A group of senior U.S. military and civilian leaders recently agreed to find ways to work together more effectively to counter violent extremism in the volatile Lake Chad Basin of Africa, a region reeling from the casualties and destruction wrought for years by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. The agreement emerged from a new exercise model built on collaboration between civilian and military personnel that promises to become an important problem-solving tool for working in conflict zones and fragile states around the world.

table top exercise

Called the Interorganizational Tabletop Exercise (ITX), it brings civilian and military planners together to work on common issues or challenges of geostrategic importance. By design, the ITX gives prominence to the priorities of civilian groups, both thematically and geographically, while the military, which frequently conducts exercises of its own, plays a supporting role.

The process and resulting follow-up, which continues today, began in June 2016, as a new contingent of U.S.- and internationally funded agencies and organizations were embarking on new initiatives to quell violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin, an area that includes Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. At the same time, some participating agencies and organizations already had been operating in the same theater on similar issues for years.

The U.S. Institute of Peace and the “J7” directorate of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff convened a 2 ½-day ITX on countering violent extremism in the region. The exercise brought together 50 representatives from the Pentagon, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and 10 non-governmental and international organizations. The J7 directorate is responsible for developing the ability of U.S. military branches to operate together.

Leaders also considered the role of ideology and religion.

By March 2017, the sustained collaboration revealed points of agreement, as well as challenges and issues that were unlikely to have emerged from traditional strategy and planning sessions. Examples included the need to focus on root causes of violent extremism such as poor governance and corruption, and to better explain to U.S. lawmakers the complementary role that foreign aid and development play alongside military operations in conflict zones and fragile states. Leaders also considered the role of ideology and religion.

All this was rooted in the 2 ½-day session a year ago. There, a plenary session outlined a common starting point for the ITX. The participants then established small interorganizational working groups to develop detailed analyses, some of them competing, of violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin and possible approaches for reducing and preventing this scourge.

Practical Solutions

During the next plenary meeting, the working groups shared their findings. Then the small groups reconvened to develop practical solutions. In the final plenary session, the new findings were distilled into six recommendations for senior leaders:

  • Synchronize policies on countering violent extremism (CVE) and institutionalize a process for NGOs to inform U.S. government policy and planning;
  • Examine multiple systems for assessing CVE work to identify common elements;
  • Expand flexible funding for CVE and clarify authorities;
  • Develop coherent messaging across agencies and organizations operating in the same locations;
  • Review training requirements and develop a curriculum on countering violent extremism that would be available to all organizations; and
  • Clarify the practical impact of CVE assistance in light of Leahy restrictions, a set of U.S. laws that bar U.S. government assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights, with the aim of ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable. Similarly, clarify the effect of laws governing Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations on efforts to reintegrate insurgents into society.

Senior leaders from the military and civilian groups reviewed the recommendations and designated representatives to follow up on those issues. USIP then organized a meeting with those representatives, where they distilled the six recommendations into three and established a working group for each: the synchronization of CVE policies and strategies; learning and knowledge sharing; and establishing CVE assessment systems and metrics to measure progress.

In March 2017, the three working groups briefed senior leaders and the resulting discussion produced widespread agreement on several key points:

  • A comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism should focus on its root causes, which studies have identified as poor governance, marginalization and corruption;
  • More attention should be paid to the role of ideology and religion without focusing exclusively on “radical Islam,” which would jeopardize U.S. partners and interests; and
  • More resources are necessary for not only fighting violent extremism, but preventing it. Currently, counterterrorism is prioritized over prevention efforts.
  • It is important to explain to lawmakers on Capitol Hill that fighting and preventing violent extremism go hand in hand. Therefore, increasing funding to the Department of Defense to defeat ISIS while decreasing funding to the State Department and USAID would be counterproductive.

The meeting also elicited important and useful disagreements. For example, the level of governance and security necessary to implement CVE strategies on the ground remains unresolved. Some argued that a minimal level of security is necessary for CVE efforts to be effective, while others believe the urgent need to get involved cannot wait for security.

And several intrinsic quandaries remain. The absence of a common lexicon and definitions for CVE continues to bedevil common understanding of the parameters and substance of the work. The difficulty (or, for some, futility) of striving for common definitions, terminology and a unified way of assessing effectiveness reflects institutional fragmentation. This lack of coherence and ‘silo-effect’ could hamper efforts to produce a unified message to Congress.

Repressive Governments

Another quandary is U.S. relations with a host country when that country’s institutions are part of the problem. Repressive governments and security institutions create a fertile environment for violent extremism that undercuts U.S. efforts at prevention. Where host governments restrict civil society organizations—both local and international--they undermine important U.S. partners.

Separately, American counterterrorism laws and designations of groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations also complicate in the rehabilitation and reintegration of members of designated groups into society. Non-governmental organizations need help navigating these legal constraints.

Senior leaders and participants in the ITX and its follow-on work agreed that substantial progress has been made in identifying strategies to tackle violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin. A CVE working forum led by a representative from USIP, the State Department, and a U.S. non-governmental organization that works in such environments will lead the next phase to build on these recommendations. Further reports and recommendations will go to key decision makers in the U.S. government and civil society who are engaged in CVE policy and programming.

Beyond Africa’s Lake Chad Basin, the ITX can be deployed in other theaters where military and civilian groups are working to combat and prevent violent conflict or stabilize a fragile state.  The exercise has proven to be a valuable tool for civilian and military leaders to coordinate actions, share information and work through challenges that arise.

Today’s global hotspots--and, certainly, those of the future--require complex and comprehensive solutions. To effectively implement what some call a “whole of society approach” to conflict resolution, it is essential to strengthen and improve cooperation between civilian and military planners.

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