than double the number we had on 9/11.
Continued investment in current and future unmanned and increasingly automated technologies:
[D]espite budget reductions, we are expanding our fleet of unmanned systems -- this is the future -- including new carrier launched surveillance and strike aircraft.
Continued integration of defense and intelligence counterterrorism operations:
Our military and intelligence operations -- and that's one of the things I'm very proud of over these last four years, is the integration between intelligence and military operations when it comes to going after terrorists. Over the last year, as a result of those operations, we continue to significantly weaken Al Qaeda's core leadership and put real pressure on their affiliates ...
Ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a terrorist safe haven again, even after "large-scale" US drawdown of forces:
[O]ur commitment to Afghanistan, as we draw down by the end of 2014, our commitment will continue. We are transitioning; we are not leaving. We will maintain an enduring presence aimed at supporting Afghan forces and ensuring the mission that we were embarked on in Afghanistan, the mission that Al Qaeda never again regains Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to attack the United States or our allies.
Denying terrorists groups political control of territory and safe havens beyond Afghanistan, in north Africa and the Horn, and possibly beyond, through security partnerships and military and intelligence advisers and assistance to regimes fighting insurgents with both local civil war and transnational aims:
The past decade of war has reinforced the lesson that one of the most effective ways to address long-term security challenges is to help build the capabilities of our allies. We have seen this approach with our counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and our counterterrorism efforts in Yemen and Somalia.
We are expanding our security force assistance to a wider range of partners in order to address a broader range of security challenges ... To implement this element of the strategy, the services are retaining the security cooperation capabilities we have honed over a decade of war and making investments in regional expertise.
Recognition that, in a world with many asymmetric threats, states as well as non-state actors will reach to technologies such as cyber as a means to attack, requiring new ways to meet threats:
[T]he nature of military conflict is changing because of the new technologies, like cyber and the proliferation of missiles and WMD. We are seeing potential adversaries -- state and non-state actors alike -- acquire more advanced hybrid and high-end capabilities designed to frustrate the conventional advantages of our armed forces. This means that the military services must remain vigilant, they must remain strong, they must remain prepared to operate in a way that differs significantly from the past.
We will continue to face terrorism and deadly attacks by IEDs, but we must also be ready for more capable adversaries to attack our forces and our homeland in cyberspace, to attack and launch precision strikes against forward bases, to attempt to cripple our power grid, our financial systems, our government systems, to attempt to deny us freedom of action through asymmetric attacks.
Perhaps the counterterrorism strategy could be summarized this way (I extend it a bit beyond the text to clarify and give examples at a couple of points):
First, the US will look ever more to its special operations forces for counterterrorism operations - both military and CIA - and their numbers will be expanded. Likewise their missions will increasingly include state actors, not just non-state actors, as threats increasingly include such things as state WMD - such as Syria's chemical weapon's or Iran's nuclear technology. Their missions will increasingly include advising and capacity building with the US's security partners in different regions, and not just "classic" special ops.
Second, these military and intelligence operators will continue a process of integration - what Bobby Chesney has described as the integration of Title 10 military operations and Title 50 CIA operations. The extent but also limits to this have not been revealed or, most likely, determined.
Third, the technological wave of the future - for these counterterrorism missions but for many conventional military missions as well - includes unmanned vehicles, for existing counterterrorism missions (whether surveillance or attack), but also new systems, such as those capable of being used on carriers, as well as UAVs specifically designed as strike aircraft. The US will invest in these emerging technologies and, the speech seems to imply, it will invest in the emerging automation on which these new systems increasingly depend. It will also invest in other emerging technologies such as cyber, detection and neutralization (through, for example, robot systems) of WMD, and perhaps other forms of robotics such as self-driving battlefield vehicles.
Fourth, while targeting of terrorist leadership where they seek safe haven is an essential and successful strategy, it must be accompanied by operations to ensure that terrorists do not gain political control of territory in which to locate their safe havens. Targeted elimination of leadership is not sufficient; it must be accompanied by denial of territory to terrorist groups. Those groups increasingly have both an "internal" insurgency aspect - conducting civil war in, for example, Yemen or Mali, against the government - while also having an "external" transnational terrorist arm seeking to conduct operations against the US or its allies abroad. (Sometimes it might be one, but threaten to metastasize to add the other.) The US therefore has an important interest in the stability and governance of states where these groups would like to take political control of all or an important part of the state's territory.
Under other conditions, this might involve the US directly in counterinsurgency war in order to ensure that these non-state groups do not seize territory. The US, however, seeks to avoid new ground wars, and so instead seeks to provide light-footprint military and intelligence advisors and assistance to governments such as Yemen's (and perhaps in some cases, groups battling jihadist groups). Hence the declaration that a core US aim in Afghanistan following large scale troop drawdowns is to prevent that territory from becoming a terrorist safe haven once again. Special operations forces both military and CIA will presumably have important operational roles; the CIA might have a particularly important role over the very long term in managing relationships with local forces, militias, and other groups. But likewise other places, such as Yemen, Somalia, and beyond - perhaps most immediately on the horizon, Mali, with its peculiar combination of sovereignty and international law concerns (including unanimous Security Council authorization for action); humanitarian and human rights concerns; and anti-terrorism concerns, all favoring intervention. (Counterterrorism as requiring not just targeted killing, but additionally denial of territory or safe havens to terrorist groups is perhaps the least understood aspect of US counterterrorism policy.)
Fifth, counterterrorism against non-state actors, while important, is not the only long-run national security issue - hostile states become increasingly important, WMD in the hands of hostile states, and preserving stability in such places as Asia, for example. All these priorities require resources in a resource-constrained era. It's not all counterterrorism against the authors of 9/11 by any stretch.
Of course, all this leaves many questions of strategy unanswered. But in addition, this speech - quite naturally in one sense, given its topic - does not address the many questions of what we at Lawfare have often called "institutional settlement" in counterterrorism law, strategy, and policy. These questions are mostly best addressed in their precise issues by the senior lawyers - DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson's speeches, for example - or by a designated spokesman for the government, such John Brennan, articulating a complex interagency working out of law and policy. But they have staying power as more than just lawyers' opinions when backed up and embraced by the principals, such as the Defense Secretary. Any long-run national security strategy has to pay clear and unambiguous attention to the questions of its legal, political, and moral legitimacy if it is to take hold. Assert it or lose it; otherwise legitimacy turns out to be as much a wasting asset on the national security balance sheet as yesterday's outdated military technology.