What Comes After the Africa Drawdown?
A weekend report on the U.S. reduction of forces in Africa contains a key and unattended insight midway through the article. The article cited three reasons for escalating violent extremism in and around Burkina Faso, with the first being the success of French operations in pushing violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to other regions, destabilizing peripheral contexts. The second two stated: “armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations” and “abuses have fueled jihadist recruiting.” In many contexts similar to Burkina Faso, these latter two points – local grievances and abuses by security forces – go hand in hand with weak or absent governance. Yet, the crux of the article was to problematize the U.S. military’s troop drawdown, which is cushioned by $100 million in material support to the Burkinabe military over two years.
In 2006, the United Nations adopted a four-pillared counterterrorism strategy. The consensus today views progress on the second and third pillars: 2) preventing and combating terrorism (implicitly through kinetic means) and 3) building countries’ capacity to combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations system in that regard. The first and fourth pillars, however, are broadly understood as neglected: 1) tackling conditions conducive to terrorism and 4) ensuring respect for human rights for all and the rule of law while countering terrorism. In previous work, I have done on inter-communal violence, colleagues and I have found broad consensus that weak or absent governance provides a context rife for violence. My current work revolves around vulnerabilities of a population group in East Africa, and I have found their vulnerability arises from government abuses and a lack of opportunity. What is clear is that all of these issues will not be resolved by security forces, but by better governance and strategic development assistance.
It is no accident that al Shabaab evolved in a defunct Somali state (in some ways it is shocking that it did not happen sooner), that al Qaeda found a safe haven in rural Afghanistan, that Boko Haram resides on the undeveloped edges of Nigeria and Chad, and that ISIS took root in ungoverned Syria and Iraq while finding satellite homes in the far-flung corners of Libya, Egypt, and Southeast Asia. Each of these regions is marked by weak or absent governance. ISIS, in particular, is not the first VEO to operate in any of its current regions, demonstrating the problem to be endemic to the context, not based upon the current iteration. Militarily defeating ISIS in the peripheries of Iraq and Syria will not prevent another organization from stepping into its stead.
One of the key factors in the thriving of VEOs is money. Young men (and, to a lesser degree, women) are enticed to join VEOs because those VEOs offer physical and financial security in places lacking both. A 2014 study of former low-level al Shabaab militants found financial incentives to be a key recruitment tool. The bulk of localized, low-level fighting forces are not ideological converts, but a desperate demographic seeking basic provisions. Cutting off sources of funding has been a significant tool in the fight against VEOs, though such actions leave the same population groups vulnerable to the next VEO that comes along.
Rather than expanding support for good governance or human rights, the United States has broadly chosen drones and guns to advance the fight against VEOs. Unfortunately, the security forces that the United States is training and intends to leave behind are, in many cases, the sources of abuse. A 2017 UNDP study, Journey to Extremism in Africa, found 71 percent of those who voluntarily joined a VEO did so in direct response to government action: “In a majority of cases, paradoxically, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa.”
One of the current darlings of Western funders is countering violent extremism (CVE). Unfortunately, Journey to Extremism in Africa found 48 percent of those who voluntarily joined VEOs were aware of CVE programming before they joined, indicating a significant shortcoming in current iterations. Moreover, CVE has long been the purview of Department of Defence, virtually converging with counterterrorism (CT). One 2015 DoD report notes the DoD has no definition of CVE, effectively negating any distinction between the two: “The line between CT and CVE is blurred both in theory and in practice.” The bulk of CVE funding directed outside of the United States goes toward bolstering the problematic security forces that appear to be contributing to recruitment in the first place.
The drawdown of U.S. troops in Africa may not be a strategic mistake unless the U.S. fails to more broadly support good governance and protection of human rights. To effectively counter violent extremism abroad, the first and fourth pillars of the UN strategy must receive more attention and funding. This requires development assistance, government accountability, security forces accountability, and the defense of basic human rights. In the long term, all are necessary to prevent conditions that will leave the next iteration of violent extremism to take root and foment terror. As the article this weekend states, “Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.”