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Afghanistan After 2014: Combating the Taliban without Weapons

As the United States begins to prepare for its withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in 2014, it has begun to address one of Afghanistan’s largest narcotics operations with no force at all. Opium production and trade is one of the main sources of funding for the Taliban, not to mention it has contributed to political instability and a breakdown in the rule of law.

The latest survey by the Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs shows that 5% of Afghanis living in urban areas are addicted to opium, compared to .03% in the U.S.  Additionally, the percentage of the population addicted to opium in rural areas is projected to be in the double digits. This makes Afghanistan the country with the highest addiction to opiates worldwide. Further, Helmand and Kandahar, two of the most instable provinces in Afghanistan, are also the largest producers of opium. This linkage between opium production and corruption illuminates the importance of tackling the production of poppy.

Relative peace and stability following the withdrawal of U.S. forces is predicated on the subjugation of the Taliban insurgency, making efforts to stem their funding ever more important. Initiatives by the U.S. government to combat the production of opiates involve enforcing and strengthening the rule of law and the criminal justice system.  However, the popularity of informal law at the tribal level, coupled with the paradoxical meshing of Shariah Law with common law, make the establishment of a transparent legal system extremely challenging.

Amy Schimisseur, Team Lead for the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Afghanistan Counter-narcotics, spoke at an event held at Georgetown University called Afghanistan 2014 and Beyond, about initiatives in place to change attitudes and behaviors regarding the production and trafficking of opium.  One initiative is the Counternarcotics Public Information Initiative (CNPI), which disseminates public information and awareness through Afghan media outlets, NGOs and government agencies regarding the effects of the poppy crop.  Local leaders are being trained to hold community councils on the dangers of drug use and Preventative Drug Education initiatives within public schools have also sought to stem drug use at an early age.

Economic aid also acts as an important tool to encourage the destruction of opium crops and to provide opportunities for development. A widely successful initiative is the Good Performers Initiative (GPI). The program involves incentivizing provinces to eradicate opium production in return for development assistance ($1 million USD/year) for sustainable infrastructure projects such as schools, roads and sports stadiums.  The project ideas come from local villages within the given province and the contracts are awarded to Afghan companies.  This not only incentivizes governments to eradicate poppy production, it also employs local Afghans and builds capacity.

Even though troop withdrawals will take place, the U.S. plans to continue its war with the Taliban nonviolently on both the governmental and civil society fronts.  It is essential that the rule of law provide citizens with security, consistency of expectations, and protection by and from government.  With the prospect of the Taliban trying to make a move after the majority of U.S. troops have left, the capacity of civil society and the government, as well as economic development and market opportunities, will be necessary to combat insurgency movements.


Targeting America and Beyond: China’s Soft Power Initiatives

One of the biggest spenders in the worldwide information space has made the U.S. population a prime target in its attempts to secure a more flattering image of itself on the international stage: China.   The country’s efforts to reach Americans and overcome its general lack of credibility come with a significant price tag.  The Communist Party of China has spent around $6 billion  in the past few years on media campaigns in the U.S.

China’s efforts put an interesting twist on the U.S.’s own public diplomacy attempts to reach international audiences in an attempt to bolster U.S. objectives abroad, whether through Twitter diplomacy, education exchanges or other similar efforts.

As China becomes both an economic and political power, the threat it poses to U.S. supremacy has given China a global image problem. To thwart this perception, China has leveraged showcase events like the 2008 Beijing Winter Olympic Games and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, in addition to more traditional methods of strengthening Chinese soft power.

Chinese diplomatic efforts in the U.S. have focused primarily on advertising campaigns and other soft power initiatives to drive positive public opinion of China. Notably, the government-run Xinhua News (with an office in NYC) has a national broadcasting station in the U.S. as well as online resources.  Other efforts include the Confucius Institutes which aim to promote cross-cultural exchanges, although they are sometimes viewed as “Chinese foreign propagandists.”

The Chinese government’s soft power initiatives also help to satisfy the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources.  The Chinese government’s work in Africa trade infrastructure development for access to the continent’s natural resources. However, rumors of human rights violations and lack of adherence to democratic principles in general make diplomatic efforts essential for China in this region. The expansion of China’s state news agency Xinhua to Nairobi, Kenya, is meant to thwart biased Western views of China. Particularly in countries where China takes an investment-for-resource approach to foreign policy, effective public diplomacy efforts are vital.

Generating credibility is at the root of public diplomacy efforts and China’s “peaceful rise’ is contingent on its ability to effectively target and influence audiences in the U.S. and abroad. With billions invested so far, will China improve its image among Americans and even best American influence in diplomacy efforts in Africa and worldwide?


Combating Violent Extremism in Pakistan with Soft Power

As the U.S. withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan nears, the question of how to combat violent extremism using non-violent methods has come to the fore. Given Pakistan’s cultural and geographic ties to Afghanistan, not to mention the network of Taliban fighters consistently crossing in and out of the two countries, de-radicalization in Pakistan has become ever more important. A recent study by Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, Medhreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) argues that engaging with faith-based organizations is the most effective way to do this.

In Pakistan, madrassas, or Muslim seminary schools, are often funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistani extremist groups acting under the umbrella of charity organizations, or more moderate groups supported by the government’s limited and less-than-successful attempts at restructuring public education. Religion plays an integral role in developing positive social networks, especially in low-income areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber, and Southern Punjab, as many citizens rely on madrassas as their most legitimate source of education, employment, and humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, this has also turned educational centers into prime recruiting ground for well-funded extremist groups that can offer educational/humanitarian aid and employment in exchange for adhesion to extremist ideals.

Though these madrassas have been successful, WORDE’s study has shown that with proper funding and support, moderate faith-based civil society organizations (CSO) can be very effective in combating militant jihadi networks as their perceived legitimacy is already higher than that of an international organization or even the government, itself.

Coordinating with senior community leaders, one could reach Pakistanis at grass-roots levels and promote peace the same way extremists promote violence: advocating for social cohesion, non-violent conflict resolution, and interethnic and interfaith dialogue justified by Islam through public awareness campaigns, issued Fatwas /public statements and public debates against extremism or rallies that increase exposure in the traditional and social media spaces.

The U.S. has a tradition of pulling funding and assistance from countries after it disengages from them militarily. Although the U.S. has no combat boots on the ground in Pakistan, a centerpiece of foreign policy between the two countries must include continuing civilian assistance to Pakistan, public diplomacy efforts and partnerships with moderate CSOs.


Social Media and the Syrian Revolution

Experts have been quick to emphasize the role social media played in the uprisings across the Middle East over the past year, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.  Threatened regimes in particular have also seen the power of online social networks and attempted to thwart their use. The revolution in Syria is no exception as the Assad Regime has increased government censorship to inhibit anti-Assad activists and militants from forming coalitions and spreading information. However, unlike Tunisia and Egypt where significant portions of the local population used Twitter and Facebook for social activism, Syrian activists have turned to Skype and YouTube (much like Libya) to spread news of events on the ground.

ABC News’ Syria correspondent Lara Setrakian posited this theory at a recent panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace entitled Groundtruth: New Media, Technology and the Syria Crisis. Skype, referred to as “ground zero” by Setrakian, is used by activists across the country to become citizen journalists while maintaining a degree of anonymity, although there is constant fear of the regime hacking into personal computers using malware.  All communications infrastructure also is government owned and severe restrictions limit web access to certain sites. To circumvent this government censorship, activists have learned to get thousands of people to upload videos at once, as the government doesn’t have the capacity to censor everyone at the same time.

Just as several supposedly authentic Arab Spring Twitter users have been discovered to be fakes, the use of video reporting in Syria also brings up issues of the authenticity and credibility of news sources. Many videos posted directly to YouTube that give the appearance of being jihadist/Free Syrian Army groups are actually believed to be put out by the Assad regime.  Most recently, there is controversy over a YouTube video showing American free-lance journalist Austin Tice in the hands of what looks like Syrian jihadi group. Media analysts believe it is actually propaganda by the Assad regime.

As Assad and his regime come under increasing fire from activists and the world at large, Syrians are finding their collective voice for the first time. Social media can certainly be a force for good in making the atrocities of the Assad regime known, although the accuracy of the videos/posts/tweets must be analyzed to determine whether they are coming from credible sources.  Much like Libya, poor internet access (only about 20 percent in Syria) and the militia-based, violent nature of conflict necessitates the use of traditional media, especially television. Though social media has acted as a tool to disseminate news to the international community, it currently is less a tool of the revolution than a looking glass into it.


Public Diplomacy Counterterrorism: Beating Terrorists at Their Own Game

As terrorist entities and non-state actors increasingly use the internet as a means to market themselves and attract potential recruits, the U.S. government’s monitoring of, and engagement with, terrorist websites have come under fire.

Actions like the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication’s efforts to discredit al-Qaeda by posting coffins draped in Yemeni flags on the group’s chat forums make many wonder: Why doesn’t the U.S. use its cyber capabilities to shut down these forums?

Wired magazine Editor-at-Large Ben Hammersley offered one explanation at a Brookings Institution event.  He argued that digital radicalization is not a typical national security concern because use of military action is inadequate in addressing the issue.  With proliferating access to digital technologies worldwide, there are simply too many real and potential threats for counterterrorism officials to remove from the internet.  He suggests that governments frame digital radicalization not as a military issue but as an epidemiological one.

The metaphor of digital radicalization as an epidemiological problem is apt for describing the State Department’s approach to counterterrorism.  The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications monitors online forums used by terrorist groups to identify trends in terrorist communications.  It analyzes data gathered from these forums to find unique themes and patterns that emerge in different groups’ online recruitment efforts.  By understanding these trends, the Center can develop communications strategies targeted for the populations that are most susceptible to each groups’ propaganda.  Like epidemiologists who search for patterns among specific populations to determine the causes of public health problems, the Center searches for themes in terrorist groups’ recruitment efforts to prevent the spread of radicalization.

Radicalization, whether offline or online, will continue to occur as long as terrorist entities exist. Simply shutting down web pages will not prevent radicalization; in fact, some believe shutting down terrorist activity online would drive extremists farther underground to other, less visible channels. Rather, it is more important for the government to understand the motivations of radicalized individuals and to use this understanding to preempt further recruitment by beating adversaries at their own game.