Ultimately, long-term success is far from the theater of war and will require engagement long after fatigue sets in.

The cover of this week�s Economist reads: Mission relaunched. What does �mission accomplished� look like now? Photograph via @TheEconomist via Twitter

The effectiveness of US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq targeting bases, training camps and resource havens for the Islamic State (Isis) will be limited until there is a concerted effort to do the difficult work of creating stability, good governance and security through actions, policies and leadership. The question we need to answer – and haven’t in more than a decade of military action in the region – is: after air strikes, how do we eliminate the conditions that lead to extremism?

What we see in the collective strength of Isis is the result of years of economic, political and military instability – and its practically unmitigated humanitarian impact – in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. The hardest reality the United States and its new set of partners in this latest fight will need to face is that, as usual, there is no clear finish line. With more than 6m Syrians displaced by the conflict throughout the region, inadequate humanitarian assistance, minimal security and people vulnerable to the influence of foreign extremist groups, this will be, as one US general described, “Harder than anything we’ve tried to do thus far in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Failure to engage with the region beyond bombing it or arming it created the very problem that we’re now bombing it and arming it to end. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated before this week’s Security Council meeting on foreign terrorist fighters:

This growing phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is a consequence – not a cause – of the conflict in Syria. A long period of upheaval and, until recently, unresponsive leadership in Iraq – coupled with outrageous human rights abuses in Syria – have created a hothouse of horrors.

In his announcement for the plan to combat Isis with airstrikes, President Obama cited the “successes” in Yemen and Somalia. But they are not exactly success stories: the two states are still mired in war, and one experienced a coup as the capital city fell to rebel forces just days ago. (Indeed, Yemen may have fundamentally collapsed by the time you get to the next paragraph of this op-ed.) Both situations, however, do make the case for the limits of reactionary military campaigns to combat violent non-state actors, and both countries lacked strong forces on the ground to capitalize on any military advantage that airstrikes offer.

Take Yemen, for example: the momentum of the Arab Spring and nine months of deadly protests ultimately led to the toppling of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh with the UN Security Council’s pressure and support, but that never resulted in stability or democratic governance in the country. Instead, as Brian Whitaker wrote for the Guardian in 2011, “Saleh may be on the way out but his regime – and everything it stands for – is still very much in place.”

In the years since the high-stakes, extremely tense months of protest, the international pressure for political reconciliation and good governance has long faded. In that vacuum, extremism is now growing, as human rights abuses and extreme poverty run rampant. US drone strikes against al-Qaida targets in Yemen – similar to the ones the Obama administration launched this week in Syria– are common. The inevitable result of what Whitaker described in 2011 as “change at the top while preserving the status quo beneath” changed nothing for the better, and came at a tremendous, avoidable cost to Yemenis and security in the region.

As Ibrahim Sharqieh explained in the New York Times this week:

The international community should have supported Yemen to ensure its successful transition to stability and development. Instead, the international community largely turned its back on Yemen as it sank further into poverty, chaos and extremism.

It is a tremendous challenge to reckon with our repeated failures to address the underlying conditions that allow violent extremist groups like Isis, al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaida in Yemen (and throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa) to grow and ultimately thrive.

But waging a multi-state military campaign against an ideology legitimized by a lack of hope, absent and abusive leadership and largely absent international effort to hold bad actors accountable for their actions without a plan to address the underlying conditions will just necessitate another military campaign, and another, and another.

Ultimately, long-term successes require countering the conditions that legitimize extremism: addressing poverty, building institutional infrastructure and managing the massive humanitarian impact from these conflicts. It is far from the theater of war and will require engagement long after fatigue sets in.

Long-term success requires reframing “success”, and an end to the myopic military focus on taking out leaders (like al Shabaab’s Ahmed Abdi Godane, whom the terrorist group simply replaced days later) or physical assets. We must disrupt the status quo of “change at the top” and prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes yet again. We have to focus on the human needs of the civilians caught in the chaos, not just this iteration of chaos-creators, lest we recreate the same problems we’re trying to fix under a different name.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a technologist and human rights advocate. She is the Chief Executive Officer of Be Bold Media, a digital agency focused on global advocacy and the co-founder of End Famine, a campaign dedicated to developing sustainable solutions to hunger, food security and humanitarian relief. She also runs Survivor Fund, a political fund dedicated to supporting the rights of survivors of sexualized violence.








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