Getting a Better Return on Anti-Extremism Investments

New bipartisan legislation would unify efforts to aid fragile states.

Ggraffiti on a barrier wall of the Ministry of Women's Affairs to mark International Women's Day, in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 8
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
April 23, 2019, 8 p.m.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $5.9 trillion on anti-terror operations around the globe. Meanwhile, a hodgepodge of government agencies have poured millions of dollars more into various post-conflict stabilization efforts in the Middle East and Africa meant to combat extremism before it manifests itself as terrorism. New legislation would bring them under a single framework, a high-level policy change that supporters said will make aid programs more efficient and effective.

Under the proposed architecture, the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Defense Department would tag six “priority” regions that show early warnings of “violence, conflict, and fragility,” and implement 10-year plans for addressing the fragility in each. The effort is meant to address the root causes of violence and extremism, such as corruption, poverty, and poor governance.

“A key lesson from conflicts in fragile states is that they provide fertile recruiting ground for terrorists and transnational criminal organizations,” said Rep. Michael McCaul at a House Foreign Affairs Committee markup early this month while adding that the U.S. needs to do more “in terms of prevention.” The legislation passed through the committee on a voice vote.

The United States funds post-conflict state-building and stabilization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere through the State Department’s Relief and Recovery Fund. The House bill would dissolve that fund, transfer unobligated money to the new “Stabilization and Prevention Fund,” and authorize appropriators to send $200 million annually to the new account. The initiative would also receive $30 million per year from the State Department’s Complex Crises Fund.

Supporters say the legislation is evidence that lawmakers have finally begun to understand the link between state fragility and extremism and violence. The bill largely tracks with the recommendations laid out in a United States Institute of Peace report commissioned by Congress in 2017 to look into “the underlying causes” of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.

“I think the difference is it becomes really an overarching public policy and strategy that would drive decisions, and funding,” said Susan Reichle, an advisor to the USIP task force and president of the International Youth Foundation. “And that’s honestly what was lacking.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, plans to mark up the Senate version after April recess. That bipartisan bill was introduced by Democrat Chris Coons, and cosponsored by Republicans Marco Rubio and Todd Young and Democrat Jeff Merkley.

“I think we need to re-tailor our programs to prevention, the whole of government—State Department, USAID, DoD,” Graham told National Journal. “We’re spending a lot of money fighting terrorism; we need to spend more money preventing terrorism.”

Development experts broadly support the plan, although several were skeptical that it would appreciably alter how the United States handles foreign assistance absent other reforms. Andrew Natsios, who led USAID under President George W. Bush, said he spearheaded a similar push to address state fragility in the early 2000s.

“This is a good initiative, I support it—but it sort of ignores the fact that this stuff has been going on for a very long time,” said Natsios. “If Congress is buying [into] ... what we tried to do 15, 17 years ago ... then I think it’s a wonderful thing. But the assumption that USAID didn’t do this a long time ago is simply not true.”

Natsios said unnecessary oversight from Washington continues to bog down aid programs. And he was concerned that the Pentagon and State Department may end up dominating the interagency initiative, a dynamic Natsios said he experienced firsthand when USAID was forced to build a power grid in Kabul to support Hamid Karzai’s reelection, but which the Afghan government was unprepared to maintain.

“Frankly, the biggest problem is that … DOD and State ask for USAID to do things that don’t make any sense from a development standpoint,” said Natsios.

Supporters of the legislation disputed Natsios’s concern that the process would be dominated by the Pentagon.

“I think it’s pretty clear that State is in the lead, and that USAID’s role is development and that they are the lead agency there. And that [the Defense Department] pretty clearly, I think throughout the bill, is identified as playing a supporting role, when necessary for purposes of security,” said one House Foreign Affairs committee staffer.

Mark Ward, who served for decades as a Foreign Service officer in high-risk countries, was skeptical that the initiative would succeed absent other reforms at USAID. Specifically, he said that Congress needs to hire more USAID contracting officers.

“You’ve got to have the capacity in house to award a whole range of contracts and grants, not just giant ones,” said Ward, adding that the larger contracts too often go to “Beltway bandits” that waste aid money on overhead.

“When you tell us to spend another $100 million overseas, you’ve got to give us more people to spend it,” Ward said. “This isn’t rocket science. But they don’t, because … especially this administration.”

But several other development experts said that the high-level policy change was a step in the right direction. Development experts have long argued that projects need to be able to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, a concept the legislation explicitly endorses.

“Making every dollar count is different than counting every penny,” said Daniel Honig, assistant professor of international development at Johns Hopkins University. “The more rapidly things are changing, the more the diagnosis of what’s going on and [what] are the right actions to take depends upon what ... an economist would call ‘soft information. That is, things that we can see if we’re there but are difficult to codify and report, and allow our bosses back at headquarters to see.”

George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, lauded the hands-off approach to fragility.

“You empower the people that are closest,” said Ingram. “You don’t fine-tune your programs from headquarters. You let the people who are actually dealing with the customer figure out what that customer wants, and how to produce a product that relates to that person’s needs. And that’s what the development community has learned over the past 10, 15 years. But it takes a long time for things like that to seep up to the top.”

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