The Future of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy: A Conversation with Representatives Abigail Spanberger & Michael Waltz
July 18, 2019
Seth Jones: I think we’re going to get started. I have the distinct honor of welcoming, as part of our congressional series, two of Congress’ finest. I have on my left side – we didn’t do this on purpose by the way – but I have on my – on my left side Representative Abigail Spanberger. What I think – what’s helpful here is that we have not just legislators, but we’ve got practitioners as well. She serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Democrat from Virginia, but also has a distinguished history in serving the Central Intelligence Agency. So strong background on, among other issues, counterterrorism. And on my right we’ve got Congressman Make Waltz from the state of Florida, a Republican. Long history of special operations activities, a green beret, served in, among other countries, Afghanistan. So thank you both for your services, both on this legislative and the executive side.
So a couple of ground rules before we start. We’ll talk for about 40 minutes or so, and then we’ll open it up to broader questions. So please keep those to short questions. This is not the venue for a monologue, so I will interrupt you if we go in the direction of something more than a short question. And we’re going to hit a range of subjects, as you see, directly related to some of the more substantive issues regarding counterterrorism, from Iran to al-Qaida, ISIS, to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and as well as Afghanistan. So this should be a fun event, and one I think that highlights in our view the importance of what CSIS tries to do is stay bipartisan to a range of these substantive issues.
So let’s get started. We want to focus first on Iran. It’s obviously a subject of importance, and it’s also a subject where there are different views on the nature of the threat as well as the response and policy options. So, Mike, just starting with you, first of all, welcome to CSIS.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL): Yeah, thanks.
Seth Jones: And second of all, can you – can you lay out from your perspective the threat as you see it from Iran, and what the U.S. needs to be concerned about?
Rep. Waltz: Sure, sure. But before I dive into Iran, I just want to say about my colleague, Representative Spanberger, and others. I think hopefully you’ll see today that this conversation, this discussion, debate, however we want to label it, should give you hope that, you know, there actually are civil, substantive conversations that happen in the Congress. So despite what you may see in the news the last – the last few days, and this is actually – this is actually the norm.
One of the reasons that I ran is I do think there’s too few practitioners on the national security side in the Congress. In the 1970s we peaked at about 80 percent of the House and the Senate were veterans. Now we’re hovering around 15 to 18 percent. It’s a record low in our nation’s history. And of course, I put my colleagues in the intelligence community, law enforcement and others in that – in that bucket, because it’s not just the understanding of the issues, or that on-the-ground experience, although that is critical.
It’s the ethos that we bring, that regardless of political party, you know, in the foxhole nobody cares about race, religion, creed, socioeconomic background. It’s about mission. It’s about country. It’s about getting things done. In combat if you don’t get things accomplished, bad things happen. There’s immediate consequences. Not always the case in politics. But I think that’s – I don’t want to speak for you, Abigail –
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA): You can. (Laughs.)
Rep. Waltz: But I think that’s a reason a lot of us stepped up into it. Because I have family and friends all the time, like, are you – you know, ask me if I’m, you know, am crazy. And yes, but we need to step up and serve.
So on Iran, I’ve operated against and around IRGC on the ground in western Afghanistan, and Quds Force. And as you know, in my background, I was counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Cheney in the Bush White House. I think if we take a quick snapshot of history, Iran is emboldened by – the regime is emboldened by perceived weakness and they are deterred by perceived strength. Right now I believe that the maximum pressure campaign, economic sanctions campaign, is working.
If you look at the metrics in terms of Iranian oil exports, have gone from about 2 ½ million barrels per day to, by some oil traders that I’ve talked to, less than 400,000. The administration has managed to reduce that amount on the market and yet stabilize prices through working with OPEC and through our own exports. They are facing daily labor riots and unrest. The rial is cratering. Inflation is spiking. I think the administration’s in real trouble in Iran. The regime is in real trouble. And if we think about why – go back to why they came to the table in the first place in 2011-2012, it was because the sanctions then were working.
So I think the administration needs to continue to be – the Trump administration needs to continue to be very clear that their goal is – and Acting Secretary Esper was clear on this in his testimony yesterday, that the goal was to drive the regime back to the table and seek a better deal, a more encompassing deal that encompasses its missile program, all elements of its nuclear program, and has – and seeks to dismantle its program, not freeze it temporarily. So I think that’s where we are now.
In the meantime, the other metric that I’m very – back to the counterterrorism standpoint – that I’m very encouraged by are repeated, consistent, and credible reports of Hezbollah and other Shia proxies not being able to make its payroll, of pulling back in Syria because they don’t have the operations funds to actually field its forces because the funding stream is drying up coming from Tehran. They just can’t afford to do what they’re done and what they’ve done over the last five years when they were flush with cash from the Iran deal.
So that’s kind of where I sit on it all.
Seth Jones: Representative Spanberger, your assessment of the threat right now from Iran?
Rep. Spanberger: So Iran is a malign actor. That’s something that I think everybody pretty much can agree upon. They are a supporter of and fund terrorist efforts in various different places throughout the world. As a potential – a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security. It’s a threat to regional security. And I think that’s an important statement to get out there. So the threat that a nuclear Iran poses is substantial on a variety of different levels, be it regionally, be it against the United States specifically. A strong Iran that feels emboldened is an Iran that funds Hezbollah, that meddles throughout the Middle East region.
But the challenge that – and I agree with what my colleague said on a number of things in terms of what we’re seeing in the economic results and the challenges that the Iranian regime is facing. But I have to ask the question about strategy. I don’t disagree that this maximum pressure campaign may or may not or could potentially drive the Iranians back to the table. But my challenge of understanding is when we already brought them to the table, we already had more than a year’s worth of bilateral negotiations that did get us to a place where by independent review Iran was on a path – was keeping with its bargain – and when I say independent review I mean the IAEA – I have trouble rationalizing why we get on a path of relatively good behavior – I say relatively, caveating that highly – and then decide we walk away from the table, and then say we want the Iranians to come to the table. From my perspective, the strategy isn’t particularly apparent. And that to me is incredibly concerning, because when we’re looking at that larger regional instability, when we’re looking at their impact in, you know, proxy wars with Saudi Arabia and their meddling in – well, not meddling, their complete support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, there are so many pieces that I think reducing it down to we want to bring them back to the table, I think that is a worthy goal but it also ignores all of the efforts and movement forward that we made with our multilateral partners.
And so even from a larger strategic perspective we got many partners onboard to come to the table to negotiate the – and speaking specifically – the Iranian nuclear deal, which I don’t say was the bet deal we possibly could have entered into but it’s exactly what a diplomatic deal is. It’s everybody comes to the table, you put forth what you want, and you walk away with what you can agree on.
So the – kind of the challenge as a member of Congress , a person deeply committed to our national security, and an observer, the apparent lack of a strategy leading towards a specific end goal is, to me, deeply concerning because if it is as frenetic, even if it’s just seemingly frenetic, the seemingly frenetic nature of our foreign policy relative to Iran is also damaging to our relationships with our European partners and it is, I think, undermining our ability long term to get exactly what it is that we want, which is an Iran that doesn’t have power to hurt us militarily be it in the nuclear realm or regionally with its constant meddling and engagement, particularly with Shi’a militant groups.
Seth Jones: So, Representative Waltz, let me – let me come back to the issue of strategy in – with Iran and what we expect to get out of negotiations or other policy steps, going forward. One of the challenges, I think, as I look at Iranian activity in the region is they’re still quite active. Hezbollah may feel under some financial stress right now. But they’re now part of the government in Lebanon.
I was in Israel two weeks ago. The Israelis have indicated strong concerns about Hezbollah’s proliferation of missiles and missile parts both in Lebanon and Syria and, potentially, in Iraq as well. Obviously, IRGC Quds Force is active in Yemen with the Houthis and proliferated missile parts. The Iranians have a missile program right now that, you know, one wonders whether they are really going to give up what is one of their most significant military resources right now.
So part of the question is what’s – as you take it, what is or should be the strategy right now and to achieve what objectives with Iran?
Rep. Waltz: Yeah. Let me – yes, happy to talk to that. I do want to address the question –
Rep. Spanberger: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Rep. Waltz: – some notions that I just don’t think are fully accurate. One is that, you know, Iran and the region were kind of holding hands and singing kumbaya under the nuclear deal and until the Trump administration exacerbated tensions by withdrawing. Absolutely not the case. Iranian militias were running rampant in Iraq. They were supporting a murderous, murderous Assad regime that is bombing – deliberately bombing hospitals and refugee camps, and I think when history looks back on those who are complicit with the Assad regime and if we want to talk about concentration camps can to something we haven’t seen since World War II, I think you’re going to see that in Syria.
What’s going on around the region is – I think malign behavior is, frankly, diplomatic. Further, I think the message that the regime – particularly the Turks, the Emiratis, the Saudis, others – received from the Iran deal was that we have 10 years to get our own program in place, because at the end of 10 years the Iranians are going to be able to flip a switch with a fully developed missile program, with a weaponization program. And maybe they hit the – maybe they hit the pause button on the fissile portion, though I think that’s debatable, but at the end of 10 years – which we’re already halfway through – they would have a fully developed program.
So I think the deal was a bad, bad deal for the United States. And the final piece that – you know, we can’t visit the military sites under the Iran deal. We had to give months of notification for the inspection regime.
It’s kind of like a – it’s kind of like a police officer, you know, saying, I searched the house and I didn’t see anything but I was only able to search two out of the five rooms, right. I mean – and the two rooms were clean, but I wasn’t allowed to search the other two. I mean, the amount of evidence coming out of the region that Iran had a clandestine program and maintained a clandestine program I think is pretty compelling.
So what’s the strategy? The strategy is to get a better deal in line with our interests and, I think, to drive the Iranian regime there. At the end of the day, what the regime cares about the most is its own survival and its own pocket. The IRGC controls, depending on estimates, anywhere from 30 (percent) to 45 percent of the Iranian economy. They are being squeezed.
I am encouraging the administration to not enter back into talks too soon until we’re at a point of leverage where they are really willing to put all of those pieces on the table, which I think they were willing to do in 2012 and we cut a bad deal. And at this point, you know, we cannot be overly focused on one discrete part of a nuclear program that has missiles, it has fissile, that has weaponization, not to mention its support of terrorism and not to mention its other malign activities. I think it all has to be on the table going forward. And by all evidence, I think if we let this program – this maximum pressure program continue, I think we’ll get there.
What I worry about is that they’ll – the regime will seek to do what Kim Jong-un has tried to do, which is to take advantage of a grand summit, or a desire to have a grand summit, and then buy time – particularly thought the 2020 elections. So, you know, my encouragement is to keep up the pressure.
Seth Jones: So looking forward, what’s your sense about where we should be going? We’ve walked away from the nuclear deal right now, as Representative Waltz noted. There are issues on the table that I think are laudable ones. There are concerns about the missile program. There are concerns about IRGC, particularly IRGC Quds Force. So as we look forward, what do you think is achievable now? And what are our allies willing to do in support of any of those objectives right now? Because I think there are differences in views among many of the allies that negotiated the nuclear deal with us.
Rep. Spanberger: So I’d like to start answering that question by giving my lens. So I’m a former intel officer. I collected on the Iranian nuclear target – so intelligence related to Iran’s nuclear program. I am also not supportive of pretty much any of the foreign policy priorities I see coming out of this administration. So – and I say that, and admit that fully, because that’s the lens through which I am viewing this circumstance.
So while I agree with what – much of what my colleague said, I’m also just struck by the administration’s inconsistency as well. Whether we’re talking about how history will look kindly upon us, I question deeply how it is that we refuse to acknowledge what Saudi Arabia is doing in the region, why we – many people will accept – and yesterday we voted on a resolution that – the Senate passed a resolution as well – trying to block our arms sale to Saudi Arabia under the guise of a national security priority. And so that’s one piece of it.
The next piece of it is the relationship that we have with our allies. Whether the deal was a good deal, or a bad deal, or the best deal, we are abandoning our closest allies, in some circumstance. And my colleague mentioned North Korea. The worst thing imaginable, in my opinion, for dealing with the nuclear threat posed by Iran would be to see the United States president stand on stage next to members of the Iranian regime and act like that’s normal. And we’ve seen that with the North Koreans. We’ve seen that with the Russians. With Vladimir Putin and with Kim Jong-un.
So that is my overall perspective and lens that leads me to have great foundational doubt, because in all of these buckets of places where our foreign policy is so incredibly – needs to be strategic, needs to be nuanced, needs to be based on tremendous intelligence and decades’ worth of diplomatic experience, we’re not seeing that. So I admit fully that I have the perspective and the lens of someone who is really unconvinced that this administration has a strong plan. I’m happy to be convinced and to be told that I’m wrong on that one, but when we see – and not to get into sort of the politics of it – but leaked cables from the U.K. ambassador where our closest ally is saying that our strategy is chaotic, that should be a – that should be informative that we are doing something that is separating us from our closest allies, that our efforts on the world stage may be misperceived or misrepresented, or that we from a diplomatic perspective could be stronger or more assertive.
And I think all these things are important because in our efforts and this maximum pressure campaign – which are having results and I think could potentially bring the Iranians to the table, the question is: Who do we want to be at the table with us? And if in the process of getting us back to the table we kick everybody else out of the room, we’re creating a new challenge in the diplomatic realm, apart from the challenges we’re dealing with with Iran. And I think the importance piece of this conversation, and back to Mike’s original point, like this is all so nuanced, and there’s particular pieces, and we all have our lenses. But I think the real value of having people backgrounds like ours is that, you know, we can pick apart all those pieces. And, you know, I can agree with you on half of what you say, right? And we – and we – and there’s the –
Rep. Waltz: It’s a glass half-full.
Seth Jones: That’s right. It’s a glass half-full. (Laughter.)
Rep. Spanberger: But it – but I do think that that’s a really important thing, and something really noticeable with this – particularly our freshman class on both sides of the aisle, is that level of experience, and the sorts of conversations we’re having are far greater than this country bad, this country good, our country good, you know, which is so reductive.
Rep. Waltz: And we actually have conversations not tweets, which is –
Seth Jones: That’s good. (Laughter.)
Rep. Spanberger: It’s because what we have to say doesn’t fit in a tweet. (Laughter.)
Rep. Waltz: Fair enough.
Seth Jones: If I could just stay with you, Representative Spanberger, and move slightly to Yemen. You brought up assistance to Saudi. Yemen’s a complicated country, in part because it has al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula still, they’re operating in an against the Houthis. It’s got a Houthi regime that has received some assistance, including some technical assistance, from the Iranians. There appear to be lots of indications of Hezbollah support as well, including training. The Saudis have had a really difficult time conducting operations in the country. There have been human rights atrocities. The Emiratis look like they’re now starting to back off.
What’s your sense about – and raising the resolution that you folks have been working on – what’s your sense about what we should be doing in Yemen, and what kind of pressure we should be putting on the Emiratis and the Saudis in particular?
Rep. Spanberger: Well, I think it’s important to note that the Saudis are an important strategic partner, particularly – I mean, squarely focused in the area of counterterrorism. But we need to confront them on issues where we disagree, such – I mean, such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And I think standing up for American values with our partners is incredibly important. And it needs to be an element of our engagement. We should be able to tell our partners who work with us on the CT front that the murder of a journalist who lives in the United States is completely unacceptable and have that be part of us – part of our diplomatic relations is being able to advocate for what we think is important. And certainly denouncing murder in a consulate of someone who lives in the United States.
And I’m – certainly believe that we need to continue our relationship with the Saudis. I personally – the challenge that I faced and where much of my disagreement was – and I’m serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee. We had committee hearings related to the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. It isn’t necessarily the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. It is the administration’s effort to get around the constitutional requirement that Congress approve that sale. So there’s a 30-day window when Congress is supposed to review this and approve this sale.
Because part of it is a constitutional issue, part of it is recognizing that we should be having conversations. We should, as members of Congress, get to question whether or not we want to be selling Paveway missiles, as an example, to the Saudis when there’s evidence that they bomb civilians, including school children, and that they are misusing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, those weapons. Does that mean that, you know, we’re summarily saying, don’t sell them anything? Absolutely not.
But it’s saying that Congress should be asserting itself and that from a constitutional perspective, and from a larger where – what precedent do we want to accept perspective, that we should be questioning these sorts of engagements. We should be able to stand up and say: This partner is very strong with us on counterterrorism issues, but we question their behavior in this realm, because I ideally that will bring them to the table. I don’t think we can fix all of their bad behavior, but I think at least having a discussion about it should be something that we should all agree is a necessity.
And in terms of what we’re seeing in Yemen, I mean, the humanitarian crisis of massive starvation of children is something that should shock all of us. And looking at it – and I think – so I think there’s multiple levels. We look at it from the humanitarian crisis perspective. We look at what that means in terms of attempts at emigration out of the country and what that means for people who might be taking any refugees. We are also looking at, you know, a Saudi versus Iran sort of proxy war. There are so many levels at which we need to view what’s happening in Yemen. And you know, I certainly don’t want to reduce it down to we shouldn’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but I think that has to be part of the conversation.
But we need to be discussing what is our goal there. What is our strategic interest in engaging with the Saudis? What are the challenges that face the region because of that ongoing conflict? And what should be our part from a larger diplomatic effort, apart from our military engagement? What should be our engagement on the diplomatic front to either work towards bringing an end to that conflict, and what’s the end state that would best – be great for regional stability but also for U.S. American interests?
Seth Jones: Representative Waltz, Saudis and –
Rep. Waltz: Yeah, I’m in – I’m in agreement with all of – almost everything Abigail put on the table.
Seth Jones: We should stop right there, then. (Laughter.)
Rep. Waltz: Yeah. I mean, look, the Khashoggi killing was atrocious. We shouldn’t stand for it. We should call it out. We do have a broader relationship, so that doesn’t mean we can completely walk away from it in America’s own strategic interests. I share the constitutional concerns in terms of historic norms.
But at the same time, you know, I question blocking or backing away from precision-guided munitions when civilian casualties is one of our principal issues. I mean, that’s – that hardware is what – if used properly, and that is a big if, is what’s helping them prevent civilian casualties. And I would just continue to – I continue to remind my colleagues when – I mean, there were – have been other resolutions of banning any U.S. involvement in Yemen at all – that there is still, aside from the Houthi-Saudi-UAE issue, there is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. They are on the ground. They are dangerous. It is where the almost-bombing of an – of an airliner over Chicago a few years ago on Christmas Eve emanated from. ISIS is also present there. So we have to maintain a presence, but it has to be in line – it has to be in line with our values and we can’t be afraid to have very tough conversations with the leadership of our – of our allies.
I would – I would just, I think, take a step back. One of my concerns now sitting on the Armed Services Committee is the Pentagon and this administration in its National Security Strategy has reemphasized great-power competition, China and Russia, compared to counterterrorism. And I worry that the pendulum is going to swing too far back away from counterterrorism, we’ll lose those valuable lessons learned and capability as we did after Vietnam. I could – I could also imagine and hear that champagne popping in the defense industrial base because now we can get back to our comfort zone of building bombers and tanks and aircraft carriers. You know, having special operators learn languages doesn’t create a lot of jobs in middle America, so there is a longtime historic, natural tendency to go back to the services – the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine – and the industrial base’s comfort zone in preparing for conventional war, and that we will lose those capabilities and those languages that we need in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, all over the world.
This counterterrorism problem isn’t – we can’t wish it away. It will follow us home. We’ve seen that in the past. And it’s something that I’m glad we have folks in the Congress that can stay vigilant and knowledgably vigilant.
Rep. Spanberger: If I can just add to that as well, Mike’s point is a good one because it’s – I think sometimes the conversation about our counterterrorism efforts is stopping terrorists from attacking us.
Rep. Waltz: Yeah.
Rep. Spanberger: But it is – our counterterrorism efforts are so much more than that, because like with Yemen, like with Syria – I mean, the list goes on: Iraq, Afghanistan – it’s the destabilization – Eastern Africa – it’s the destabilization that these terrorist organizations are able to create that is a much broader, long-term strategic threat, both to the regions that they’re creating that instability in but also to the United States and our partners. And so I think sometimes we think of – you know, we haven’t – we’re trying to stop terrorist threats against the United States or against our interests, which is completely factual, but the long-term goal and the long-term priority of continuing our CT efforts – learning languages, having strong – on the military side operators, strong intelligence analysts and operatives on the intel side – is that the whole purpose is these organizations so – not just violence, but complete instability that have much larger ramifications when you look at it from a – from a broader view outside of isolated attacks, that in and of themselves are very destructive but it’s the larger, you know, geopolitical disruption that they cause year after year that needs to continue – that requires that we continue to keep that focus.
Rep. Waltz: Seth, sorry, not to hijack –
Seth Jones: OK, OK. (Laughter.)
Rep. Waltz: – but just one final thought on that.
Look, these – all of these places we mentioned are battlefields in a broader effort in a – what I believe is a global war against extremism and extremism’s global war against Western society. And what we are still lacking is a broader strategy for how to undermine the ideology of Islamic extremism, much like we had to undermine the ideology of communism.
So, you know, we could spend probably another session on this, but you know, what do those big pillars look like, aside from the debates of these individual battlefields? One of them, for me, is girls’ education and women’s empowerment. If you look at societies around the world where women are empowered in civil society and politics and business, you don’t have a huge extremism problem. Not to be sophomoric or oversimplify, but I mean, there is a – there is a strong correlation there in my mind. So that, economic opportunity, we could go on.
But we do need a broader, long-term strategy. Otherwise, we are going to be, you know, 10 years from now talking about these same – these same battlefields. And just as we had Germany and Japan and South Korea and the Cold War, we now have Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria. And we cannot – and multiple administrations have tried – have tried to say too hard, too expensive, too long, we’re done, but they’re not done with us. And that’s why I think we have to stay engaged. It’s probably a good segue into Afghanistan, but we have to stay engaged.
Seth Jones: I’m going to stay on extremism, actually. (Laughs.)
Rep. Waltz: And we can’t just walk away. The United States has to lead.
Seth Jones: I wanted to take Representative Waltz’s comment on extremism – countering violent extremism. You’ve looked at and have pushed for ways to, for example, support women in their role to counter violent extremism. Your thoughts on the importance of countering violent extremism as challenges and even the role of women, for example?
Rep. Spanberger: Oh, I agree with him completely. I mean, if you’re going to root out an ideology that is harmful to societies, to communities, to the world, getting at the heart of it rather than fighting with people once they have adopted an ideology, once they are executing on an ideology, that is the much better strategy. And that’s something that I was involved with when I was at CIA. It is complicated. It is complex. It requires that you understand diverse cultures and diverse ideas, and that – and that you use the tools and recognize, like Mike was talking about girls’ empowerment and girls’ education. The research on that is pretty clear related to where young girls can go to school.
And clearly, it’s an apparent concern because, you know, you look at places where they won’t allow girls to go to school. And you know, one of the most famous examples would be Malala, you know, a young girl who wanted to go to school and they tried to murder her for it, because there’s – the extremist ideology benefits when there isn’t knowledge, when there isn’t opportunity. And so it has to be – you know, countering terrorist ideology or extremist ideology of any sort isn’t easy, but it has to be multifaceted in terms of understanding why the ideology can take hold.
And you know, radicalization that exists in Western countries versus extremist ideology that exists on the ground in Afghanistan is different. It takes root for different reasons, and you have to begin or attempt to understand that. And it’s evolving, so it’s a constant process.
But where you can insert the sort of strength of idea or strength of opportunity that helps to root out the weakness that makes that ideology seem acceptable or palatable is incredibly important. And sometimes it’s meeting basic needs. You know, you look at Lebanon and Hezbollah. Well, when Hezbollah’s bringing the water to your home, like, that’s a basic need, right? And so as much as you can try to root out the ideology, at the end of the day if they are meeting a basic need it becomes very difficult to root it out and very easy to rationalize, well, that’s the man who brought my water. And it’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a good example of where there are holes extremists will fill it. When there are natural disasters and people need to eat, somebody will fill that hole.
And so it’s about making sure that we see weaknesses – and I’m not saying that we push, you know, and fill it with a bunch of Americans. Like, I’m not saying that this has to be us on the ground. I’m not saying it’s us pushing our culture and our language and, you know, that. But it is when there are weaknesses in communities, when there are needs, somebody will fill it. And how is it that through education or through opportunity or through economic engagement there are more options of who can fill those holes and try to limit the amount of times it’s filled by extremist organizations looking to consolidate their power across regions, across countries or communities.
Rep. Waltz: And I think what you – one of the thing that your comment made me think about was when we look at groups like Hezbollah, they are not just an extremist organization per se. They also have a governance function –
Rep. Spanberger: Yeah.
Rep. Waltz: – a public service function that they – so there are much more complicated issues in how you combat groups like that.
Rep. Spanberger: And it creates a conflicted relationship that your population has with an organization that outside of that they deliver my water, they are part of my governing body, they might be far easier for them to denounce or separate from.
Rep. Waltz: Yeah.
Rep. Spanberger: It muddles it in a – in a very difficult way. And we have to – from an American perspective it may not seem that difficult, but you have to try and dig into why is it that they are so just completely ingratiated into all aspects of society. Because if you don’t understand that, if it just – if you look at it in sort of a terrorism bad/good perspective, you’re not going to be able to get at the heart of the problem.
Seth Jones: So both of you have raised the issue of Afghanistan. We’re just about to the – to the Q&A period. But let me just ask you briefly, starting with Representative Waltz, your thoughts right now. We’re now 18 years since 9/11, going on 19 after we passed 9/11. There have been, you know, increasing concerns about whether we should still be there. There is an effort underway led by Ambassador Khalilzad to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. What are your thoughts on whether – what the U.S. role should be in Afghanistan, whether we should be there or not, and what – how optimistic we should be about any kind of a deal with the Taliban?
Rep. Waltz: So I’m very concerned about the ongoing peace talks and where those are going and what we are going to concede. Just to take a step back on – to directly answer your question, I don’t think we have a choice but to be there and to be present. As long as half the world’s terrorist organizations exist in the Afghan-Pakistani border region – several of which, ISIS-K and al-Qaida, have still explicitly stated not only their intent to attack the Afghan government but internationally and the United States as well should they get the opportunity to do so. Not to mention, from a – just a purely U.S. interest standpoint – population Afghanistan, about 30 million. Population Pakistan, about 200-210 million, with a nuclear arsenal that could be – you know, loose nukes should concern everyone. And instability in Pakistan should concern everyone.
So it is absolutely in our interests. I don’t think, again, we can just wish it away because we’ve been there a long time. The goal cannot be just bring the troops home. If you’re worried about 10,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan and whether that’s in our interests, and if you goal was to bring some of them home, well, then I’d remind everyone we’ve had 50,000 troops in Japan since World War II. We’ve got 30,000 troops in South Korea. We have 30,000-plus in Germany. I mean, you know, so I got in this argument with my good friend Tucker Carlson on Fox. If your goal is to say, well, just bring the troops home, then there’s a lot of places you could shave a few thousand troops.
What isolationists or what libertarians are being, I think – or are not explaining is, well, what do we afterward, right? And if we have to end up fighting our way back in, not only whether it’s our local allies with the Kurds in the Syria or with the Afghans after we’ve – after we’ve just left, I think that’s going to be far more expensive and far more costly. I’m concerned on the negotiations about discussions of public withdrawal timelines. I was Afghanistan in 2009 when President Obama announced the surge, but then publicly told the world that it was only going to be there a temporary amount of time, and then that would be the beginning of the end.
And one of my warrant officers standing next to me, as we’re watching this about to go out on a mission, said: Sir, this is like Franklin Delano Roosevelt announcing D-Day, but telling the Germans: We’ll only be there six months. I mean, how do you think that’s going to play out? And it didn’t play out well. I mean, everyone instantly began hedging against us – whether it was local elders, or Afghan government officials, or the enemy – for the beginning of the end. And we can’t have that dynamic again.
Last piece, I think the pieces we have in place now are right. A counterterrorism mission to keep – kinetically to have them on their back foot. And I think we’ve effectively done that, both through CIA and Special Operations Command. That must sustain itself and must be left in place. And then a train, and advise, and equip mission for the Afghan army. That is difficult, expensive, painful. You know, we have a – we have a higher literacy rate in the military, but – in the Afghan military. But I’ll remind people, we had a higher illiteracy rate in the South Korean military in the 1950s than the Afghan army has today. And we’ve seen through sustained engagement over time a very capable fighting force. There’s a lot of holes you could poke in that analogy, but I do think it’s a good example of sustained American engagement, aligned with our interests, and what it can do over time.
Seth Jones: Final thoughts on Afghanistan or even the costs or benefits of pulling out? I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the issues of what a Taliban government would look like, and what would happen to human rights, let alone women’s rights, in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Rep. Spanberger: Mmm hmm. Yeah, and then how long does it take to roll back to where we were 20 years ago?
Seth Jones: Yeah.
Rep. Spanberger: I agree with pretty much everything my colleague said. But I will note that part of the conversation is, you know, individuals posted in Germany or Japan are there with their families. It’s a different experience. And so to make it a little bit more on the personal side, the – what we are seeing when we are sending our servicemembers off to Afghanistan on this continual rotation, it has impact at home. And I know I don’t have to tell you that. But it has impact at home that you have servicemembers going on tours, their second, their third, their fourth. The impact on families back home, the impact on us back home culturally and economically in terms of what’s happening with that constant churn I think is what makes it different.
I do think that it is important to note that we did not just walk out of Germany. We did not just leave Japan. I do think that’s an incredibly important piece. But I think recognizing the impact back home that our continued engagement, in the way that it’s unique in Afghanistan, what that continued engagement’s impact on servicemembers’ families and local economies is important to note. Does that, you know, push me towards one decision or another? No. But I think it’s incredibly important that we bring that portion of the conversation, because when we are looking at all of our options and all of the challenges we’re facing, that is one that is unique to where we are 18 years into our conflict in Afghanistan, and our continued U.S. presence there.
Seth Jones: Yeah, and we’re – yeah, go ahead.
Rep. Waltz: Just one more quick piece. You know, when you look back at the history of Vietnam, when we’re talking about a part of these negotiations pulling our advisors out of the – out of the – away from the Afghan army. You know, the South Vietnamese army didn’t fall when America pulled out. They fell several years later when the Congress refused to stop funding the efforts. We still – for the South Vietnamese army. We still fund several billion dollars a year to the Afghan army.
And I could easily foresee a few years forward, if we no longer have advisors on the ground ensuring those money is being spent properly and appropriately, and aligned with what our taxpayers would expend, that – the Congress pulling back on those funds. And I think that absolutely would be the beginning of the end of the Afghan army, and therefore a stable Afghanistan, and therefore a stable region. And we’re back to, you know, a descent into chaos. And so I just – I think this – what’s being put on the table has me very concerned.
Seth Jones: And obviously, just to add to your point, not just military members but case officers, and diplomats, and development officers and others who have served, and NGO workers for that matter.
OK, I think we’ve got microphones here. If we could – we’ve got time for a few questions. Why don’t we start right here? If you could stand up, actually, and just –
Q: Hi. I’m Sean Naylor from Yahoo News.
The Defense Department has successfully argued that a range of activities, some of which might have previously been considered covert activities – to include offensive cyber operations, sort of under the radar special operations missions in countries that we’re not officially at war in – count as traditional military activities and are therefore overseen by the Armed Services Committees rather than the Intelligence Committees or, in some cases, the Foreign Relations Committees. As warfare has evolved in the 21st century, do each of you feel that the mechanisms of congressional oversight have kept pace with that evolution? And are you confident that you, as members of Congress, are getting all of the information on those sorts of activities that you need to make policy?
Rep. Waltz: You know, six months in, so far, Sean, yes. I’m on the Intelligence and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. We receive quarterly counterterrorism briefings. We receive quarterly – all classified – quarterly cyber briefings. There’s always kind of attention there in terms of what information is brought to the table and, you know, how deeply we can go. But so far – for example, I just asked for and extensive briefing on China and Russia’s counterspace activities. And I’ve sat down with the deputy commander, the three-star commander of the Space Command.
So, so far, I’m satisfied. I mean, we could probably go into a much broader debate of AUMF and where these activities are happening and where they’re not, and whether those are regions of conflicts and fully authorized. That’s a long-standing debate that we could probably have another hour on.
Rep. Spanberger: Or two.
Rep. Waltz: And I have some concerns there. But in terms of the responsiveness and the oversight thus far, with some caveats but overall yes.
Rep. Spanberger: So I don’t serve on the Armed Services Committee. I serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Generally speaking, I have found that our committee is doing strong work in terms of the oversight component of our efforts. Where I do feel that we face challenges is as it relates to Iran. I have been less than pleased by some of the information and some of the engagement that I’ve seen from administration officials related to Iran and Iran strategy – be that in open briefings or in classified ones. You know, I think this is a larger-scale problem that in a place where we are willing to – where we have such a partisan divide sometimes, or often, that it becomes difficult to differentiate one’s objections to what an administration is doing from one’s kind of political lens.
And I say that because, you know, I object to a lot of things that the Trump administration is doing. But it isn’t because it’s the Trump administration. It’s because I’m asking questions and I’m not pleased with the answer.
I’m new to Congress. I don’t know how it was under the last administration. I certainly don’t know how it was 20 years ago. Everyone says it was far less partisan and that was helpful, and so I believe that assessment. Your question in terms of is the oversight happening, I think we are doing – I think we are doing the job we were sent to Congress to do. I think that we do have strong oversight happening, be it on Foreign Affairs, be it on Armed Services, and from all that I know on the HPSCI as well.
But I actually think that we have a responsibility as members of Congress to assert that when we disagree with a policy it is a policy, and to attempt to take some of the emotional partisanship that so many of our colleagues revel in out of it because in issues of national security there shouldn’t be kind of deep emotional partisan reactions because that becomes dangerous quickly.
Seth Jones: All right. I apologize. I’ve got one last question right here, and if we can keep it brief and answers brief we can let you get on it, right. Up here. Yeah.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for coming out here. My name is D.T. Mahesh (ph) and I’m with Boeing.
My question for you both was in the past couple of years we’ve seen a slew of people from Western countries being lured in by terrorist ideology. I guess my question is two parts. First of all, why do you think these extremists and terrorist groups are succeeding, and secondly, in your opinion, what would be the strategy we should adopt in order to defend this from taking place?
Seth Jones: All in 30 seconds.
Rep. Waltz: All in 30 seconds. I think people are inspired by groups that are perceived to be winning and I think that’s why you saw a spate of recruitments and lone wolf actors when ISIS had a caliphate and was ascendant. We’ve now fairly effectively destroyed ISIS as a caliphate and a country but not as a movement.
But you have seen – I mean, we haven’t had the attacks that we’ve seen before and I do think there’s a direct correlation. I also think the State Department, the intelligence community, and DOD is doing much better in the cyber realm and the counter extremism realm. We have a long way to go to really get at the root of it. But at least being able to counter it from a recruitment standpoint, we are – we are better than we were several years ago.
Rep. Spanberger: And when you’re looking at the recruitment that happens overseas, and I talked about sort of filling those holes and weaknesses, that’s what you see in countries that are facing strong economic challenges.
When you look at the London bombers, when you look at Americans who have been recruited, when you look in Western countries where people have been recruited into terrorist organizations, typically they are more, generally speaking, middle class. It is – it is not that same level of kind of economic desperation and this is who’s bringing my water. It becomes far more about a sense of belonging.
And so I think if we are trying to address issues of radicalization at home in the United States or in some of our partner Western nations, it has to be an issue of addressing places where people get isolated, boxed out. They look for belonging. People find belonging in all sorts of places. It is very similar to recruitment into gangs or cults or other organizations where they find their being. Every aspect of who they are becomes all encompassed with their identity now as a terrorist and it is – the kind of – the recruitment effort – you are special, we are special, you know, we’re up against this boogeyman type threat – it’s to pull people in to give them an identity.
And that becomes an issue of social and cultural and economic opportunity, and the more we are watching our communities divide and isolate and bucket, the less we are doing to inoculate people to the sort of need to belong and be a part of something bigger than themselves and because that is – that is the – that is what these recruiters will play on and that’s what they’ll go after to bring them in.
Rep. Waltz: Can I just add just one – you know, again, back to the analogy with communism, we had the Shining Path in Peru. We had the Red Brigades in Europe, right. We had – we had communist-inspired terrorist groups recruiting all through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Why can’t they recruit anymore? Because their ideology is defunct, and that’s my point of where we need to get to with extremism to undermine and discredit and demolish the ideology, and once that happens the groups – they won’t have a basis to recruit.
Seth Jones: Well, we are at the end of our program here. I hope you will join me in thanking both Representative Waltz and Representative Spanberger for what was really an example, both of you, in objectivity. I think any of us looking at the next five to 10 years, especially as you’re new to Congress, I have high hopes that we have a group of new men and women in Congress that are able to talk about serious issues without political emotion – I think you used the term – and be able to agree on issues where there – where there’s agreement and disagree where there’s substantive disagreement.
Rep. Waltz: Despite the news, the last few days we did last night pass an intelligence authorization, overwhelmingly bipartisan. I think it was 300 and something votes. So we are getting some things done.
Rep. Spanberger: With lots of good amendments from both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Waltz: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Seth Jones: Great. Well, if you’d join me in thanking them. This was a great event. (Applause.)