Europe Could Find Itself Leading the Global War on Terrorism
After two decades of international coalition operations to eliminate transnational terrorist threats on a nearly global scale, the underlying geopolitical dynamics that explained the commitment of multiple actors have altered dramatically. Due to a geographic shift in the center of gravity of global terrorist activity, as well as a transformation of the United States' strategic outlook, the onus of the global counterterrorism effort is falling in the hands of Europe’s military powers. This role, which they are not necessarily picking up through their own volition, but rather as a result of external dynamics, will require them to adapt to this new strategic reality.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the United States has taken the lead in what it coined the Global War on Terrorism. Through numerous military operations of varying scale and scope, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, the United States has sought to interdict terrorist safe havens. After two decades of intense global counterterrorism activity, however, the United States is now indicating a shift in its priorities. In response to geopolitical dynamics, specifically the assertive behavior of Russia and the Chinese development of military capabilities, US military and political leadership have advocated a redeployment of their efforts towards great power competition.
The concept of great power competition has been highlighted as a priority challenge under the Trump administration, but tracks pre-existing trends in that direction dating back at least a decade. Those trends were driven by intensifying naval competition with China in the South China Sea, as well as Russian military modernisation under President Putin. An escalation of tensions in the relationship between the West and Russia since 2014, when the Ukraine crisis led to the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for separatist groups in Donbas, provided a clearly visible milestone in the United States’ approach to strategic threat perception.
Eventually, this newly perceived strategic threat led to the formalisation of this shift in focus by means of the 2018 National Defense Strategy1, compiled under former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. This was the first official National Defense Strategy produced since 2008, at which point winning the Global War on Terrorism was still heavily emphasised. In the 2018 document, as in the 2017 National Security Strategy2 that the Pentagon seeks to operationalise in the subsequent National Defense Strategy, the attention has been shifted entirely to the development of peer-to-peer capabilities. This policy has already been translated into action through efforts to withdraw or minimise military deployments in counterterrorism theaters such as Syria and Afghanistan, as well as through US military procurement that is re-emphasising conventional military capabilities.
The evolution of the terrorist threat over the course of the last decade has increased Europe’s exposure
European Interests and Challenges
While Europe is not immune to the increased perception of great power competition, which has had a particularly critical impact in Eastern Europe, its interests in supporting or conducting global counterterrorism operations have not been suppressed. If anything, the evolution of the terrorist threat over the course of the last decade has increased Europe’s exposure. Throughout the rise of several different terrorist groups in the Islamic world following a number of western interventions and the Arab Spring events, Europe has witnessed not only an escalation of violence in its immediate periphery but also the direct interaction of its own population in those theaters. The mobility of so called ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘returnees’, as well as support organisations recruiting and financing terrorists, has impacted Europe much more severely than it has the United States. Especially as the United States winds down or completes operations in some of these theaters, problems have not been resolved from a European perspective.
Specifically those theaters where a continued threat towards Europe resides, in the form of both hosting active terrorist organizations and focal areas attracting European foreign fighters, are the ones where the United States is also facing reduced interests. In addition to the compulsion to gear its resources towards Great Power Competition, the United States has also gone through some notable economic adjustments to its geopolitical position.
The primary driver impacting the geography of the Global War on Terrorism is the United States’ push for energy independence. The United States has made great leaps towards achieving this objective, and as a consequence it is less directly impacted by regional instability in oil producing regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. Europe, on the other hand, does not have the same freedom to disengage from these areas, both due to their geographic proximity and due to continued energy dependencies.
For Europe, and particularly the western European states taking up the main effort in these counterterrorism operations, this development also comes with significant challenges. European military powers do not possess the same capabilities as the United States in supporting expeditionary military endeavors. During past interventions, such as the 2011 Libya operations or engagement in the anti-Islamic State coalition, European contributors have leaned heavily on the United States’ ability to provide support for logistics, intelligence gathering and command and control activities. This does not necessarily mean that Europe is incapable of filling the void the United States left behind by reorienting their emphasis. However, this American reorientation will come at a cost for Europe, as it seeks to develop those capabilities on a European level, and that European military actors will likely adopt a different approach than that of the United States.
Handoff in Progress
This difference in approach has already become apparent in the Sahel and Sahara area, which is currently the main theater of European-led counterterrorism operations. Stretching from Mali all the way into Libya, this area of operations has become one of the most active and resilient terrorist havens since the regional collapse of security following the overthrowal of Libya’s former president Gaddafi. France has taken up the leading role here, due to its historical connection to the area, but also due to a relatively limited interest by the United States to commit to this particular theater.
France has developed a regional counterterrorism strategy3 based on a much lighter footprint than typical US operations over the past decades, and leaning more heavily on the capabilities of local forces. The European Union has also backed these efforts. European states have contributed forces operating in direct support of French counterterrorism operations, but have also taken a leading role in providing military support and training for those local actors.
Despite the already limited United States’ engagement in the Sahel and Sahara regions compared to the level of European commitment, the US has also been signaling a further reduction of its presence throughout Africa. While the US maintains, and potentially even expands, its operations against al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia, its presence in West Africa - where the threat is arguably highest - is curtailed. This reduction in direct United States’ engagement and training operations is countered by an increased effort to develop regional logistical capabilities. These capabilities, however, also fit into a strategy of enabling local forces and European actors to take up responsibility for the theater.
One of the main reasons the Sahel and Sahara area has possibly become the dominant counterterrorism theater at this point, is the fact that current international counterterrorism operations in the Middle-East and Central Asia appear to be coming to a close. The successes in the territorial battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the potential for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, are pointing towards a reduced need for direct action in those theaters; at least in the near future. However, a critical part of US attempts to disengage from these theaters, has been an increased call for its European partners to maintain - if not increase - their presence there.
Disengaging from Core Counterterrorism Theaters
After conducting military interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the US has long sought to disengage itself from these theaters that represented the core battlefields against al Qaeda at the time. As early as 2008, the United States actively attempted to secure a withdrawal of military forces from these active warzones. In Afghanistan, these plans were rapidly discarded through the 2009 troop surge, but eventually led to the willingness to achieve a negotiated settlement rather than obtain military victory. In Iraq, the US managed to complete a withdrawal by 2011, but this was short-lived as the 2014 Islamic State expansion into Iraq drew them back in.
As testament to the higher level imperatives that the United States is answering, the 2014 reentry into Iraq was much more limited than previous operations in the country. The scope of operations also focused much more on enabling local forces to carry the fight4, but a limited yet effective US and European component providing specialized capabilities, including special operations and air assets, still provided a limited level of direct engagement. The current US administration has voiced its interest in dialing back this direct engagement again, particularly in Syria, but has been unwilling to do so at the cost of also removing European actors from the theater. In the same way, the US has been preparing to achieve conditions that allow for an exit from Afghanistan in the near future, but has called on its European allies to contribute more, so that these conditions can be met.
A successful military disengagement from active Middle Eastern warzones by the US will pose a notable strategic challenge to European military power
In the future, following a successful military disengagement from active Middle Eastern warzones by the US, will pose a notable strategic challenge to European military powers. It is unlikely that the most recent operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as negotiations in Afghanistan, will lead to a long term suppression of terrorist activity. When - not if - , this erupts into the next crisis, the further progression by the United States on the path towards Great Power Competition capabilities and reduced regional dependencies, Europe will have to decide whether or not it will step up. Doing so would likely come at a higher price than current efforts, but allowing for regionally destabilizing elements to manifest in the Middle East, would at that point prove much more problematic to Europe than it would to the US.
Is Europe up to the task?
With Europe in the hot seat, the question of whether or not they can provide a feasible alternative to the United States strategy of the last two decades, becomes all the more prominent. An important difference is that Europe is not a unified actor in the way that the United States has been. The European Union provides a platform for military cooperation and a common security strategy, but still remains a divided entity at its core. Not all countries within the Union have the same interest in taking an active role in combatting terrorism on a global scale. Hence, the European role in the Global War on Terrorism probably won’t be carried out under the European banner for the most part, but rather through unilateral operations or smaller ad-hoc coalitions within Europe. This is actually quite similar to European involvement in the US-led effort up to this point.
At a more practical military level, European states also face significant shortcomings in terms of capabilities. Compared to the US military infrastructure- particularly its impressive airlift capabilities, command and control assets, and vast budget - Europe is facing this task with much more modest means. Some of these shortcomings can be addressed by pooling European assets, and drawing on the existing NATO and European defense structures, but even then expeditionary operations independent from the US would still be a challenge. This reality is further exacerbated by the fact that individual actors or small coalitions might not always have the support of the entire continent or Union for particular operations.
These shortcomings do not necessarily mean that Europe wouldn’t be able to take up its role in leading the Global War on Terrorism, but it implies that the global campaign could take on a new European shape, both in a military sense and at the policy level. In the military domain, different types of force structures and mission objectives can be applied to accommodate existing constraints, while individualised approaches to separate theaters - rather than a single global strategy - might emerge from the diverging interests within Europe.
- 1. United States Congress, ‘National Defense Strategy’, Department of Defense, 2018.
- 2. Donald Trump, ‘National Security Strategy’, White House, 2017
- 3. Peter Tinti, ‘The New French Militarism In the Sahel’, Medium, September 12, 2014
- 4. Kenneth M Pollack, ‘Assessing the Obama Administration’s Iraq-Syria Strategy’, The Brookings Institution, September 26, 2014