Just months in office, the Trump administration is responding to the imperative for America to lead in stabilizing distant, war-torn countries. That wasn’t the plan for a president who campaigned on narrowing America’s engagement in crises abroad to rebuild the economy at home.
Under President Donald Trump, the United States this year increased its forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria by 44 percent, to 26,000, as of September. And the president ordered new engagements in conflicts much less visible to Americans: counterterror help to Africa’s Sahel region and a peacemaking mission by U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Trump has not become an interventionist, at least by choice. Rather, he is confronting the conundrum that has faced every president since 9/11: America cannot ignore failing states, but has not managed to rebuild them.
Cognizant of Americans’ fatigue with the long, post-9/11 wars, Trump’s approach to this dilemma is to stipulate that “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
It is easy for Americans to conclude that stability in Syria or Nigeria is impossible — and that it’s probably better just to let such fires burn unattended. But the global information market, from social media to the “dark web,” means no walls or visa restrictions can protect America from the flying embers of such conflicts. The crises of failed or “fragile” states also disrupt the markets that sustain America’s exports, notably from the Midwest, and its economy.
With 65 million people, the most ever recorded, now uprooted from homes and livelihoods, our national security reality is this: Even distant countries must be governed stably to prevent future versions of ISIS or other extremism. Long-term stability requires that their people be able to settle domestic conflicts and establish their governments non-violently.
The good news is that evidence shows this can be done. It just can’t be done the way we’ve tried in Iraq and Afghanistan — pushing military-led solutions and force-feeding assistance programs, all while rushing to proclaim success within the deadline of a U.S. election cycle.
Stabilizing violent or collapsed states requires military forces for security, but political consensus-building for stability. Experience and research demonstrate three essentials for such peace building to succeed. It must address the underlying causes of a country’s conflict (generally serious injustices). It must include all significant groups and it takes years of patience.
An example of success is Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, which ended our hemisphere’s longest civil war. A decade of steady (and thus bipartisan) U.S. support was vital to helping a Colombian-led stabilization that offers the only way to choke off the cocaine trafficking from Colombia’s ungoverned regions.
Even amid Iraq’s warfare, local successes have gone little noticed. These include peace agreements among rival Sunni and Shia tribes that have halted or prevented violence in the cities of Mahmoudiya, Tikrit and Hawija. There, American support — a steady trickle of assistance from the U.S. Institute of Peace over 14 years — has been critical to building an organization of skilled Iraqi peacemakers. The peace accord at Mahmoudiya freed thousands of U.S. troops from deployment a decade ago, and has been sustained since then by the local leadership.
An administration that took office wary of stabilization work abroad is now accepting that role because it (like any successor) has no choice. To carry it off, the Trump administration and Congress need to build a broad approach that puts the cost-effective tools of dialogue to the fore. And we must all accept that our nation’s security will require of us a sober persistence in that approach, far beyond election cycles.
Former ambassador William B. Taylor is executive vice-president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He will address a free forum of the International Relations Council at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Tuesday.