Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from General (Ret) Joseph Votel, Former Commander of U.S. Central Command.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

CTC: 9/11 shaped your service. You went on to serve as the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. You then led Special Operations Command. As the head of Central Command, you led the fight that liberated large areas of Syria and Iraq from the Islamic State. Can you talk us through how that day, 9/11, was for you, the sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the way you were able to contribute to the CT mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are some of the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable high and low points?

Votel: It's a great question. Let me just start at the day of September 11th, and I think like many, it was shocking to see the images of that morning. At the time, I had just become the Ranger Regiment commander, only been in command for about a month, and there [was] this kind of disbelief in what I was seeing--trying to understand the confusion, shock of what was happening--but almost simultaneously, an instant recognition that everything was changing for us. And as we collectively gained this appreciation, not fully knowing where this was going to go, I think all of us in uniform knew that something had changed for all of us, and that this would change the direction of our organizations and the direction of our country for the foreseeable future. So a morning of initial confusion, but a moment of clarity afterwards that this attack on our nation had changed everything.

My participation after 9/11 started with our initial combat operations into Afghanistan in October of 2001, which I would describe as limited operations focused on disruption of the AQ Taliban leadership and the al-Qa'ida network. Over time, these limited operations gave way to actual campaigning. And, of course, we saw this not just in Afghanistan, but we saw it in Iraq after our incursion in 2003, and especially in the fall of 2003 when the insurgency really started to change things on the ground. Eventually, we were conducting large-scale, conventional counter-insurgency operations with integrated special operations capabilities while also sustaining unilateral CT operations throughout all of this period.

Along the line, we began to really focus in on targeted CT operations. One of the early challenges that I think we had--and I can remember talking about this with other commanders and with my higher-level commanders--is the idea of man hunting. How do we go about doing that? Al-Qa'ida represented this very unique, human-centered network that we had to go after, and we knew we had to identify the people and go after them. It really led us to a man-hunting approach, as we began to understand it better.

As well, we began to recognize the importance of partnerships, how we worked with different people--not only with our international partners but really within our own government--these campaigns really forced people to begin to work together. There were dichotomies between the Department of Defense's CT approach and the intelligence community's CT approach. And so those had to be reconciled over time, and these were issues that we grappled with for years. And, of course, all of this ultimately resulted in much better-defined CT strike policies, processes, and approaches that I think were largely very, very successful for us.

The one thing that I would share with you is that as somebody who was involved in this right after 9/11 and then really up through 2019 after the completion of the military campaign against the caliphate, our ability to work together, not just with other partners but really within our own government, just improved significantly. As I look back on it and then as I look forward, this is something that I hope we're able to maintain; this was so important to us, and it presented our national leadership with such great capabilities, when we could all come together and leverage the unique capabilities that we had.

Along the way, there were high points and low points. For me, one of the high points was the campaign we prosecuted against the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I had a front row seat to that as the CENTCOM Commander. Just very, very proud of the way that we learned from our previous experience doing counterterrorism operations and brought them forward into this campaign. From a military standpoint, we did a very, very good job, and I think we accomplished what we were asked to do by the national leadership.

And, of course, there were lows along the way. Certainly all of us who have been involved in this for a long time have lost friends and others that we've served with. We've seen the impact on families and on individuals after repeated tours. And again, those are things that we'll always continue to live with.

For me, I think the most difficult point came in August of 2011 and specifically in the early morning hours of August 6th when Extortion-17, a helicopter that was conducting an operation under my command, was shot down in the Tangi Valley and, with it the loss of 37 operators, Afghan partners, and crew members. This shootdown occurred in enemy-held terrain. It was a really, really difficult challenge for us. But even in that difficulty, I can point to the signs of increased cooperation and support from all of our partners on the battlefield. We had conventional forces that came to our assistance, literally helped us fight into that area and secure the location, so we could recover our fallen heroes from enemy-controlled terrain. And, of course, we had all the support we needed to get these heroes back into the arms of their families in the United States.

CTC: This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the daring counterterrorism operation that ended up killing Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. Over the past decade, as you well know, there has been a considerable amount of debate about the state of al-Qa'ida and the broader al-Qa'ida network, especially its capabilities, status, and ability to endure. What is your assessment of the United States' campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa'ida and the nature of the threat posed by the group today? And what areas have the United States and its allies achieved some level of 'success' or 'won'? In what areas has the United States performed less well with challenges still remaining? Given the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the late summer 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, what is your level of concern that al-Qa'ida may bounce back as a major threat to U.S. security?

Votel: This is also something which is important to reflect [on] and talk a little bit about as well. As I look at the campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa'ida, I do believe we've had a large amount of success against them. We've certainly been successful in disrupting and suppressing this network over a long period of time; we've prevented places like Afghanistan, a variety of other places from...

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