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Counter-terrorism – time to find peacebuilding alternatives

27 January 2015 - Larry Attree, Professor David Keen

'Terrorism' is again dominating political debate across the world. Yet to many in the peacebuilding field, the media spotlight seems as likely to feed into a security agenda that deepens the conflicts in which 'terror' has become such a prominent tactic – rather than helping resolve them. Building on a new discussion paper by Saferworld on the ‘Dilemmas of counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding’, we explain what a peacebuilding approach to conflicts that involve ‘terrorism’ would have to offer.

Two things were striking following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris this month. Firstly, the public in France and many other countries saw the aftermath as a chance to reaffirm freedom as the defining value of their society. Secondly, some commentators remarked on the need to respond in a considered way – that shows that we value human life in the wider world as much as we value it in the West.

These two points are useful, because the approach of Western countries to addressing 'terrorism' in the wider world is foundering – in large part because it has lost touch with these fundamentals. Determined to prevent a repeat of 9/11 or 7/7, Western countries have for years allowed their commitment to promote freedom in the wider world to be overridden by other imperatives. With their focus on ensuring the safety of their citizens, Western policymakers have pursued strategies in unstable countries that have not always prioritised the interests of those who actually live there. The result is that the possibility of sustainable peace in these countries is becoming more distant.

A number of factors have underpinned Western approaches to counter-terror, but serious concerns over some of these have been relatively overlooked. An open-minded debate on how to achieve peace in the face of ‘terror’ is now long overdue. The current long-term instability of the Middle East, North and East Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the spread of al-Qaeda into multiple new regions, and the mushrooming of other transnational militant groups, such as the Islamic State (IS), suggest that there are major deficiencies in current approaches.

Our analysis from reviewing counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding efforts around the world in recent decades is that problems lie in three main areas – all linked to the failure to prioritise freedom and human security. First, the West too often responds to the threat of ‘terrorism’ with the use of violence – directly or via allies who are often part of the problem. Such violence has, all too often, been indiscriminate, making conflicts worse not better. Second, counter-terror, and related stabilisation and statebuilding efforts, often don’t meaningfully address drivers of conflict. In fact, they often reinforce the most serious drivers of conflict – especially abusive and exclusive governance and corruption. Third, the West is failing to promote sustainable solutions to conflict that involve and respond to the concerns, priorities and potentials of conflict-affected people in constructive ways.

To start addressing these problems there are six key things that policymakers in the West should do less often.

  • First, they should avoid short-term thinking. Knee-jerk responses often prove counter-productive, and thus longer-term peacebuilding strategies are needed.
  • Second, countries that are less inclusive, fair, responsive and accountable are storing up violence for the future. Therefore policymakers should avoid reinforcing poor governance and corruption for short-term ends.
  • Third, they should also take more care not to mistake their partners’ motives, because supporting the wrong partners can lead to abuse, diversion of money and arms into fuelling conflict and corruption, and can lessen all-important incentives to reform.
  • Fourth, using aid in the service of counter-terrorism is problematic. Development is often part of the solution to conflict, and should support people to access security and justice, but use of aid as part of a military strategy – or as a substitute for a peacebuilding strategy – tends not to work. All too often it can lead to diversion, look biased and thus alienate the population, make aid agencies a target for attack, and reinforce bad governance.
  • Fifth, force has been employed to address ‘terrorism’ too often, and too indiscriminately – fuelling huge resentment of Western actors and playing into the intentions of ‘terrorists’.
  • Lastly, taking responsibility and ensuring accountability for any abuses that do occur would go far towards mitigating grievances.

Holistic strategies for building peace

There are also a number of more constructive alternatives to current approaches that should be considered. First is a different conceptual framing and approach. Designating certain actors as ‘spoilers’, ‘radicals’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’ risks framing the problem from the outset as lying with those actors alone – the solution being to change their wrong-thinking (or physically eliminate them). Instead, we need strategies for building peace that identify what all relevant actors – including national, regional and international governments – can change to contribute to lasting peace.

This more impartial, holistic and sustainable approach can encourage changing international and national policies that have fuelled grievances. Such unjust policies may be military, diplomatic, economic or developmental, including things such as providing arms, aid and diplomatic backing to actors who are perpetrating abuses. Demonstrating consistent support for international law and human rights is surely one of the most promising options for reducing the grievances of the victims of any unjust international policies and practices, and those who claim to represent them.

Ruling out dialogue with a particular group – especially a group that commands significant societal backing – leaves only the option of wholly altering their worldview (unlikely) or physically eliminating them (proving deeply problematic as discussed above). Long-term peace will eventually be sustainable only if those who survive the conflict are prepared to accept the eventual settlement that is made, and this means, as Jonathan Powell has recently argued, that we do need to understand the perspectives of all actors in conflict and communicate with them. We also need to balance pragmatic approaches to negotiating an end to violence with a determined focus to achieve inclusive and just political settlements as swiftly as possible in any given context.

A further alternative to military responses lies in using legal-judicial responses and carefully targeted sanctions. Policing and judicial approaches that are respectful of human rights provide important alternatives to military approaches for handling security threats, and have the advantage of guaranteeing rights of defendants under due process – crucial to tackling grievances related to discrimination. Sanctions can also be an important alternative to violence if they are carefully targeted to put pressure on specific actors whilst avoiding more general harm.

While policies guiding stabilisation and statebuilding often emphasise governance reforms as vital to progress, a clear lesson from past efforts is that external actors need to do more to back transformative change. Many of the autocratic states with which Western actors have partnered in the name of counter-terror and stability have proved fertile ground for ‘terrorist’ groups, and this suggests that a better strategy to support lasting peace in the wider world would be consistent support for inclusive, fair, responsive and accountable state-society relations.

A further progressive endeavour would be to bring a peacebuilding perspective to the fore in public debate. We need to support those who are questioning the faultlines of conflict and asking how counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding initiatives will contribute to lasting and just peace. We also need to get much better at making the case within conflict-affected societies - towards both the public and decision makers - for constructive policies that address popular grievances.

Finally, decision makers can choose not to engage if harm cannot be avoided and no clear solution is evident. ‘Terrorist’ atrocities frequently produce a sense of revulsion even among those the terrorists claim to represent, and thus are to an extent self-defeating (although military responses tend to undermine this). If lasting peace depends on significant improvements in governance, the best way to encourage this may in some circumstances be not to provide support to the current leadership and institutions in conflict-affected contexts. International actors may also not be able to influence the dynamics of each and every conflict effectively.

Western countries face genuine dilemmas in deciding how to respond to security threats and impending atrocities, but under current approaches the overall goal of sustained peace is a long way off. Options for dealing with those designated as ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’, ‘radicals’ or ‘spoilers’ may appear limited – but this is not necessarily the case. Reaffirming a shared Western commitment to promote freedom and value human life equally in all countries is a good basis for moving forward; and while all options have pitfalls of their own, constructive alternatives could provide a path to long-term peace.

Saferworld’s discussion paper on ‘Dilemmas of counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding’ was written by Professor David Keen (Professor of Conflict Studies, LSE) together with Larry Attree (Head of Policy, Saferworld).

The accompanying briefing ‘Envisaging more constructive alternatives to the counter-terror paradigm’ is also available from the same authors.

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Western countries face genuine dilemmas in deciding how to respond to security threats and impending atrocities, but under current approaches the overall goal of sustained peace is a long way off.

Larry Attree, Professor David Keen