Peace Science Digest

Assessing the Shift from Liberal Peacebuilding to Counterterrorism and Stabilization Operations

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Karlsrud, J. (2019). From liberal peacebuilding to stabilization and counterterrorism. International Peacekeeping, 26(1), 1-21.

Talking Points

  • Two trends are changing liberal peacebuilding: 1) a shift towards counterterrorism and stabilization and 2) UN peacekeeping operations’ support or incorporation of regional military coalitions in the fight against armed groups. 
  • More militarized UN peacekeeping mandates do not address the root causes of conflict and can contribute to cycles of violence and terrorist recruitment.
  • By focusing on counterterrorism, the global community is propping up autocratic governments and ignoring their human rights violations in order to gain their counterterrorism support. 
  • Cooperation between UN peacekeeping forces and regional counterterrorism forces undermines the UN’s legitimacy as a neutral third party, risking the safety of UN personnel around the world if they are no longer seen as neutral in conflict settings.


Once the most prominent form of international engagement in conflict-affected countries, liberal peacebuildinghas been on the decline. The author this research is wary of the simultaneous growth instead of stabilization and counterterrorism operations. In particular, he focuses on recent shifts in UN peacekeeping operations to see what they reveal about broader changes in global security politics and what their implications may be. Drawing on policy documents and interviews, the article “examin[es] member-state policies and mandates guiding UN peacekeeping operations since the beginning of the millennium,” focusing on UN and regional operations in Mali and Niger. 

Liberal Peacebuilding

efforts in conflict-affected societies, governments, and market-oriented economic systems which are assumed to limit the changes of relapse into armed conflict. 

The shift away from liberal peacebuilding and towards counterterrorism and stabilization is related to broader changes in the “international security agenda”—particularly U.S. military doctrine—and in UN peacekeeping operations, including stronger connections between UN peacekeeping operations and regional military coalitions. 

This reorientation towards stabilization and counterterrorism is evident in U.S. military doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Large-scale counterinsurgency and nation-building operations have transformed into more targeted operations, focusing on “drone strikes, US special forces, and funding and training of local troops.” According to the author, the former better address the root causes of conflict than the latter, which are focused only on “the use of force to kill or capture enemy targets.” This shift has crept into the agendas of allies and international organizations, whose adoption of these priorities lends legitimacy to them. UN member-states—including the U.S.—can even be seen as using UN peacekeeping as a proxy for their own security concerns and agendas, especially in relation to terrorism. 

As a result, the mandates for UN peacekeeping operations have shifted to entail “more limited goals, a shorter-term outlook and [a] more reactive approach to security incidents”—and, accordingly, less attention to the root causes of violent conflict. Furthermore, these operations increasingly rely on the support or incorporation of regional military coalitions in the fight against armed groups. The article argues that greater participation of nearby countries—as well as the host government’s instrumental use of UN peacekeeping for its own security interests—entails the increased partiality of UN peacekeeping (or other allied) forces. This increased partiality can, in effect, turn the UN into a “de facto party to the conflict.”

The author more closely examines cases in West Africa to draw out some of the troubling implications of this shift from liberal peacebuilding to stabilization and counterterrorism. First, although the adoption of more “robust” mandates is often celebrated as being more relevant to the current security environment, military counterterrorism activities do not “address[] root causes like weak and corrupt governance, marginalization and lack of social cohesion.” Second, autocratic, illiberal governments gain from this reorientation of UN peacekeeping operations, as it translates into military support for their regimes. Meanwhile, the U.S. and others are ignoring human rights violations of these regimes in order to gain their counterterrorism support. Third, this turn to more “robust” counterterrorism mandates can exacerbate the problems facing host countries. In Mali, for example, the security situation has worsened since the deployment of the UN force, MINUSMA, with attacks moving into previously stable parts of the country. MINUSMA—given “wide latitude for counterterrorism activities” and “lethal violence”—is “one of the deadliest UN peacekeeping operations on record, suffering 104 fatalities” between July 2013 and April 2018. Fourth, MINUSMA’s close cooperation with regional counterterrorism forces (such as intelligence-sharing on terrorist suspects) could lead it to be seen as a “party to the conflict” and potentially cause its personnel to lose protected status under international humanitarian law. In short, this turn to more militaristic approaches—and away from the “root causes” concerns of liberal peacebuilding—is likely to prop up illiberal, authoritarian governments and lead to a rise in terrorist group recruitment. As result, it can tarnish the legitimacy of UN peacekeeping operations to the extent that they are involved.

Contemporary Relevance

This research urges us to be wary about the militarization of conflict in the name of counterterrorism or stabilization, whether in the form of more “robust” UN peacekeeping operations or in the form of drone strikes or special forces operations. Although such approaches address the symptoms of conflict at best and enflame cycles of violence at worst, they are widespread. As noted in recent research by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the U.S.’s “global war on terrorism” now reaches 40 percent of the world’s countries. In 2017-2018, the U.S. engaged in air or drone strikes in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. All of these countries except Pakistan, plus seven other countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) have seen direct U.S. combat on the ground against suspected terrorists/militants—often in the form of special forces, which operate beyond the view of public scrutiny and debate. 

Practical Implications

Global security policy should focus on actions that address the root causes of conflict rather than employing militarized counterterrorism and stabilization operations to advance military goals. Furthermore, according to the author, the international community should not shy away from exerting pressure on governments to enact reforms to “increase the legitimacy and inclusiveness of conflict-affected states.” We should be wary about simply returning to an uncritical embrace of liberal peacebuilding, however—especially the version of that concept that is seen as closely related to military occupation, “nation-building,” and counterinsurgency. Extending the author’s own logic reveals that these more insidious forms of military action suffer from the same shortcomings as counterterrorism and stabilization missions. Instead, we should try to think more carefully from the perspective of those who may choose to “tak[e] up arms against international interveners” and consider what sorts of interventions in ourrespective countries would galvanize us to resist. Would we feel any less enraged about the long-term military presence of foreign troops in our country, even if they were building schools and distributing aid in addition to fighting insurgents, than we would about counterterrorism raids or drone strikes?If we care about the lived experiences of people in conflict-affected countries,that concern should manifest itself not through military action—however laudable its goals—but through support for locally conceived peacebuilding efforts that transform the structures and relationships in society away from violent conflict and thereby truly address root causes. 

Continued Reading

America at War By Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics. Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019.

Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency By Neta C. Crawford.November 2018. Costs of War Project, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.

Smaller Military Presence in Afghanistan Will Likely Focus on Trump’s Favored Pentagon Mission: Counterterrorism By Dan Lamothe and Pamela Constable. The Washington Post, December 21, 2018.

End the War in Afghanistan By The Editorial Board of The New York Times. February 3, 2019.

Challenges of Liberal Peace and Statebuilding in Divided Societies By Christopher Zambakari. African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), February 16, 2017.

Keywords: counterterrorism, stabilization, UN peacekeeping, liberal peacebuilding, Mali, Niger

The above analysis is from Volume 4, Issue 1, of the Peace Science Digest.