It will take time to fully understand what occurred over the course of 20 years of war in Afghanistan, let alone what took place there in the last several months, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' "Smart Women, Smart Power" event Oct. 1.
The first woman in the No. 2 leadership position at the Defense Department, the deputy secretary, discussed myriad military issues at the event, beginning with how the Taliban overtook Afghanistan in a matter of days in August as the U.S. military was departing.
"What we have seen to date in these early indications are that the Taliban had been pretty focused for some time on developing their contacts and working [with] key leaders in the African community … and, in the [Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan] from that point forward, there had been a shift in how we think at this point, how the Afghan security forces looked at the U.S. commitment, and the viability of that commitment," Hicks said. "And if you factor in [former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani's] very surprising departure — literally overnight, after having assured U.S. officials that he was in it for the long haul — I think that was the last point. But," she added, "I do think you really have to reach back further to understand the dynamics that led to where we are today."
The United States has a specific approach to Afghanistan called Over the Horizon, a counterterrorism effort, she noted. "Think about Yemen and areas in North Africa where we know al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and other groups operate from ISIS. We are not reliant largely on U.S military personnel to execute counter-terrorism operations there … So, what we're really talking about in Afghanistan is a normalizing of how the U.S. pursues its counterterrorism missions."
That counterterrorism effort is about U.S. collection capabilities, such as what's found in space assets and human intelligence networks, particularly with ISIS or al-Qaeda and their attempts to be global movements, Hicks explained.
"A lot of that is happening across computer networks. It's not happening, if you will, in cells that are meeting just on the ground."
She added that President Joe Biden's goal is not to stop everything that happens in Afghanistan; but rather, the United States is focused on Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens.
"I'm reasonably confident that ISIS will not have any interest or capabilities to have a physically manifested threat that comes against the United States," Hicks said. "ISIS threats emanate globally. Our biggest toolsets are things like computer network operations — and here at home, it's the FBI and local law enforcement working closely with federal authorities. On the national security side, that's the ISIS challenge. On al-Qaeda, we will keep a laser focus on ensuring that they cannot undertake efforts to attack U.S. citizens." Also in the plan for Afghanistan is holding the Taliban responsible for their agreement, which they made under Doha, to not allow any such organizations to reconstitute against U.S. interests, she said.
She also discussed the recently stood up U.S. Space Force, and how DOD is continuing to build out the "shaping" of the force and its capabilities on nuclear issues in support of an overall White House-driven perspective on how it thinks about space, the deputy secretary said.
"We have a lot of commercial capability here in the United States, and a lot of innovators in the space sector that put us at an advantage over our competitors — the Russias and the Chinas of the world — who are also doing a lot in space. A lot of where we're trying to go in terms of space defense is working closely with partners on the civilian commercial side, while retaining some unique, specific and high-quality capabilities within the U.S. government, making sure we're focused on keeping our edge to defend the United States," Hicks said.
The child of a career military officer, Hicks said she also had strong college mentors who helped her make her decision to go into public policy.
"I came out of college at the time the Berlin Wall came down and at the time the Soviet Union dissolved," she said. "It was very natural for me to look at the national security realm and public service." She began what was then known as DOD's presidential management internship at age 23.
"I was young and female, and did not come with an operational background — meaning I had not served in the military — and there was a lot to overcome," Hicks said. "I'm not going to whitewash that. But if you could demonstrate your merit, if you could show you could do good work, chances were people needed your good work. And that's what brought me to DOD and kept me here for so long."
There was a significant influx of young professionals following 9/11 that have been in the military services and on the national security civilian side. Twenty years later, that's a full generation," she noted.
The deputy secretary said young workers today are more focused on a globalized world and look at national security tied to how people think about their at-home security: They're thinking about how the United States strengthens itself from within, and they look at what the United States needs to do to be a credible beacon of freedom, Hicks said.
"They're very focused on how to weave the story of America, at home and abroad together," she said. "And they're much more diverse. I think we have a long way to go, but [we are] much more diverse than we used to be. And it is true that we see many more women [in the workforce] than we used to."
As for women who want to follow in Hicks' footsteps, her advice is to expect challenges and be passionate about the work they want to do. "It's the passion you're going to need when you have the challenges. And you have to be able to step forward confidently and be ready to demonstrate that you bring value. If you're confident you bring value and you present that forward to the world … you can go pretty far."