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A Look at the American ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Strategy

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This article was originally published by Saferworld on 26 July 2016.

The US Department of State and USAID have laid out how American development and diplomacy agencies will work together to reduce violent extremism abroad. David Alpher urges caution in the melding of development and security agendas – a prospect that risks undermining the objectives of both.

The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda has grown so rapidly in American policy that, “at this point,” one government official jokes, “even the lunch ladies in the cafeteria are doing CVE.” The White House held a head-of-state level summit on the subject in 2015, and the State Department recently merged its CVE and counter-terrorism work into one combined bureau—but until May 2016, the term had never been officially uttered by USAID. Alternative phrasing like The Development Response to Violent Extremism, for examplethe title of the last USAID report on the subject — helped insulate American development and peacebuilding efforts from the securitized aspects of the rapidly growing CVE agenda.

The Department of State & USAID Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism – released at the end of May, officially changed all that. The strategy sets out how American development and diplomacy will work together to help to reduce violent extremism. Navigating this cooperation is a complicated and at times dangerous path, and following the upcoming election, the next US administration will have a good deal of work ahead to decide whether it is really progress or not. My thoughts on that are here.

Is ‘violent extremism’ the cart or the horse?

The strategy lays out well the drivers that too often lead to violent extremism:

‘Actions by states can serve as drivers of violent extremism, including state-sanctioned violence and heavy-handed tactics by security actors, corruption, systematic denial of fair trial guarantees, discriminatory governance practices, state propagation of religious and/or ethnic intolerance. State repression of cultural and religious expression, especially when seen as targeting a specific religion or sect, or when perceived as so entrenched that only extreme responses could make change a real possibility, can also serve as a driver of violent extremism. As evidenced in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere, violent conflicts and the breakdown of the rule of law can fuel and enable the spread of violent extremism.’

Reading this, I’m left thinking I couldn’t agree more about the importance of those drivers of violence. But I’m also left thinking that this misses the bigger picture.

State-sanctioned violence, bad governance, and injustice are not only drivers of violent extremism: they are issues that should be addressed anyway, simply on their own merits. Beyond violent extremism, they also lead to a wealth of other problems such as forced migration, reversed development, lost investment, and increased corruption. Even in a CVE strategy, for the US to encourage its diplomats and officials to focus on major injustices only to the extent that ‘violent extremists’ are revolting against them is a problem: it may lead to neglect of these more fundamental conflict drivers in favor of more superficial, potentially counterproductive strategies, or for those fundamental problems simply to be ignored if violent extremism is not among their symptoms. So ironically, the strategy could be more effective in reducing the threat from violent groups if its primary focus was simply to reduce violence, improve governance and tackle injustice.

Integrating security goals into development tools: caution needed

Secretary Kerry’s introduction to the strategy states ‘we will mobilize the full range of America’s diplomatic and development tools and power to meet this challenge.’ From the beginning, this sets a stage that leaves no space to defend tools that perhaps should not be used towards this goal, or situations in which it might be better to step back and reconsider the implications of mobilizing the full range of America’s toolbox.

Community policing is a good example of such a tool—used well, community policing helps to improve the safety of both communities and police, by integrating police as a service provider within, rather than a force over communities. The heavy handed and violent tools and tactics, as well as the intelligence-gathering networks required of a counter-terrorism force, however, tend to pit communities and police against each other and increase friction and violence.

Such examples show how the call to ‘promote international efforts to elevate the importance of CVE, alongside security-based counterterrorism measures’ could backfire. Skewing development efforts to serve our own security purposes has been repeatedly shown to undermine its effectiveness and increase risk to aid personnel. So it shouldn’t be assumed that the security objectives of CVE can be integrated into development work without disrupting the primary purpose of development: to advance the rights and well-being of vulnerable people.

Own goals?

Local ownership and the local design of priorities and programs have consistently been shown to increase success rates of development programs. In line with this, authors of a USAID and the State Department blog this month stated that we ‘know that [violent extremism] prevention efforts are most effective when led by communities themselves.’

However, what the US strategy will actually do is encourage local populations to ‘lead’ efforts when the goals and priorities have already been decided for them, which defeats the purpose and will likely reduce the benefit we intended. The primary criterion for prioritizing communities and programming under the USAID and State Department strategy is the “extent of threat and risk to US interests… US persons, [and] our allies.” This is perhaps the most problematic element of the strategy, with major potential for discrepancies between local needs and foreign priorities. This risk is not addressed within the report, nor is the implication that American lives take priority over local ones.

To some degree, this is understandable—altruism only goes so far when budgets need to be defended. But ultimately people living in violent contexts will only buy into peace efforts that serve their needs. As in Yemen and Afghanistan, they are likely to remain suspicious or hostile towards development programs that work for national or international security goals without meaningfully shifting the status quo in their favor.

Justice and rule of law: how and for whom?

Overall, the focus on justice and rule of law throughout this (and indeed a growing number of US strategies) is positive. But we need to be careful that we don’t only concern ourselves with justice issues that are directly connected to our own security needs.

Too often, the methods national governments use to fight terrorism and violent extremism are themselves seen—rightfully—as unjust by the populations who bear the brunt. US strategy would be more effective if it was focused on upholding justice and the rule of law in their own right, independent of whether they reduce violent extremism, and conscious of when the short-term fight undermines the long-term goals. Analysis of the way in which Al Shabaab has exploited local, inter-group grievances in Kenya underlines the point: that violent groups will continue to thrive until the major grievances of conflict affected people are meaningfully addressed by both their governments and those who support them.

The strategy’s emphasis on community policing is also excellent. Community policing is a powerful tool for building trust and peace within society, and preferable by far to heavy-handed approaches. So this top-line policy emphasis on a people-focused approach comes as a welcome move.

However, the intention to focus this on “communities most susceptible to violent extremism” and to “target identified drivers of violent extremism in specific geographic areas or for particular segments of a population” raises questions of whether the model is understood as thoroughly as it should be. Community policing should be a service-wide ethos applied fairly to all communities. If the strategy is instead to identify and target ‘problem’ communities, perhaps for intelligence gathering, or so that those with dissenting views can be neutralized, this could prove divisive and defeat the purpose.

Relatedly, ‘violent extremism’ and ‘violent extremist ideology’ (found elsewhere in the document), remain ill-defined and open-ended. This offers room for interpretation that could potentially enable partner governments—some of whom already have poor records on human rights and democracy—to criminalize anti-government dissent. Egypt is in the process of giving the world a very clear reminder of just how far this can go. To be effective, any CVE strategy worth its salt needs to transform authoritarian security approaches into their opposite – rather than seeking to work benignly alongside hard security measures.

Likewise, funds to ‘build local capacity to strengthen community resilience to counter violent extremist radicalization and recruitment,’ can also risk incentivizing radicalization by local strongmen in order to garner development funds—something American forces encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steps ahead

For all its challenges, the CVE agenda still offers a way to look proactively at the root causes and dynamics behind violence that counter-terrorism, with its limited focus on “kill or capture,” never could.

Despite the pitfalls noted above, this strategy recognizes that repressive and abusive governance contributes to violent extremism, and that the US should encourage and assist partner governments to improve their policies and approaches. Throughout the document, a focus on improving local-level governance and injustice represents a solid improvement over past strategies, which have been far more state-centric. The next administration should take note of this—it’s worth building upon and improving still further.

In recent years, USAID has consistently deprioritized and marginalized its democracy and governance portfolio. By this point, the segments of USAID most suited to building governance, justice and peace—and countering violent extremism, incidentally—are chronically underfunded and understaffed. This is the right moment to reverse the trend.

Looking further ahead, it will be for the next administration to decide whether US strategy could become simpler and more effective if it more fully embraces an agenda to reduce violence, improve governance and tackle injustice, working hand in hand with peoples and governments that embrace the same values. America could champion these priorities for their own sake, not just as a tactic for countering violent extremism – and we should remember that violent extremism can never pose enough of a threat to be worth compromising their integrity.


About the Author

David Alpher is Saferworld’s Advocacy Manager (US).

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