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Constructive alternatives to counter-terror and stabilisation

Shouldn't YOU be Countering Violent Extremism?

Larry Attree reviews lessons and risks from the Countering Violent Extremism agenda to date and offers advice on how best to engage if you want to promote peace, justice and development.


Terrorism is at the top of the political agenda across the world and Western countries face genuine dilemmas in deciding how to respond to security threats and impending atrocities. However, current counter-terror approaches have yielded only mixed results at best. While all options have pitfalls of their own, more constructive alternatives to counter-terror and stabilisation, which take a peacebuilding approach, could help to identify paths to long-term peace.

Western governments have placed responding to ‘terrorism’,’ violent extremism’ and instability among their foremost priorities. They have led international military interventions into Iraq and Afghanistan, targeted militant groups directly in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere, and provided significant support to regional allies to confront these threats to international security and build more stable states. Yet, despite the investment of huge resources – human, financial, military and political – the results of these actions have been mixed at best. This is illustrated by the long-term instability of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the vulnerability of Iraq and the wider Arab region to ongoing violence and insurgency from the likes of Islamic State (IS), the spread of Somali violence into Kenya, and the spread of Al Qaeda into multiple new regions.

Visible violence is not the only sign of the shortcomings of current approaches. The stabilisation and statebuilding efforts that have been undertaken to work towards long-term solutions in unstable contexts appear in many cases to be reinforcing rather than addressing drivers of conflict, making lasting peace more remote. In particular, pragmatic partnerships with questionable regimes have served to reinforce bad governance, lessen the prospects for genuine reform, and multiply popular discontent. Likewise, there is significant evidence that the use of aid to reinforce military action and stabilisation efforts may be ineffective at best – and actively driving further conflict at worst.

While decision makers face grave dilemmas in deciding how to respond to serious security threats and impending atrocities, there has not been sufficiently full and frank public debate about the lessons of past responses, nor about how future engagement could be improved in the interests of building lasting and positive peace. Failure to recognise and pursue effective peacebuilding alternatives to these approaches could condemn Western – and indeed all – governments to a vicious circle that they can ill afford – with instability growing wherever they attempt to reduce it, with their responses becoming ever more belligerent, and with their values of democracy, justice and human rights becoming compromised as part of the process.

To respond to these problems, Saferworld is analysing the shortcomings of current counter-terrorism, stabilisation and statebuilding approaches, exploring less violent, more people-focused alternatives, and promoting informed debate on these topics.

Our initial research has identified a number of problems with counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding efforts in recent decades – drawing together lessons from a wide array of engagements in diverse contexts including Afghanistan, Cambodia, DRC, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen. Our work points to the potential for the development of holistic strategies for building peace that give due emphasis to less violent, more constructive alternatives.

While all approaches to peacemaking have drawbacks, alternative approaches could include:

  • Avoiding defining conflicts narrowly as problems of ‘terror’, ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalisation’, and instead adopting a more impartial, holistic and sustainable approach to resolving them.
  • Changing international and national policies and approaches that fuel grievances.
  • Redoubling efforts for diplomacy, lobbying and advocacy to make the case for peace and adherence to international law by conflict actors.
  • Looking for opportunities to negotiate peace – and doing so in a way that balances pragmatic considerations with a determined focus to achieve inclusive and just political settlements as swiftly as possible in any given context.
  • Considering the use of legal and judicial responses and carefully targeted sanctions.
  • Supporting transformative reform efforts to improve governance and achieve inclusive, fair, responsive and accountable state-society relations.
  • Choosing not to engage if harm cannot be avoided and no clear solution is evident.

Saferworld has developed three in-depth reports looking at current approaches to counter-terrorism, stabilisation and statebuilding in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. Together, they explore the issues identified in the initial discussion paper through detailed examination of specific country contexts from a peacebuilding perspective – in order to stimulate further debate on the lessons learnt.

We also want to deepen and expand the evidence base on these lessons to stimulate evidence-based policy debate in the West and elsewhere in order to explore possible peacebuilding alternatives. We are undertaking coordinated efforts to ensure research uptake and policy dialogue on constructive alternatives to current approaches within and beyond the US, the UK and the EU.

Our research and writing:

further reading

Lessons from counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding in Afghanistan

An in-depth look at statebuilding and counter-terror approaches in Afghanistan, with a view to identifying lessons learned and recommendations.

Lessons from counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding in Somalia

This report aims to inform the debate about the impact of US, UK and EU counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding approaches in Somalia since 2001.

Lessons from counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding in Yemen

An analysis of external actors’ approaches to Yemen and their impacts on its conflict dynamics from a peacebuilding perspective.