Thinking Aloud: “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism,” Part II

Oct. 3,  2014 by Darius 

[Earlier this week, I attended a very interesting panel discussion about “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism.”  Yesterday, I shared some of the insights of Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who is currently the head of the NGO International Crisis Group and was in the French Foreign Ministry and a UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008.  Today, I’ll continue with more of his remarks.  Tomorrow, I’ll share comments by panelist Sarah Cliffe and some observations from the Q&A.]

Jean-Marie Guéhenno had a number of concrete suggestions to combat instability and ungoverned spaces.

  1. Do not elevate the enemy.  Instability and ungoverned spaces result from local grievances.  Pumping up threats only helps terrorist groups recruit: they can advertise themselves as part of a global network.
  2. Most terrorist groups start very small, composed of fractious groups in uneasy alliances. We should focus on peeling off some of these groups rather than simply aggregating them as the enemy.  Such aggregation only helps the groups themselves coordinate.  Guéhenno pointed to the current example in Libya, where fractious Islamist militias have coalesced largely in response to other groups aggregating them as Islamist.  Additionally, according to Guéhenno, the idea that engagement with unsavory groups legitimizes them is false and unhelpful.
  3. Address local grievances.  It is these local grievances that serve as recruitment tools for international terrorism.  For example, the alienation of Kenyans in northeastern Kenya has contributed to the growth and staying power of al-Shabaab in nearby Somalia.
  4. Integrate regional dynamics into any attempt to solve ungoverned spaces.  With regards to Syria, for instance, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Kurds all bring a great deal of regional baggage to the Syrian conflict.  All these extra complications make the Syrian conflict even harder to manage and will need to be incorporated into any possible future solution.
  5. Be aware of how anti-terrorist policies can undermine a broader political agenda. Guéhenno cited another Syrian example: US airstrikes against ISIS, without making it clear that the Syrian regime is not the beneficiary, risk promoting ISIS recruitment as the regime becomes comparatively stronger.  In Nigeria, the military’s low morale and brutal method of anti-Boko Haram operations alienates civilians and drives recruits to Boko Haram.
  6. Shore up fragile states without being overly ambitious. According to Guéhenno, many times in the past, international organizations have had massive ambitions met by mediocre results.  Guéhenno instead advocated for a focused approach on a limited number of priorities.  First, the focus should be on security reform and establishing the rule of law.  Second, it is important to halt massive corruption, which breeds discontent.  For example, former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad may have been a dictator, but he ran a fairly clean government.  The same cannot be said for his son, Bashar.  That’s a main reason why Hafez stayed in power for 30 years and Bashar is in the midst of a civil war after 10.
  7. Don’t be bashful about successful anticorruption measures. In Liberia, for instance, international monitors basically audited the Liberian government’s budget in order to combat corruption.  This effort was largely successful and certainly able to be emulated, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of press due to allegations of neocolonialism.  Guéhenno urged that sometimes it is important for the international community to be intrusive.
  8. Manage the use of force properly. According to Guéhenno, it is very important to have a force in place to prevent local “troublemakers” from establishing facts on the ground and killing the political process.
  9. Get the sequence right. Interventions, be they military or non-military, always start small and try to accomplish their mission with a minimal footprint.  According to Guéhenno, though, there is a small window at the beginning of intervention to take decisive action.  That window will quickly close, and it is far easier and more effective to start strong and scale down.

Guéhenno closed his prepared remarks by pointing out that all efforts to combat ungoverned spaces ultimately boil down to politics because what keeps a country together is a political compact.   Just as President Obama said that combating ISIS may be a generational task, Guéhenno said that sometimes shoring up fragile states or addressing ungoverned spaces is also a generational task that requires patience and persistence.

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