In the speech he gave last May announcing a re-formulation of the war on terror, President Barack Obama acknowledged that “we cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root”; the only alternative to “perpetual war” is a sustained effort to reduce “the wellsprings of extremism.” The president should hardly have needed to make this obvious point; he had, after all, used almost identical language from his earliest days as a candidate. But after five years of responding to terrorism with many of the same lethal tactics George W. Bush had used, Obama needed to remind his listeners, and perhaps himself, that Islamic extremism can be blunted, but not defeated, by force.

It’s not at all clear, five months later, how Obama plans to dry up those wellsprings. But the administration made a modest start in that direction with the announcement in September that the United States and other nations would establish a $200 million, ten-year effort to counter violent extremism. For reasons of marketing, the new entity is blandly called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience and has been scrubbed clean of any explicit reference to Islam. But the goal is clearly to fund local programs designed to counter Islamist extremism. The initial programs will be based in six Muslim-majority countries and, in a show of nonpartisanship, Colombia.

The White House, which understands very well that any such effort will be doomed from the start if it carries a U.S. stamp, has spent several years trying to find an appropriate platform for the anti-extremism campaign. The sponsoring body is something called the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a harmless and high-minded body of which the United States and Turkey are co-chairs. The fund is structured as a partnership — like, say, the Global Fund for AIDS — which will receive funding from private sources as well as states. Republicans who consider foreign aid a waste of money should be mollified by the fact that the U.S. plans to spend all of $2 or $3 million on the effort this coming year. Nor has anyone else rushed to fill the coffers: Qatar, with its bottomless resources, has pledged just $5 million. Indeed, the whole thing will probably collapse unless Secretary of State John Kerry becomes the fund’s cheerleader and fundraiser-in-chief.

What will the fund fund? According to a U.S. official involved with its development, the “low-hanging fruit” could include funding local organizations that can produce and distribute textbooks that promote tolerance, things like providing job-training for youth at risk of radicalization — programs which could, if not designed properly, all too easily blend into the vast pool of existing development projects. “The ultimate target,” he says, “has to be those individuals that are on the cusp of being radicalized and being able to bring them back from the brink” — for example, by bringing moderate imams into Pakistani prisons in order to counter radical versions of Islam, or supplying public defenders so that petty criminals don’t linger for years in prisons where they’re likely to become radicalized. “The challenge,” he says, “is to find those local organizations that have credibility with access to those individuals. There are not enough of these right now.”

This article was originally published on ‘foreignpolicy.com’ on 25 October 2013.

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