WASHINGTON – With U.S. troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, a report released Wednesday suggested that nonmilitary alternatives like art and community engagement can be effective ways to continue combatting violent extremism in the region.
The report by the World Organization for Resource Development and Education documents ongoing efforts to counter radicalization at its roots, through religion, community engagement and art—by disseminating classical Persian poetry that promotes peace, for instance.
The authors of the report, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said nonmilitary programs are effective and can continue even without a Western security presence in the country.
They’re also cheap, they said.
Waleed Ziad, the group’s director of South and Central Asia Programs, said unlike military operations, civic engagement programs don’t require multi-billion dollar budgets.
“You don’t necessarily need to go into a deficit situation to solve this problem,” Ziad said.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen told the audience that the U.S. should contribute military resources and expertise to Afghan security forces even if a new security agreement to allow U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014 isn’t signed.
But he also said nonmilitary support will play a key role in trying to hold down insurgencies.
Military help is still necessary to “lock in our gains,” he said, but anti-extremist civic programs are “the future of Afghanistan.”
The World Organization for Resource Development and Education report compiled two years of fieldwork by researchers who conducted interviews in small towns and major cities across Afghanistan and Pakistan. They discovered a number of effective, organic methods to stop young Afghans from joining militant groups and to reintegrate former militants into civil society.
“Local groups on the ground have been dealing with the problem of radicalization and extremism a lot harder and a lot longer than we have,” Ziad said. “Local communities, they’re the ones that the recruits comes out of. They have certain answers to radicalization—they’re not perfect or comprehensive—but we can offer institutional support to make those answers more effective.”
These answers include disseminating anti-extremist messages: preaching tolerance at Friday prayer, or advocating cooperation between sects over the radio, the most accessible media source in Afghanistan; and using tribal and religious leaders as negotiators between the Afghan government and insurgent groups.
The key to a successful anti-radicalization campaign, said Mehreen Farooq, senior fellow at WORDE, is using a “culturally appropriate framework”— basing ideals like peaceful conflict resolution and sectarian harmony in Islamic or Afghan cultural heritage.
“[Afghans] must overcome the idea that civil society is a Western invention,” Farooq said.