A Critical Reading of the Interim Report of the USIP Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recently released a report by its Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The report (.pdf) is entitled “Beyond the Homeland: Protecting America from Extremism in Fragile States.”

The report is intended as a sequel to the 9/11 Commission Report, and had the same co-chairs (former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton). But the USIP Task Force report, at roughly thirty page of text and notes, in no way compares, in either length or depth of research, to the 9/11 Commission Report (.pdf), a book-length document that clocks in at some 567 pages. (True, this is an “interim” report from the Task Force, with a final report to follow in 2019, but they’re the ones who advanced the comparison, not me.) And whereas the 9/11 Commission Report was the outcome of an in-depth inquiry that attempted to understand what happened in a critical event and why, the USIP Task Force report is – to be blunt – a short, superficial, ideologically-motivated document that aims less at explaining anything than at justifying the status quo in American foreign policy.

To start, there were many assumptions baked in to the writing of this report. Let’s quote the legislative language cited in the report:

Funds made available pursuant to subsection (a) shall be transferred to, and merged with, funds appropriated by this Act under the heading “United States Institute of Peace” for the purposes of developing a comprehensive plan (the Plan) to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.

Before spelling out some of these assumptions, it is worth pointing out that the one member of Congress that USIP names and thanks is Senator Lindsay Graham, who is one of the most hawkish members of either party. As commentators such as Paul Staniland and Jason Lyall have pointed out, the USIP Task Force’s report reads as an effort to push back (and not always convincingly) on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the contention that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The USIP Task Force, in contrast, argues that “As long as extremism fuels instability, the United States cannot compete effectively against strategic rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran. Nor can the United States confront extremism without addressing the ways our rivals exploit and contribute to this threat” (p. 1). “Graham versus Mattis” would be a simplistic way to understand the debate, but there would be worse ways of understanding it. The Graham side of argument isn’t even persuasive, moreover: have all of the United States’ interventions in “fragile states” since 2001 made the country stronger, or weaker? The answer should be obvious.

Against the backdrop of what is, essentially, a debate between two different visions of hyper-aggressive U.S. foreign policy, I view with skepticism the following assertion from the USIP Task Force:

The time has come for a new U.S. strategy. We need not only to defeat individual terrorists but also to mitigate the conditions that enable extremist ideologies to take root, spread, and thrive. Going forward, the priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states—to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies. (p. 1)

Why skepticism? Because this sounds a lot like the thrust of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, especially since 2011 or so. What is the substantive difference between USIP’s language here and the language in this 2011 USAID paper? Or the language in the 2002 National Security Strategy, which argued the following:

We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world. The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.

The USIP Task Force, then, is not pushing for something new but is pushing a defense of a long-running status quo.

(By the way, both the “fragile states/counterterrorism” and the “great power competition” frameworks, in my view, are not just wrong but almost suicidal – future generations in a world wrecked and disrupted by climate change will surely curse everyone on both sides of this ridiculous debate.)

The USIP Task Force report is, moreover, structured around a set of clichés and buzzwords rather than around fresh thinking into the problem of jihadism. “Violent extremism,” “fragile states,” “arc of instability,” “safe havens,” “governance,” “underlying causes,” “partners,” “interagency approaches” – these terms are so familiar to Washington that a report like this is basically just painting by the numbers. That’s how you get bolded, supposedly groundbreaking assertions like this, scattered throughout the report: “Extremism emerges through the confluence of poor and undemocratic governance in fragile states and extremist ideology and organization” (p. 2) or “The gap between government failures and citizens’ aspirations, above all else, is what facilitates the spread of violent extremism” (p. 3). Again, these ideas are the opposite of new – they are the same ideas pounded into all of our heads at every single conference, meeting, speech, and workshop on jihadism that I’ve ever attended. None of the buzzwords, moreover, are ever subjected to any critical scrutiny, even though critics are easy to find – for example, Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf have questioned the idea of “safe havens.” The Task Force, moreover, seems to have a weak grasp of the histories of individual jihadist organizations and individual conflicts, opting for strangely one-dimensional explanations of complex phenomena. Thus we read that “analysts have attributed Algeria’s paroxysms of extremist violence in the 1990s to the influx, three decades earlier, of foreign teachers, many of whom held extreme religious views” and also that “in Yemen, the arrival of Saudi fighters in 2009 led to the formation of AQAP” (p. 16). The report is also highly repetitive, perennially restating the same two points (extremism+fragility=extremism; and extremism+fragility+non-US powers=really bad for the US) and punctuating them with sometimes misleading examples.

There are flashes of a more critical awareness scattered throughout the report, but these flashes are few. There is no acknowledgment, that I could find, of any American mistakes since 9/11, only an acknowledgment that “the political and strategic costs of seventeen years of ever-expanding war remain high” and that “the length and growing scope of the fight are driving Americans and their leaders to question the value of foreign military engagement” (p. 13). One even gets the sense of a kind of veiled contempt for voters or anyone concerned about costs – as always with such reports, there is the assertion that “we cannot solve the problem of extremism within the term of a single presidential administration” (p. 19). This is a document addressed, above all, to a permanent government, development, and think tank elite anticipating another several decades of the “War on Terror,” or whatever one is supposed to call it now.

The report is so repetitive that I’m afraid of this blog post becoming repetitive as I move through the document – so perhaps it’s best to cut this short here. The back half of the report, on strategies for preventing extremism and fragility, is just as predictable as the first half – micro-success stories plucked out of their contexts, disavowals of a nation-building agenda amid calls for massive expenditures overseas, etc. And of course, the obligatory warning that the Islamic State will soon re-emerge, which you think might lead to some soul-searching about how we got into this mess in the first place, rather than a kind of shell game where we just shuffle all the old ideas around and then present them as new.

I should end on a constructive note, I suppose. So here are my suggestions for the final report:

  1. Take to heart one key finding of the 9/11 Commission Report, namely that the 9/11 attacks were planned not just in one fragile state (Afghanistan) but in various states, including some in Europe. Think through what this really means about whether fragile states and “safe havens” are a threat to the U.S. or not.
  2. Probe more deeply into issues of politicians’ and states’ collusion with jihadist organizations. It’s not just about people’s grievances going unaddressed, it’s often about active collusion too.
  3. Defend your ideas not just against the “great power competition” folks, but also against the critics from the anti-imperialist left who see the War on Terror as a destructive and counterproductive exercise. You shouldn’t just write us off, because (a) we have a lot of strong arguments and (b) we’re getting louder now. U.S. foreign policy should be bigger than a debate between Lindsay Graham and Jim Mattis. It’s ironic that this report came out in time for the anniversary of 9/11, because this is the anniversary where I’ve seen the biggest range of views expressed since 9/11 itself (see, for example, here). The conversation is changing, and this report does not keep up.

[Disclosure: I was invited to one early meeting by Task Force staff. I revealed my dirty hippie leanings, sparred a bit with a right-wing think tanker, and did not contribute further after that one occasion. The criticisms here are all ones I previewed for the Task Force staff when they spoke to me.]