With his announcement to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, President Joe Biden is delivering on his promise to bring an end to the “forever wars” that were the defining features of what began as the “Global War on Terrorism” two decades ago. Among other things, this much-anticipated decision reflects one of the lessons learned during this period: that terrorism is inherently a political phenomenon for which there is no military solution. While much of the reaction has focused on the implications for Afghanistan, the decision could and should serve as the initial step of a long-overdue effort to rebalance U.S. counterterrorism policy, in Afghanistan and beyond, toward too often overlooked diplomatic and development tools that can not only help counter existing threats, but prevent violent extremism from taking root in the first place in communities around the globe.
A marked shift away from the security-dominated approach to counterterrorism that has characterized much of the world’s response to 9/11 — and that has at times exacerbated the threat — would certainly reduce the likelihood that U.S. troops get mired in future “forever wars.” It would also make efforts to combat terrorism more financially sustainable in an era where the threat is no longer the global priority it once was, having been displaced by COVID-19, climate change, and other more pressing challenges. Moreover, such a “right-sizing,” which would underscore that the “9/11 era” is over, would help ensure that U.S. counterterrorism efforts are in service of the administration’s broader foreign policy priorities. These include advancing democracy, stemming the rise of authoritarianism, and strengthening multilateral cooperation.
Much like the realization that, “Afghanistan in 2021 is not the Afghanistan of 2001,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted when explaining the decision to withdraw all troops, the global terrorist threat today is qualitatively different than it was 20 years ago. Therefore, the strategy for addressing it must reflect that change. U.S. counterterrorism policies and programs since 9/11 prevented another major attack on the U.S. homeland, lead to the killing or capturing of thousands of terrorists on the battlefield, and made it harder for terrorists to plan, travel, raise money, and control territory, but at a significant cost — and one that may now be disproportionate to a threat that is more geographically diffuse and rooted in local conflicts and conditions than ever.
Recruiters, whether on- or off-line, are seeking to exploit political, social, and economic grievances, often compounded and even generated by governments themselves, thus highlighting the need to focus more attention on these grievances in a rebalanced counterterrorism approach. This means elevating the role of civilian agencies – starting with the State Department and USAID – and relying more on cost-effective, sustainable, non-kinetic policies and programs that prevent terrorism and encourage local government and non-government partnerships. That, in turn, results in safer communities that are more resilient to extremist violence. In short, as the United States enters the third, post-9/11 decade, preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) needs to feature more prominently in its counterterrorism strategy than it has before. Here are five steps that the Biden-Harris administration should take to ensure that it is developing and implementing a more up-to-date and effective approach to P/CVE.
An expanded toolkit and greater emphasis on human rights
First, any effort should expand and strengthen the long-underfunded P/CVE policy and programming toolkit, including by orienting it toward addressing white supremacist and other growing violent extremist threats. On the programming side, more investments are needed in evidence-based, locally led, long-term, and conflict-sensitive programs in communities most susceptible to extremist violence. This must also focus on carefully reintegrating vulnerable people returning from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, who, for different reasons, may not be able to be prosecuted.
Two decades after 9/11, the time has come for the United States to treat these types of programs as a priority. This means doing more to ensure that partner countries not only have the capacity to investigate and prosecute terrorists – a priority for much of the past two decades – but also to steer individuals on the road to violence down a more peaceful path or rehabilitate and reintegrate (R&R) terrorist offenders or others who may have had an association with terrorism but for whom prison is not an option. Among other things, this involves supporting, engaging, and empowering civil society, municipal authorities, and other local actors working on the front lines. This includes those working to build resilience against extremist violence in their communities. It also means pressing national governments to remove barriers to the involvement of these actors. Civil society actors often have more credibility with and access to the marginalized communities that are often the most vulnerable to violent extremist propaganda in P/CVE activities than governments do.
On the policy side, when it comes to preventing extremist violence, this requires recognition that it matters how governments treat their citizens. For too long, P/CVE has been given short shrift, if not ignored altogether in counterterrorism policy dialogues, with short-term and often counterproductive counterterrorism measures winning the day and getting the vast majority of the resources. Moreover, the United States has yet to come to terms with the fact that its own counterterrorism or other security assistance has, at times, facilitated predatory approaches of partner governments, that have exacerbated the very threat that the assistance was meant to mitigate.
Second, wherever possible, the United States should ensure its P/CVE and security assistance programs are integrated into wider U.S. efforts to address conflict, violence, and fragility to prevent different U.S. government organs and programs from working at cross-purposes. This includes the 10-year country strategies called for by the Global Fragility Act (GFA). There should be a recognition that violent extremism is only one social challenge resulting from a common set of risk factors and conditions that drive other forms of violence, conflict, and political instability. Yet, the United States has tended to treat violent extremism as a “violence apart” thus generating short-term, siloed, niche programs that fail to leverage existing prevention or peacebuilding initiatives and often lack support from local communities.
Consistent with a more integrated approach, USAID’s just-released CVE policy situates the agency’s CVE portfolio within its broader work on conflict prevention. It also places its CVE programming in a
larger, coordinated strategy to prevent conflict…and within broader multi-sectoral development strategies to address political marginalization, weak governance, conflict, fragile social cohesion, threats to religious freedom, reduced economic and educational opportunities, and other structural conditions that lead to the spread of violent extremism.
Going forward, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights should be empowered and resourced to ensure this integrated approach is replicated at State and promoted with international partners.
Third, human rights needs to be given greater emphasis in all U.S. bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism dialogues. The United States should also end its practice of consistently prioritizing tactical counterterrorism cooperation with front-line partner governments over addressing human rights abuses or governance deficits in those countries that fuel radicalization to violence. While this tactical cooperation remains important for preventing and responding to threats to U.S national security, from now on it should be conducted in ways that are consistent with, rather than undermine, U.S. support for democracy and human rights.
As recent experience in the Sahel has shown, bolstering the military in unpopular and undemocratic governments can unintentionally make violent extremism more attractive to long-marginalized and excluded populations who are forced to choose sides between a repressive government and local violent extremist groups. Looking ahead, the United States should recalibrate cooperation with national partners unwilling to shift their approach away from counter-productive over-reliance on hard security measures. It should increase long-term investments in countries committed to building more transparent, effective, accountable security institutions and making security forces accountable to civilian authorities and the populations they serve.
Fourth, even as the United States seeks to lessen the overall amount of resources it devotes to counterterrorism, it should invest more in diplomatic and developmental tools to address the causes, and not just manifestations, of violent extremism. The Biden-Harris administration can jumpstart this recalibrated approach by ensuring its foreign assistance budget request reflects this rebalancing. This should start with the State Department, where some 95 percent of its counterterrorism budget can only be spent on capacity-building programs linked to law enforcement, including border security. This leaves only some 5 percent (of a $300 million budget) for community-led P/CVE activities.
A significant increase in funding available to support locally led efforts to address violent extremism (and related challenges), which could include the $200 million in the new Prevention and Stabilization Fund created in the GFA, should be complemented by a renewed commitment to P/CVE coordination across the many relevant regional and functional bureaus at State and USAID. This would signal to international partners the depth of the U.S. commitment to a rebalanced approach and could catalyze a surge in related investments from other donors.
Finally, all of the above should be complemented by U.S.-led efforts to ensure the multilateral architecture for addressing terrorism and violent extremism, much of which was developed under U.S-leadership over the years, reflects current realities and reinforces the rebalanced approach described in this article. As I outlined in an earlier piece, these current realities include a threat environment that is more diffuse, varied, and localized than ever; a recognition of the need to focus more attention on the conditions that terrorists exploit to recruit and radicalize supporters, with many of the conditions driving other forms of violence and conflict and fragility; and the increasing salience of local contexts and, thus, the critical role that local actors – including civil society and local governments – play in any effective response, including by helping to ensure efforts are sensitive to the concerns of local communities and avoid stigmatizing them.
There are a number of steps the United States could take to ensure the architecture for addressing violent extremism is fit for purpose. These include getting the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to focus more attention on the grievances that ISIS and its affiliates use to recruit and radicalize supporters, including by increasing the involvement of local actors in its work. The Global Counterterrorism Forum should launch a major initiative focused in identifying and sharing the most promising national and locally led approaches for addressing white supremacist violence, without getting bogged down in the different terminology and definitions that countries are using to describe the same threat. In addition, repositioning the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), currently narrowly focused on P/CVE, as an international fund for supporting locally led efforts to prevent violence and conflict and address fragility, could help to foster an integrated, more cost-effective, and sustainable approach to addressing the challenges noted above. Helping the some 150-member Strong Cities Network, which has focused the lion share of its attention outside of the United States since its 2015 launch, to enter the U.S. market and serve as a platform to involve and connect the growing number of state and local governments across the country who are now working to build resilience against, and otherwise prevent, extremist violence would also be a good investment.
Lastly, as part of its commitment to promote human rights and democracy, the United States must push back against the growing influence of authoritarian regimes at the United Nations — in particular, the rising counterterrorism influence of countries such as China, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, who prefer repressive, security-driven, centralized counterterrorism approaches that undermine human rights and threaten democratic values and U.S. interests. Among other things, the United States needs to reverse the worrisome trend of authoritarian regimes co-opting the U.N.’s counterterrorism and P/CVE framework to legitimize domestic practices that raise sometimes significant, human rights concerns.
The need is clear for a right-sized U.S. approach to counterterrorism that reflects the lessons learned over the past two decades of practice, prioritizes investments in diplomatic and development tools for addressing the threat, reinforces wider (and now more pressing) foreign policy priorities, and better positions the United States to work with international partners to disrupt the cycle of recruitment and radicalization to terrorism. The looming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks provides a unique opportunity, not only for the United States to honor the victims of those and other attacks and acknowledge the many successful counterterrorism efforts since then, but to outline a new, more sustainable and cost-effective approach to counterterrorism for the third, post-9/11 decade that is as much about preventing future “forever wars” as it is about ending current ones.