By Scott Mastic
The recent military victory against the Islamic State in Iraq by U.S.-backed forces was a rare cause for celebration in an often depressing news cycle. Yet just as quickly as this win was celebrated, ISIS-supported terrorist attacks continued in the region and here at home, underscoring the sobering reality that beating radical Islamists on the battlefield does not put an end to the threat posed by these groups.
Some critics argue that it was U.S. meddling in the Middle East that produced ISIS, and reason that now that the influence of ISIS is being rolled back, the United States should stay out of the internal affairs of the region. This view, while superficially appealing, ignores the enduring danger posed by the Islamic State. The question of what comes after ISIS requires a multifaceted approach that must incorporate the building of legitimate governance and resiliency if similar situations are to be avoided in the future.
“Good governance” was once a term used only by development professionals, and was viewed with suspicion by the strategists who drove U.S. foreign policy. Yet this concept is now assuming an increasingly important role in America’s counterterrorism strategy. I’ve seen firsthand the way in which poor governance leads to political instability and a sense of alienation that is easily exploited by extremist groups. However, I’ve also witnessed the power of effective governance in breaking the cycle of instability and inoculating against future generations of terrorists.
Policymakers often focus on maintaining security through military and intelligence and law assistance to fragile and failing states. The International Republican Institute, the group I work for, augments these efforts by focusing on legitimate, citizen responsive governance to combat violent extremism by addressing the core challenges that allow violent extremism to take root and flourish.
The fact is, populations across the Middle East and North Africa feel disconnected from governing structures. This political disenfranchisement coupled with a lack of economic opportunity, especially among young people, has increased political apathy and a sense that things will never improve. While war-torn environments such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen provide the most dramatic examples of penetration by ISIS and similar groups, our experience has shown that corruption, lack of good governance and political discord also fuels extremist pathologies in other states.
For example, although Tunisia played a crucial role in sparking the Arab Spring, since its successful democratic revolution in 2011 the country has sent large numbers of foreign terrorist fighters to the region’s battlefields. What accounts for this paradox? As expectations of Tunisians rose following the overthrow of authoritarian President Ben Ali, public officials failed to manage their expectations or articulate feasible plans for economic prosperity.
Hopes for improved access to opportunity have been continuously disappointed leading to widespread frustration and disillusionment. Our research on the drivers of violent extremism indicates that marginalized segments of the population are particularly vulnerable to the appeal of extremist groups in part because they do not believe that there are viable, nonviolent means of alleviating grievances.
In Iraq, the success of ISIS can be directly tied to the marginalization of the country’s Sunni population. With the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, it is crucial that the United States now help key provinces previously under its control to build more inclusive, effective governing institutions that are driven by the needs and aspirations of the Iraqi people, and not external actors seeking to expand their influence or regional hegemony. In Libya, effective governance by municipal councils is making communities more resilient to groups like ISIS even in the face of continued political discord at the national level.
By supporting legitimate governance that responds to citizen needs and provides effective mechanisms for debate, decisionmaking, and conflict resolution, democracy and governance assistance helps countries emerge from conflict and prevents extremist groups from further undermining weak governing systems.
Ultimately, lasting stability must be driven from the ground up rather than the top down. By pursuing a smart foreign assistance approach that supports citizens in the development of representative and accountable institutions, we can help countries such as build resilience to violent extremism, and in doing so, create a more stable region consistent with U.S. interests.
Scott Mastic is vice president for programs at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit democracy assistance organization.