During four hard combat tours as a Marine commander, Jake Harriman began to understand why the United States is failing to eradicate violent Islamic extremism.
Individual heroics and immense sacrifice over 16 years have enabled American combat troops and special forces to win their battles with the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Those extremist militias are virtually powerless against U.S. drones and airstrikes, which have killed dozens of senior leaders. But still, jihadist movements persist and grow.
Afghan kids keep joining the Taliban, which controls a growing swath of Afghanistan. ISIS, despite battlefield setbacks, recruits passionate believers in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya, not to mention Manchester, England, and Minneapolis. Extremist militias across Africa, around the Middle East and in Southeast Asia draw volunteers. And terrorism continues.
What Jake Harriman and his fellow Marines saw was that the United States, for all its battlefield prowess, does not recognize or act on the causes of violence.
But the extremists do.
“We were going out every night on these snatch-and-grab missions and we began to see we were taking three steps forward, two steps back. The guys we were fighting were out in these villages winning hearts and minds,” Harriman, 42, told HuffPost. “They were dropping off food, they were building schools, they were building clinics. And yes, they were horribly oppressive. But these vulnerable populations were so impoverished that the parents had no other choices to feed their kids.”
Standing in dusty battle gear in the desolate Iraqi landscape a decade ago, Harriman was struck by this epiphany: Military force alone isn’t going to obliterate extremist violence. In his words, “We just can’t keep killing our way out of this problem.”
Convinced he could do better, Harriman resigned his Marine commission, earned a graduate business degree at Stanford University, formed a company and moved to southwest Kenya. He went into the rural villages where he thought deep poverty might not cause violent extremism, but was likely providing fertile ground for the militias. There, he found impoverished farmers so desperate that they would support or even join al-Shabab, the Somalia-based extremist militia, for whatever help it might offer.
“The guys we were fighting were out in these villages winning hearts and minds.”
What’s different about Harriman’s approach from that of traditional aid efforts is that he combines the gritty realism of the warfighter with the data-driven analytics of the business entrepreneur.
Over seven years, Harriman and his Kenyan co-workers have helped organize locally owned and operated cooperatives that enable families to rise above subsistence farming, by marketing their excess crops and saving money in a communal banking system from which they can draw loans to expand their farms. His organization, Nuru International, has aided 85,000 people, he said, and blunted the appeal of the jihadis.
“We began to have an impact in these gangs’ ability to recruit, by giving options to the young men” in the villages, Harriman said. “Now they could actually feed their families. They could actually have farming as a business. They now had a future … that diminished the gangs’ abilities to recruit in these rural areas.”
Jake Harriman is one of a number of Americans who worked in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones and came away convinced that the United States needs a better plan of engagement for places vulnerable to extremist recruiting. America, they argue, needs to rely less on military power and more on “smart power.” Lasting change, they say, depends on intimate knowledge of the local population, understanding why people there turn to violence, and designing narrowly focused interventions to help.
Now if they can just get the funding to carry on.
Unlike traditional global development programs, the new reformers are using microdata to document the precise local causes of instability and to measure the impact of the resources invested in specific areas.
In the southern Philippines, former Green Beret Justin Richmond found a farming community where impoverished kids were joining the ISIS affiliate for money. He helped set up a village co-op and invest in a solar dryer for harvested rice and corn. Five tons of produce were saved from rotting and sold, and the profits were re-invested. The next time terrorist recruiters showed up, he said, the townspeople told them to get lost and called in the military.
In Libya, Development Transformations, which has several former members of the U.S. military among its leadership team, monitors the social media of extremist militias. With the aid of data processing and analysis firms ZignalLabs and DEV Results, the Washington, D.C.-based group designs counter-messaging initiatives and tracks any resulting change in local attitudes.
“You don’t just want to know that the enemy is there, but why he is there,” said M. Shands Pickett, a company director who spent three years in Afghanistan as part of U.S. military intelligence and counterterrorism operations. “If you shoot him in the face, there are more coming, and there is an infinite supply of enemy and a finite supply of us,” he told HuffPost.
“But if you can begin to answer why the enemy is there and understand the sources of instability in that particular place, then you don’t have to shoot so many of them in the face,” said Pickett.
This generation of war-hardened activists sees their work not necessarily as a replacement for military intervention, but as a critical element of the larger U.S. strategy. Their ideas are not entirely new, but they’ve struggled to gain the ear of the national security establishment.
Some people listened. In 2008, for instance, State Department experts and special forces soldiers were teaching counterinsurgency techniques at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to troops bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. Thomas Baltazar, a retired special forces colonel working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the troops that it was part of their mission to listen closely to the local people in order to learn why a town was dominated by insurgents and to figure out what to do about it. “Tie your actions to the root causes of instability,” he said.
In 2010, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn (yes, that Michael Flynn), then a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, wrote a stinging critique of the military’s failure to collect and act on information about the local drivers of violence and insurgent influence. “Lethal targeting alone will not help U.S. and allied forces win in Afghanistan,” he wrote.
“Not understanding the culture ― we continue to make that mistake over and over, in Vietnam, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
For years, however, these ideas were overwhelmed by the more urgent push to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. Attacking the root causes of war was relegated to a lower priority. It was too hard to figure out, some combat commanders said, and it took too long. With deployments lasting a year or less, there was no incentive to invest in a project that might take five years to pay off.
“Not understanding the culture ― we continue to make that mistake over and over, in Vietnam, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Brendan Mulvaney, a former Marine helicopter gunship pilot and foreign area officer who teaches at the U.S. Air Force Air War College and the National Defense University.
He led a recent study for the Army on how “we screwed up in Iraq and how not to do that again.” It requires “having people outside the typical military planning process, looking from a social-political-economic-cultural lens,” he said.
That work can still be dangerous. “If you are helping people build stability, you are taking power away from insurgents,” said a special forces officer just returned from Afghanistan. “Mother Teresa would have been beheaded out there.”
But now, as Washington wrestles with how to bring America’s longest wars to a successful close, acceptance of this smart-power approach is growing within the military. At the training base in Twentynine Palms, California, Marines are learning to analyze the particular local drivers of violence and to bring nonlethal resources to bear against those trends. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ― who is a mentor to Jake Harriman ― has spoken out in favor of more nonlethal programs. And in February, 121 retired generals and admirals appealed to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reject Trump administration proposals to slash State Department funding.
There’s already too little government support for tackling the underlying causes of violence. “People always say the right things” about conflict prevention, “but actually getting the resources is a hard thing,” a senior U.S. official told HuffPost, acknowledging that his ability to support the work of Richmond, Harriman and others is “shrinking.”
The Trump administration has not yet released its new national security strategy, promised months ago, so it’s not known how Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plan to balance raw military force with a smart-power focus on causes of conflict. The Trump budget, issued this week, would slash funds for nonlethal intervention ― although Congress has already made clear it won’t blindly accept his plan.
Defense Department officials are currently allowed to transfer funds from their own combat operations to more diplomatic programs funded by the State Department. There is a limit to those transfers: $75 million, out of the Pentagon’s $606 billion budget this year.
That leaves Jake Harriman seeking private financing to expand his work into northern Nigeria, where communities are threatened by the extremist group Boko Haram. So far, his most reliable funding has come from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
“Right now we’re trying to elevate the visibility of this problem to get the Defense Department and State to collaborate more effectively to tackle these violent extremist groups,” he said, adding, “All we need is the funding.”
Federal money for similar programs hangs in the balance, and some organizations have already gone elsewhere for support.
In Somalia, researchers for Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian aid agency, found that kids were more likely to support violence if they were in school. A Mercy Corps program helped improve the quality of the schools, trained children in team-building and leadership skills, and got them involved in student-led community action programs such as hygiene education campaigns. Researchers subsequently reported a 14 percent drop in the likelihood of youth participating in political violence and a 20 percent drop in youth supporting violence.
The program in Somalia is underwritten by USAID, which, like the rest of the State Department, would see its budget drop by one-third in Trump’s spending plan. It is unclear whether Congress will defend those funds.
In Iraq, where intense fighting has managed to clear ISIS from cities like Fallujah and much of Mosul, the U.S. has supported short-term “stabilization” programs that have helped 1.7 million people return to their homes, according to Brett McGurk, special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition. Much of that effort has involved clearing mines and unexploded ordnance.
Longer-term work to prevent a return to violence is being left to non-governmental organizations. For instance, Mercy Corps has trained 87 community leaders in dispute resolution, mediation and negotiation to defuse local conflicts between religious sects, landowners, political candidates, even between rival army and police units. Development Transformations is setting up a network of grassroots groups to monitor and head off retribution attacks against Iraqis suspected of having collaborated with the extremists. The latter is being funded by Canada.
The value of such investments in building stability may be hard to measure, but not impossible. “We’re running this as a business,” said Harriman. His team in Kenya has trained local participants to track indicators of success, such as increases in crop yields, group savings, micro-lending and loan repayments, declines in infant mortality, completion of literacy classes and leadership training.
“This is a 5-, 10-, 15-year strategy,” Harriman concedes. But he is eager to take the model he’s tested in Kenya and expand into Nigeria and beyond.
“Our enemy, the violent extremist groups, are innovating at a rapid speed,” he said. “We have to get ahead of these guys and reach these vulnerable populations before they do.”
Language has been adjusted to better explain the results of a Mercy Corps program in Somalia’s schools.