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Main `soft power' initiative has an uncertain future

Focused on regional strategies, it has little money or other help.

March 18, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Singled out in next year's State Department budget as its "principal counter-terrorism initiative," the Regional Strategic Initiative is aimed at using "soft power" rather than firepower to counter Islamic extremism.

It was developed in response to the president's National Security Strategy released in March 2006, which called for a gradual refocus toward strengthening alliances to defuse area conflicts, and away from military might.

But like some similar programs, the Regional Strategic Initiative has been starved for funds and other support -- and has lost some of its top leadership.

At the State Department, most counter-terrorism work is done through the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, which until last month was run by CIA veteran Henry A. Crumpton. Under him, the Regional Strategic Initiative spearheaded the U.S. effort to treat the global campaign less like a "war on terror" and more like a counterinsurgency effort, in which military, intelligence, diplomatic and other officials work with foreign counterparts to eliminate conditions that create religious extremists.

In its first year of operation, fiscal 2006, the initiative was established in four regions, starting in Southeast Asia -- where cooperation among several nations immediately helped disrupt recruitment by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups and attacks similar to the deadly Bali bombings of 2002.

The initiative also set up shop in the Horn of Africa, to provide developmental assistance in such countries as Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia to dissuade young militants from joining the five or six veteran Al Qaeda leaders who were running a large terrorism operation there.

"You can kill those five terrorists or six terrorists," one senior State Department counter-terrorism official said. "But if you don't also address the safe-haven issue and underlying conditions, another five terrorists will pop up next year."

From the beginning, however, the Regional Strategic Initiative was starved for funding. Crumpton's staff had to scramble for enough money just to travel overseas for meetings with U.S. and foreign officials to set up in regions, provide initial training and technical assistance, and do follow-up visits.

And once regional teams were set up and had compiled wish lists, Crumpton's staff often found it lacked the political support and money to fulfill requests for specialized training, equipment and other aid.

By midyear 2006, the initiative was almost out of money. It won an emergency bailout of about $1 million, and has received an equal amount for this year and next.

But its future is clouded by potential cuts, continuing concerns about a lack of political support, and the departure of some State Department officials instrumental in creating and running it -- including Crumpton and two of his most senior deputies -- several senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials said.

The three men have said of their departures that it was just time to leave. But associates say the men were frustrated because the administration emphasized military firepower at the expense of other methods.

"The [Regional Strategic Initiative] concept shouldn't be considered so revolutionary. But it runs counter to what they're trying to do over there" at the Pentagon, said a senior State Department counter-terrorism official who asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's heartbreaking," the official said.

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