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The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism
The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
Op-Ed / Global

The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism

Originally published in Reuters

How should the world respond to the extending reach of radical movements like Islamic State, al Qaeda and Boko Haram across today’s battlefields?

Reactions have included ground offensives, air strikes, targeted killings and sanctions. But another approach is the “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, agenda, which has emerged as a soft counterweight to the military responses against al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Its latest addition is United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s action plan to “prevent violent extremism” (the secretary-general uses PVE rather than CVE but the thinking is much the same). He called for “a new global partnership to confront this menace,” as he unveiled it last month.

There are, however, problems with his plan — both in what it does and doesn’t do.

Much, of course, makes sense. Any remedy to the wars, renditions, torture and drone strikes that have played into extremists’ hands over the past decade and a half is welcome. So, too, is the plan’s acknowledgement of the grievances, particularly human-rights violations, injustice and repressive governance, that facilitate extremists’ recruitment, and its warning to world leaders that terrorist attacks often aim to provoke overreaction.

Though the plan stops short of explicitly linking extremists’ gains to major and regional powers’ war-making in the Middle East, Ban was about as bold as he could have been about member-states’ responsibility for the mess. “Short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures,” he said, “and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”

But there are dangers in the way Ban has framed the problem.

The first lies in a failure to define terms, as a smart piece by Naz Modirzadeh, founding director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, points out. There is barely a hint on whether “violent extremism” relates to tactics, motives, ideology, message or aspiration.

So the term obscures more than it illuminates by potentially lumping together diverse forms of protest, insurrection and radicalism. Confusing the Taliban and al Qaeda was a mistake a decade and a half ago, for example. Creating a category that could conceivably include Islamic State, Hamas, Colombian rebels and the Ku Klux Klan is not only analytically faulty but also risks pushing policy in a disturbing direction.

True, for the United Nations, whose members disagree on what makes a “terrorist,” any attempt to define the even more amorphous term “violent extremism” would court controversy. The secretary-general explicitly left the definition to member-states, while warning leaders against misusing the label on their rivals. Yet, by ducking a definition — and, more important, failing to tease out what differentiates a violent extremist from a terrorist — he risks letting them do just that.

The second danger relates to the drivers of extremism that the plan identifies. Diverse regional politics and patterns of radicalization that vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual mean that drawing generic conclusions about underlying drivers is a mammoth task.

That said, the principal catalyst for the rise of the most powerful of these movements over recent years is clear. It lies in the Middle East’s convulsions: the Iraq invasion; Syria’s savage civil war; Sunni suffering in both places; an unnecessary and foolish escalation in Yemen; Libya’s chaos and the weapons spilling south after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, and mounting enmity between states, particularly the bitter sectarian Saudi-Iranian rivalry. All have opened up enormous opportunities for extremists.

Extremist movements have gathered force as crises fester, money, weapons and fighters flow in and violence escalates — often profiting from fighting between their enemies. (Boko Haram is perhaps an outlier here, in that it emerged in northern Nigeria outside an existing warzone. Even there, though, state security forces’ extrajudicial killings and other heavy-handed tactics stoked its insurgency.) Overall, extremists’ increasing reach is more a product of instability than its primary driver, more due to the bloody genesis of crises than to radicalization beforehand.

The secretary-general’s plan rightly calls for redoubled efforts to end the conflicts that extremists feed off. It then, however, muddles the underlying causes of those wars with the dynamics that enable extremists to gain force within them. This makes for a confusing mix in which almost any source of instability can lead to extremism.

Indirectly, of course, this might be true: Fragility leads to conflict that opens doors for extremists. But it makes for an agenda so expansive that it risks offering everything but nothing.

This leads to the third problem: the action points that the secretary-general’s plan lays out for member-states. Unsurprisingly, it’s a long list. If almost anything can cause extremism, almost anything can prevent it. His list includes: giving adolescents jobs; helping marginalized communities; educating children; promoting gender equality; respecting humanitarian law; improving prison conditions, and nudging leaders toward inclusion and reform — to name some of the 70-odd ideas.

Implementing all these measures would clearly make the world a better place. But citing them here seems nonsensical. It might even prove counterproductive, by, for example, politicizing governments’ service delivery, endangering aid workers or distorting diplomacy. Rather than help define the contours of the plan, its catch-all, upstream approach throws more mud into already murky waters.

Perhaps the gravest danger, though, lies in the United Nations buying into the assumptions underpinning the agenda in the first place. The plan implicitly frames much contemporary conflict as struggles between governments and violent extremists.

Despite its calls for dialogue with “opposing parties and regional actors,” the plan appears to rest on the belief that violent extremists are beyond the pale. It pairs sympathy for those at risk of radicalization with disgust for those that have succumbed. If states can’t prevent militants from radicalizing, it implies, the only option is to crush them or force their surrender.

This divorces policy from politics, which leaves a largely empty middle ground between the mostly development- and de-radicalization-oriented policies the plan promotes, on one end, and the counterterrorism or counter-insurgency approach it laments, on the other. It risks reinforcing the mind-set that justifies precisely the hard security measures Ban warns against.

Worse still, it might tempt regimes to deliberately radicalize opposition movements as a survival strategy, as President Bashar al-Assad has done in Syria, locking their countries into never-ending wars against them.

For the United Nations, more valuable than recasting international peace and security as the prevent-violent-extremism agenda would be genuine interrogation of what these groups mean for the wars they now wage. Why is the threat posed by groups like Islamic State or al Qaeda new?

Here, however, the plan is silent.

Extremists’ violence is, for example, horrific, but not unique in its scale. Even Islamic State’s theatrical displays pale alongside the brutality of the Assad regime and its Iran-backed militia allies in terms of terror inflicted and civilians killed or displaced. Al Qaeda’s repressive but pragmatic rule over parts of southeastern Yemen is hardly more violent and extreme than the Saudi-led aerial bombardment.

Indeed, most of these movements fight in wars in which all sides have thrown the rule book out the window. As the U.N. plan points out, this is one key reason for their success.

Nor is their funding through criminal enterprise exceptional. Many armed forces, both state and non-state, profit today from easier access to transnational networks. Often government allies have their fingers deeper in the pie, a point the plan and other recent U.N. documents overlook.

Their leaders’ espousal, in some cases, of goals incompatible with the nation-state system, and thus hard to accommodate in a negotiated settlement, presents a graver challenge. Their rejection of political and religious pluralism, while not unique to them, also poses difficulties, given that both are likely prerequisites for ending the conflicts they fight in. So, too, does their austere vision for society, which often enjoys little popular support, and their rejection of the concept of the modern state. For many, the United Nations is an enemy.

They certainly present fresh challenges for U.N. missions and mediation. If the Security Council can’t deploy blue helmets amid suicide bombers or remains wary of mediators engaging with groups it designates as terrorist, the United Nations will soon have few places left to go and few militants left to talk to.

The increasing potency of groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda — often as large insurgent movements, with ties to communities, whose military defeat appears remote but which show scant interest in political processes – is altering the conflict landscape. The U.N.’s operational departments should adapt in response.

Nor can the Security Council leave monitoring of these groups to sanctions committees or counterterrorism experts, which are often unable to explore questions the United Nations needs to ask. How can peacekeepers, for example, protect themselves and civilians from asymmetric tactics? Which movements or factions within them can potentially be engaged? How, by whom, what for and with what cost? How committed are leaders or the rank and file to transnational goals? Can the majority of fighters, usually motivated by diverse and local concerns – and for whom the “violent extremist” label is especially inapt — be pried away from hard-liners? Which movements are more like those in Mali, with shallow social roots and unable to face a serious force, and which like the Afghan Taliban, mostly nationalist, with deeper roots, foreign backing and capable of withstanding U.S. troop numbers in the hundreds of thousands?

For their part, member-states now considering the U.N. plan need to think carefully about what they label the prevent-violent-extremism agenda. Some leaders will likely misuse it to mask rotten politics. But those genuinely committed might be better off adopting a narrower vision that focuses mostly on “pull” factors and includes a handful of context-specific, targeted measures against Islamic State’s recruitment of foreign fighters, for example, increased radicalization in prisons or to reach out to especially vulnerable youth.

States should, of course, redouble efforts against “push” factors, such as marginalization, underdevelopment and joblessness, part of their efforts to achieve sustainable development goals. Sometimes these measures will help prevent extremism, too.

Just don’t call them PVE.

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon 04 December 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Q&A / Global

UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism

This Friday, the UN hosts the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, an opportunity for politicians and diplomats to fill gaps in blue helmet missions. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan previews the agenda.

What is the point of the conference?

This is the latest edition of a series of conferences that former U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off with other leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Vice President Joe Biden had chaired a trial run the previous year. The basic idea is to get senior figures together to pledge military units, or other forms of help like training, to UN Peacekeeping.

This process was the Obama administration’s response to major gaps in the UN’s forces revealed by crises such as the collapse of South Sudan in 2013. The president used his convening power to get other leaders to pledge high-grade units from advanced militaries that the UN was unlikely to attract otherwise.

The initiative, which included defence minister-level talks in the UK and Canada in 2016 and 2017, has worked quite well. The British sent medics to work with the UN in South Sudan, Portuguese special forces have deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR), and a number of NATO and EU members have sent air assets and intelligence specialists to Mali. Well-established UN contributors, such as Rwanda, have also upgraded the range of forces and types of units – like helicopters – that they offer the UN.

We are likely to see some additional steps in that direction this week. This year’s conference is not quite as high-powered as some of the earlier ones. One hundred and twenty countries will participate, but only half are sending ministers. Nonetheless, there are still countries that want to get involved in blue helmet operations. Mexico, for example, will make its first concrete pledge of a fully-fledged peacekeeping unit this week.

What sort of resources do peacekeepers need?

While peacekeepers often get stereotyped as shambolic and ill-disciplined, the overall picture is actually rather better. Only a limited number of troop contributors – mainly under-resourced African militaries – now consistently deploy ill-equipped or untrained contingents.

These ministerial meetings have helped raise the overall standard of forces. More broadly, the UN is able to be somewhat selective about which troops to deploy, as the total number of peacekeepers worldwide has dropped in recent years. When President Obama hosted his peacekeeping summit in 2015, the organisation was responsible for 105,000 soldiers and police officers worldwide, and UN officials had to scramble to find even quite basic infantry battalions to meet this level of demand. That figure has dropped to 88,000 as missions in places where they are no longer needed, like those in Liberia and Haiti, have closed down. This has allowed the UN to reject particularly ill-prepared contingents. The global number of peacekeepers is likely to drop further – the Security Council is slowly winding down its mission in Darfur, which has been a huge drain on the UN and is now well past its prime.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers.

I facilitated a warm-up conference for this week’s meeting focusing on training peacekeepers in Uruguay last December, and it was striking that major UN troop contributors are working hard to standardise and upgrade deployment systems so that their troops will be attractive candidates for UN missions (a useful source of income for some militaries).

Nonetheless, the UN still has difficulties finding enough troops and military equipment for especially risky missions. Mali, where over 120 personnel have been killed in hostile acts by jihadist insurgents, is the most pressing case. UN officials hope that ministers attending this week’s conference will pledge help on problems like countering roadside bombs for the Mali force. They also need helicopters there, but these aircrafts are perennially difficult to find, and governments often place burdensome caveats on how these costly assets can be used.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers. The UN Secretariat would like to double the number of women in its military and police units. The current figure is under 5 per cent. Defence officials – including Western ones – gripe that this request is unreasonable given the overall lack of women in their forces. But militaries including the Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ghanaians and Tanzanians have made good progress against the UN’s target. Angelina Jolie will be at the UN on Friday to encourage the laggards to do better.

Is the U.S. still a fan of the process?

The Trump administration’s attitude to this Obama legacy initiative is ambiguous. The U.S. is still one of the formal co-conveners of the process. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan represented Washington at the last meeting in the series in Canada (and his boss, then-Secretary James Mattis, only declined to attend that summit for scheduling reasons). This Friday, the senior American representative will be the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale. He is a highly experienced diplomat, but it is clear that the U.S. interest in the process is down.

That fits with the administration’s broader and growing scepticism toward UN peace operations. The U.S. has been pushing hard for budget cuts to blue helmet missions since President Trump took office. Washington is now reportedly preparing to call for some hefty reductions to the size and budget of the UN mission in Mali, despite its struggle for security.

It is not clear whether Washington’s dislike for peacekeeping is motivated by budgetary concerns, principled aversion for multilateralism or practical doubts about what the UN can achieve – or all three at once. It is fair to point out that, while the Obama initiative may have motivated NATO members to send high-grade units to Mali and South Sudan, neither is close to stable. National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a harsh speech criticising “unproductive” and open-ended UN missions in Africa in December.

If the U.S. is retreating from this process, will other powers replace it?

European countries, which have a direct security interest in the UN managing threats in places like Mali and Lebanon, are taking this conference reasonably seriously. France has pressed its European allies to send personnel to Mali, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas will be in New York. The UK is sending a comparatively junior minister, but London is a little busy with other political concerns right now. British officials thought that their recent deployment in South Sudan was good operational experience, and would like to make another significant contribution to the UN fairly soon.

If Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

But as so often happens when the U.S. steps back from multilateral institutions, eyes will turn to China this week. There are currently 2,500 peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army on UN missions, which is 1,000 more than deployments by all the other permanent Security Council members combined. Beijing is not sending a top political figure to this week’s meeting, and may not make any big new pledges. But back in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to deploy up to 8,000 new troops on UN missions. Chinese and UN officials have taken some time to identify and assess suitable additional units, but this technical process is now largely complete. There is a good chance that the number of Chinese peacekeepers will expand quite considerably in the coming years, and Beijing has signaled that it wants senior UN posts and envoy-ships in recognition of this investment.

That could make the current U.S. administration, which has repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rising influence in international institutions in recent months, uncomfortable.

But if Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.