10 Questions on Combating Violent Extremism

10 Questions on Combating Violent Extremism

I gave the opening keynote talk to two fascinating conferences this week organized by State Department, which sought to take stock of what might be called the “hearts and minds” part of the struggle against al-Qaeda and associated movements.  Since the events were off the record, I really can’t talk about the deliberations themselves, unfortunately, or even who was there. But, with the permission of the organizers, I thought it might be interesting to just put out there my own overall sense of the good news and the bad news, and to pose ten big questions which deserve some serious thought.  (And sorry, I’m not going to go back in and insert links right now.. I’m exhausted enough.)

 First, the good news.  I think that Obama’s initial approach has been outstanding, reframing America’s relationship with the Muslim world around a broader lens than terrorism.  His personal public diplomacy has achieved its initial goal:  a fresh start, a new conceptual frame, and a serious engagement based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.”   His approach resolutely undermines al-Qaeda’s efforts to impose a binary “West vs Islam” clash of civilizations narrative, and very effectively disaggregates the problem and marginalizes al-Qaeda. He also has taken seriously the political grievances which make the al-Qaeda narrative attractive to average Arabs and Muslims who don’t share its radical ideology– pledging withdrawal from Iraq, promising to close Guantanamo, engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

 And this has paid off in the real world.  As I’ve argued several times recently, al-Qaeda is more marginal than it has been since 9/11 (at least in the Arab world — this may be different in South Asia or Europe, where I pay less close attention). It has simply lost its ability to present itself as the avatar of generic resistance.  Al-Qaeda thrives on, indeed requires, a polarized environment in which its radical strategy represents one side of an all-consuming clash of civilizations.  Much of the Bush administration’s approach to the “GWOT” gave it just what it needed;  it got better towards the end of his second term, and Obama has built upon and greatly accelerated the progress. 

 It’s worth remembering that mostly, they did it to themselves (with some help from their adversaries, of course).  They haven’t carried out the big attacks on the U.S., thankfully.  What their affiliates could do were local “soft target” attacks in Arab countries which killed Muslims and deeply alienated mainstream Arabs who might have thrilled to attacks on U.S. troops occupying Iraq.  It now faces an almost universally hostile Arab mass media and a daunting gallery of enemies — not just America’s allied governments but also the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and more.  Internal critiques of its tactics are everywhere, and magnified by this hostile Arab media, while the movement itself grew more doctrinally pure. Its videos get little traction and have little impact on Arab public debate.  Its like-minded movements have failed to gain a foothold in Gaza and Lebanon, and it continues to suffer the effects of their strategy in Iraq.  And at the ideological level, Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s declaration of its ideology as a mad declaration of war on the whole world has resonated. 

 This strong beginning and reoriented conceptual framework is a big part of my continuing “A-” grade for his overall foreign policy performance. 

 But there’s less good news as well.  Al-Qaeda is resilient and adaptive, and even if its ideology is unpopular it still offers a potent and compelling narrative.  Bin Laden’s address last month was far better crafted and resonated more widely than most recent AQ productions. The ideology has spread far enough and has matured enough that it may no longer need AQ Central for direction.  It may have failed to gain a foothold in Lebanon or Gaza, but the fact that those who share its ideology tried shows that the mobilized base is still out there searching. Yemen’s descent into multiple wars has created broken space within which the previously struggling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could reconstitute.  The general spirit of resistance (muqawima) is strong and growing at the popular level — and, as more moderate Islamist competitors struggle with regime repression and democratic doors close, openings might be found to siphon off recruits, funds, or support. 

 And Obama’s window is closing.  Arab audiences see Guantanamo still open (including in an endlessly repeating al-Jazeera promo), US troops escalating in Afghanistan, Gaza still blockaded, and no settlement freeze or peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.  They have seen little follow-up on the ground on the Cairo address (regardless of what’s been cooking secretly in Washington).  A narrative is clearly hardening that Obama has not delivered on his promises, and that he hasn’t really changed American policies despite his personal appeal.  U.S. officials may complain that this is unfair, that it’s only been four months since Cairo, that they are preparing a lot of programs… but the world isn’t fair.  This window isn’t closed yet, but it’s closing fast and opinions appear to be hardening.   I don’t think that the risk here is that al-Qaeda will take advantage of it, given its weakened state — in fact, Secretary Gates made an uncharacteristic mistake when he lapsed back to the Bush-era argument that we had to win in Afghanistan because otherwise al-Qaeda would capitalize.  It’s more that the mobilized Arab and Muslim publics which Obama hoped to win over will be lost. 

 So with that background, here are ten questions worth thinking about for those interested in these issues, especially professionals in the area. I’m not including a number of more specifically focused points about strategic communications and public engagement which I’m writing about elsewhere.

What replaces the GWOT?  There is not yet a clear intellectual frame to replace the unmourned Global War on Terror.  I find myself often saying “what used to be called the GWOT.”  If it isn’t GWOT, what is it? “Combatting Violent Extremism (CVE)”, which appears to still be the term of art, is better — but also enormously flexible, in a bad way.  If CVE includes everything from COIN in Afghanistan to after-school programs in Birmingham, it just might be too broad.  And if that mission is defined by CVE, then isn’t this just the old GWOT under a new name?  The Obama administration’s conception of global engagement clearly wants to escape this trap — helping to promote entrepreneurship, civil society, education economic change, and so on in order to build a new relationship between Muslim populataions and America rather than because it will fight terrorism.  But this is slippery, since the national security justification often ultimately comes back to terrorism, violent extremism, and those old categories.  So I can see how USAID, for instance, can pitch what it is doing as a contribution to CVE.  But what then is not CVE? 
What does the definition of CVE mean for the “whole of government” approach which is all the rage these days?  Everyone these days wants to see development agencies, domestic agencies, intelligence, public diplomacy, the State Department, the military and everyone else all integrated into a coherent whole of government approach to problems.   But who defines the mission?  Since budgets seem likely to remain skewed sharply in the Pentagon’s favor for the forseeable future, that isn’t hard to guess.  So is this just pressing other agencies into the service of a mission defined by the Pentagon, or does their inclusion actually change the mission?   How much progress has been made in restructuring the government, coordinating inter-agency activities, and sorting out responsibliities and authorities?   Can the NSC play the leadership role required to balance this out? 
Is it time to abandon the “war of ideas”? We’ve spent so much time and effort over the last eight years fretting about how to fight AQ’s ideas and how to promote moderate Islam.  We should know by now that we (as a government) are really bad at trying to intervene in intra-Muslim debates.  Is it necessary?  Does it even help?  How much?  For instance, if the goal is to discredit the use of violence against civilians — a good goal — then it may make more sense to try and drive the kind of societal normative change which delegitimized smoking or child pornography (something about which people with a wide range of different ideas can agree) than to try to promote particular religious “ideas”.  More broadly, the “resistance”  which I mentioned above is generally non-ideological, rooted far more in perceived political grievances than in the nuances of Islamist ideology.  What may have been useful in delegitimizing a marginal, radical ideology may have little relevance for responding to a mass-based, political, non-ideological oppositional trend.  But there are nearly a decade now of organizational competencies, budgets, and constituencies for the “war of ideas” — which won’t soon go away.  Are they still playing an appropriate role in the new strategy? 
Does AQ Central matter?   The perennial debate over whether to think about al-Qaeda as a centrally directed organization or as a loosely connected network of like-minded individuals and groups continues.  It will not likely be resolved, since there are elements of both going on.    But for designing CVE strategy, it clearly does matter whether you think that AQC is the key.  So to make this as blunt as possible:  would killing bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the remnants of AQC — which seems more plausible in the coming months and years — decisively end, or even decisively transform, the nature of the struggle?  
What to do with non-violent Islamist groups? The argument over how to classify different organizations, movements, and individuals has been going on for years.  While the conceptual understanding of intra-Muslim nuance has grown dramatically over the years, it’s not clear to me that clear decisions have been made.  Are non-violent Islamists useful because they embrace demcracy, eschew violence, and compete with AQ for recruits and space, or dangerous because they oppose US foreign policy and spread Islamist identity and ideas?  Should they be engaged with as viable partners, tolerated but not engaged, or treated as part of the problem?  How much should this vary by local circumstance?  It’s hard to construct a serious engagement strategy without an answer to this.   And, perhaps of more immediate concern:  what do we expect will happen if these organizations buckle under the weight of repression or pressure, whether in Gaza or Egypt or Jordan or elsewhere? Would this advance or set back American or Western interests, whether in CVE or more broadly?
Can local partners do the job?  I hear a lot of talk these days about Western governments partnering with and helping to build up local Muslim groups which can carry on the fight inside their own communities.  In general, that sounds good — though nobody should expect that this can be done covertly without serious backlash risks, and there should be no expectations of control.   But I’m also struck by the lessons of democracy promotion and civil society building efforts over the years — and the limits of all those partnering and capacity building efforts.  The CVE folks should learn those hard-learned lessons. In general, there are only a limited number of local partners with the capacity and willingness to deal with Western governments on these issue.  They often can’t bear the weight assigned to them. They may risk their local credibility by partnering with governments.  And they may end up spending more of their time chasing the next government contract than doing the kind of community work which first made them interesting. 
What about human rights?  The GWOT frame tended to encourage a cavalier approach to public freedoms, human rights, and the rule of law in the name of counter-terrorism and security.  It is not clear whether the CVE frame makes the same leap.  After all, a whole of government, long-term approach to CVE should recognize the importance of legitimate, accountable, and transparent governments which deal respectfully with their citizens.  But will that in fact be the case?  The way that many Arab governments have achieved “success” has included a lot of torture, arbitrary indefinite arrest, and repression of all sorts.  Will a CVE paradigm under Obama go along with this or challenge it? 
Is this really a “Long War”?  We’ve grown used to thinking of this as a “generational struggle” — but is it?  Does it make more sense to think of this as a transitional moment, in which al-Qaeda and its ideas could be decisively marginalized and rendered politically irrelevant? How would we know if this is a generational or transiational conflict?  What kinds of programs, strategies, and resourcing would each require?
Where are the crucial zones of CVE?   Arguably, the focus is shifting away from Arab heartland — but to where?   Is it the active combat zones (Iraq, Afghanistan) which consume so much of the Pentagon’s budget?  Is it the ungoverned spaces like Yemen or Somalia?  Is it the Muslim communities of Europe?   What do each of these demand — and should they be brought together under the same conceptual framework?  And what do we absolutely have to do to avoid the most catastrophic, unacceptable outcomes in each:  do we have to bring legitimate governance and health care reform to Yemen? I sure hope not, but if so, where exactly are those resources to come from?   
And finally — you knew this was coming:  is AfPak central to CVE or marginal?  Does its relative importance justify the ever-growing resource commitment?  Would maintaining the status quo (as opposed to U.S. withdrawal) render AfPak more marginal or more central?  Would escalation render AfPak more marginal or central?  
Lots of questions, some of which I feel have clear answers but a lot that don’t.  Enjoy!

(…. and #11, I suppose:  can we really do well at “combatting violent extremism” when we can’t even spell it?  Sorry… )