Strange Bedfellows: Countering Violent Extremism Key to Development and Security
President Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid generates criticism as several countries remain at risk of famine and under the grips of terrorism. But opportunity might reside in the administration’s focus on security, where non-traditional strategy could still address foreign extremism at its roots.
From the outset, President Trump and the development community appear as strange as bedfellows can get. While famine looms over regions of Africa and the Middle East, the Trump administration has proposed cuts of its foreign aid budget intended to treat such crises. The paradox sparked criticism that development funding should be impervious to cuts, a critique which Trump himself might be impervious to. Others counter that U.S. withdrawal from Africa’s development will yield strategic influence to the economic competitors Trump opposes, namely China. Yet, with Trump breaking from tradition, the best path to it addressing such crises might not reside in development, but security, where nontraditional strategies can address both terrorism and development at the roots.
Countries facing starvation include Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen. It should escape no one that these three places are also torn by violent extremism. Trump will insist on calling this Islamic extremism, an association many consider unhelpful. Yet, to dwell on the terminology could miss an opportunity to counter not only dangerous extremism at home, but also the development crises it underpins abroad. The paths of groups like Boko Haram, cutting off Northern Nigeria from Lake Chad water sources; al-Shabaab, known to commandeer Somali food aid; and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which displaced tens of thousands of southern Yemenis, have uprooted subsistent ways of life and sowed the seeds for today’s famine with the tools of terror.
It might go by many names, but Countering Violent Extremism, Preventing Violent Extremism, or even Countering Radical Islamic Extremism, remains an influential framework to address the developmental roots of insecurity beyond traditional counterterrorism strategies, which are sometimes even blamed for enflaming crises. Countering extremism, conversely, has capability to reach beyond both the quick-fix of kinetic military operations and the diplomatic impasses of soft power to encompass crucial development indicators, from resource scarcity to food insecurity, which are precursors to not only extremism, but also famine.
Certainly, instability across Africa and the Middle East created safe havens for terrorist groups from Boko Haram to al-Shabaab and AQAP. But it also led to extreme poverty and mass displacement, predicating security and humanitarian disasters on the same root causes. Therefore, the most efficient solution is not the quick-fix, but preventative action so the United States can stop responding crisis-to-crisis around the world – precisely the cycle Trump detests – and start uprooting crises by their causes. This requires a pro-active and holistic approach to security that incorporates civilian and development efforts in building the institutional capabilities of failing states.
This is particularly important in Africa and the Middle East where many governments still struggle to meet even basic needs. There, countering extremism before it develops into terrorism – still a tenet of U.S. National Security Strategy – should be considered in both security and development assistance priorities addressing the poor socioeconomic, education or resource scarcities which feed extremist ideology and recruitment.
Among countries on the brink of famine, only Nigeria still has a central government capable of reaching its starving citizenry, leaving room for bilateral cooperation to build services that can upend Boko Haram’s reliance on joblessness and poverty, which according to ORB International are the greatest predictors of support for the terrorist group. Suffice to say, extremist groups lose when they’re measured against a functioning government – the summary targeting of civilians tends to be unpopular, so long as it’s not the only authority people know.
Yet, in Somalia and Yemen, where national governments haven’t functioned in years – or decades – starving populations are caught under the rock of extremist groups, rather than between it and a hard place. There, the international community is among the only development sources remaining. Surgical strikes and raids in Somalia against al-Shabaab defined the elusive Obama doctrine of foreign intervention and was soon applied to Yemen by Trump. Now with U.S. ground troops under fire in Somalia and the Lake Chad Basin, the Trump administration’s efforts to suppress terrorist actors leaves room for improvement with development-based initiatives that reach beyond the kinetic.
So, while development professionals may protest the Trump administration’s proposed cuts and terminology, they should also seek new opportunities in the security strategy of an administration whose counterterrorism focus could still cut across their sectors. And for counterterrorism professionals accustomed to traditional security assistance, addressing foreign extremism will also require development, or the crisis-to-crisis cycle between instability and insecurity will remain unbroken.