Comment & analysis

What lessons should be learnt from 15 years of counter-terror and stabilisation?

1 February 2016 Larry Attree

In three new reports launched today, Saferworld takes a deep look at Western counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2001. All of these efforts have faced challenges. Yet lessons from these contexts could inform more effective and constructive strategies for responding to terror and instability that focus strategically on peace, rely less on the military, take a tougher line on bad governance, and work more closely with civil society.

From 2001, the global war on terror exacerbated conflict and unrest in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and helped foment turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa – all at huge military, financial and human cost. Nonetheless, it failed to reverse the growing global threat from Islamist militancy, which continues to intensify and spread: armed groups have pledged support for IS in 19 countries,[i] and the Taliban, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda all remain undefeated.

In 2016, in the wake of spectacular terror attacks, some Western nations appear to be echoing the reaction to 9/11: doubling down on a mix of airstrikes, targeted killings and support to regional and local forces to eliminate the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. However, as refugees flee conflict in numbers not seen since World War II, a renewal of the global war on terror could deepen this crisis. This could be a critical moment to study the lessons of the past 15 years to identify a new strategy that leads to peace.

Our reports document how, in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, counter-terror objectives and military approaches have predominated, crowding out a focus on effective conflict management, human security and peacebuilding. Direct use of force has sometimes pushed back militants, but failed to defeat them and secure peace. Violence - especially when indiscriminate and unaccountable – has also harmed civilians and created resentment.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties, night raids, house searches and culturally insensitive behaviour, drone strikes and the rendition of Afghans all created resentment among the population and contributed to support for the Taliban and associated groups. From 2009 a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy beefed up the civilian component of the military-led campaign. But the tension between military and non-military objectives and the lack of a consistent strategy for a political solution to the conflict undermined the effort. Following years of intense military efforts, the Taliban continues to achieve military successes, alongside military operations by both IS and local militias.

The use of airstrikes to attack al-Qaeda in Yemen did kill some al-Qaeda operatives, but ultimately generated huge resentment and fed support for anti-Western militants. For example, local media described drone attacks as massacres, jihadi online fora carried pictures of victims’ bodies, al-Qaeda leaders grieved with victims’ families, and accused the U.S. of waging war against all Muslims.

In the wake of military approaches, crucial drivers of conflict were neglected. The West kept partners on board by compromising its opposition to abuse, corruption and bad governance. Yet the evidence is clear that these are primary drivers of conflict and rebel/terrorist violence around the world.[1]

In Somalia, international efforts have focused on defeating al-Shabaab militants. Successive Somali governments have therefore secured considerable military, security and aid resources from Western actors, despite extensive corruption and the diversion of weapons and other supplies. In 2012, a UN panel accused the Federal Government of Somalia of diverting 70–80 per cent of funds received and using them to advance “partisan agendas that constitute threats to peace and security”.[ii]

The story is similar in Afghanistan, where to establish stability, the Ministries of Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs and the National Directorate of Security were all given to known warlords in the first two post-Taliban administrations.[iii] In Yemen, the transition government was given huge external assistance to combat terror in recent years, but was both inept in dealing with al-Qaeda and deeply corrupt. In 2014, its budget of $14 billion largely disappeared into a “black hole” rather than benefitting Yemen’s largely destitute people.

By aiding and abetting abuse, corruption and bad governance in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, Western actors fell into the ‘stabilisation trap’: trading away a long-term focus on rights and governance for short-term stability – but ultimately guaranteeing abusive governance, chronic instability and deep public resentment. As these examples show, ‘terrorists’ may not be the worst threat to stability in conflict contexts, and lasting peace in contexts like Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan will prove elusive without facing up to the cynicism and abuse of supposed ‘partners’.

In Somalia, a recent report alleged that the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF), the Interim Juba Administration and al-Shabaab were all profiting from facilitating and taxing the Somali sugar trade, valued at $200 - $400 million annually.[iv] However, because Western forces need access to Kenyan military facilities, it has proved hard for them to challenge such counter-productive behaviour effectively.

In Yemen and the wider region, short-term energy, security, and economic interests have locked the West into support for Saudi Arabia. However, backing the Kingdom to play out its rivalry with Iran in Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster – failing militarily while causing tremendous human suffering and escalating the conflict for the long term.

In all three contexts, the pursuit of quick wins via questionable partners and top-down technical efforts to build institutions has undermined much-needed, long-term engagement with wider society.

In all of the above areas, the challenges are well known to governments, but present difficult dilemmas. There are indeed no quick or easy fixes. However, the lessons from all three countries could help shape a new approach to terror and security threats that is:

  1. Less reliant on the military – and more strategic about peace

This means finding alternatives to the use of force whenever possible, avoiding indiscriminate force, ensuring accountability and ensuring that force is only deployed in the context of a coherent approach to pursuing peace. Security assistance strategies need to be consistent with a long-term peace strategy or they will likely fuel ‘terrorism’. Security assistance should support people’s security and improve – rather than worsen – state-society relations. Much more caution is needed about providing or selling arms which are fuelling indiscriminate violence and repression, and all too often being either misused or ending up in the wrong hands.

  1. More discerning about partners and tougher on abuse, corruption and bad governance

This means Western actors need to understand how all actors’ motives and behaviours are impacting on conflicts, and factor this into their strategies better. External support for corrupt or abusive actors needs to be more carefully thought through. Donors can avoid reinforcing damaging behaviours by exploring alternative ways to channel their resources. In particular, assistance can be provided directly to people through non-governmental actors or other actors and institutions that are opposed to political violence and committed to public goods. There should also be careful application of sanctions and penalties on all those profiting from grand corruption or using violence for political ends.

  1. More focused on working with societies to achieve just and lasting peace

Much more support for the public and civil society is needed to break cycles of violence, redress injustice and fix corrupt, weak institutions. This means consistent support for human rights defenders, moderate political, religious and tribal actors, civil society groups, community voices and local development initiatives. Engaging with society to achieve constructive change is a long-term, challenging endeavour upon which external actors desperately need to improve their record. This requires deeper contextual understanding and relationship building across society rather than working primarily through standard pools of problematic elites.

For further information on Saferworld’s research and policy recommendations on counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding see:

[1] The Global Terrorism Index 2015 notes that all but 0.6% of terrorism occurs in countries suffering conflict and/or political terror, and more peaceful countries have been shown to achieve better scores on a very wide range of governance -related indicators, covering: political democracy, accountability, corruption, honesty of elections, human rights, civic activism, internet access, and ability to express political opinion without fear.

[i] As of 15 December 2015, these countries include Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Source: Intel Center (2015), ‘Islamic State’s 43 global affiliates: Interactive world map’, 15 December (

[ii] United Nations (2014), ‘Letter dated 10 October 2014 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009) concerning Somalia and Eritrea addressed to the President of the Security Council’, 13 October, p. 9.

[iii] Braithwaite J, Wardak A (2013), ‘Crime and war in Afghanistan, Part I: The Hobbesian solution’, in The British Journal of Criminology, 53(2), pp. 179-196.

[iv] Journalists for Justice (2015), ‘Black and White: Kenya’s criminal racket in Somalia’, November, p. 2.

Larry Attree is Head of Policy for Saferworld.

Read our policy brief A new war on terror or a new search for peace?

Find out more about Saferworld's work on constructive alternatives to counter-terror and stabilisation

“In Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen the pursuit of quick wins via questionable partners and top-down technical efforts to build institutions has undermined much-needed, long-term engagement with wider society.”

Larry Attree