In a national security environment characterized by austerity and budget constraints, the idea of preventing future conflicts takes on new importance. Large-scale counterinsurgency and stability operations require a considerable amount of manpower and resources. A smaller Army in particular will present serious challenges for both policymakers and military leaders. In Phase 0—the first phase of the military operations continuum, in which friendly relationships and alliances are forged or strengthened and/or potential adversaries are deterred—shaping the operating environment will become critical in identifying areas of instability and conflict.One problem to be confronted during Phase 0 is desertification, which is the result of poor land management practices that reduce the effectiveness of available rainfall. It needs to be recognized as an underlying cause of social, economic and environmental problems that feed recruitment for violent extremist organizations. Desertification leads to an increasing frequency and severity of drought, flooding, social breakdown, conflict over diminishing water and grazing areas, emigration to urban slums and across borders, economic failure, and, ultimately, climate change. It has been identified as a root cause of instability in African countries including Niger, Mali and Somalia, fueling the growth of al Qaeda-linked extremist organizations and leading to regional destabilization.There are indicators that desertification will become a greater problem in Central Asia and North Korea in the near future. Understanding the nexus between desertification and instability and elevating it as a priority is a key step in reducing the effectiveness of violent extremist organizations and building stability in partner nations.Livestock ThreatenedIn an arc of instability stretching across North Africa to India, through parts of the former Soviet republics and into China, more than 90 percent of the land can feed people only from livestock. This livestock industry, however, is threatened by rapid desertification. Population shifts as a result of desertification can introduce instability into urban centers, threatening governments of partner nations.Ideology-based extremist organizations can exploit an economy-based narrative to piggyback on segments of a society under economic duress. These economic hardships can facilitate the development of auxiliary and underground networks, even when the insurgent movement and its prime ideological argument are not appealing to a targeted population.Worldwide population shifts to commerce hub megacities or primary cities—often border crossings in landlocked countries or port cities in littoral regions—reinforce the need for sustainable agriculture. Developing nations must make the shift from a subsistence-based agricultural economy to one that can feed large urban populations. High food prices lead to social unrest and can become the spark that ignites mass protests. Research indicates that food price spikes coincided with riots between 2007 and 2010, and also with the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Using the U.N. food price index, scientists have identified a “disruption threshold” where food prices have the ability to mobilize populations to violence.Rapid urbanization also places strain on the infrastructure required to move agricultural products to urban markets. Analysts forecast the growing importance of nonstate actors such as corporations, religious and social organizations, and criminal and insurgent networks as key players in the urban environment. Control of food distribution networks may not ultimately be in the hands of partner-nation governmental organizations. Thus, the second- and third-order effects of desertification can be far-reaching and can significantly affect power balances in nations with historically weak institutions.The African Trans-Sahel region is the area traversing the continent from west to east, which includes the countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and Nigeria. The Sahel typically receives approximately 10 to 20 inches of rainfall in a year. The region has traditionally been plagued by lack of sustainable food and water, and it is dependent on donor nations for support and assistance.Mali has been one of the more active countries joining Egypt and Libya in terms of insurgency, terrorism, internal political unrest and foreign military intervention. Recent reports from the area indicate that farmers and herdsmen who are faced with lack of ability to maintain their families with subsistence farming have been attracted to al Qaeda-linked groups as their land has been overcome by the desert sands.Insurgent and terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former commander of al Qaeda of the Islamic Magreb, and the al Qaeda affiliate Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, were both based out of the town of Gao in northwest Mali, where they found a ready stream of recruits, a base of support and safe haven. The men who joined their ranks were from the same groups of people directly affected by the lack of opportunity, food and work.The most disenfranchised group in the region is the Tuaregs. Following the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, weapons and Islamist fighters—particularly Tuareg tribesmen—transited to and from Libya and into neighboring Nigeria, Algeria and Mali. It is more than a coincidence that, following this movement of fighters and weapons from Libya, Islamist militants were able to stage a takeover of northern Mali. The second-order effect of this was a Malian military coup in 2012. French forces then stepped in to take back control of insurgent-controlled areas and help the Malian government reestablish security and governance under military rule.Reversing DesertificationThe relationship between large-scale climate change and agricultural practices has led to increased interest in this field from the scientific community as well as nongovernmental organizations—for example, the U.N.’s Convention to Combat Desertification. In addition, a number of private research and advocacy organizations are involved in bringing new methods and ideas to the debate. For centuries, practitioners and researchers in agricultural and livestock management attributed desertification and the resulting instability to excessive livestock overgrazing. This concept has recently been challenged by other methods in the effort to reduce or stop land degradation.One such innovative practice, developed and led by the Savory Institute, a private research organization, advocates and implements counter-desertification efforts based on a holistic method that has been practiced on more than 40 million acres of land on five continents. This method has reversed desertification by using different methods to manage increased numbers of livestock. Other advocacy groups promote more traditional methods. It is clear, however, that there is a growing body of research available. There are many potential solutions from which to choose in regard to the political, economic, environmental and military impact of such enormous developments on people and governments of affected areas.U.S. military forces should maintain an understanding of, and capability to assist in, land management and desertification. Army special warfare assets, such as Special Forces operational detachments and civil-military support elements, are uniquely tailored to accomplish this objective, as they maintain persistent engagement with—and train, assist and advise—partnered forces. These small teams of Special Forces and civil affairs soldiers have the ability to detect desertification impacts through close contact with indigenous populations. They can then assist them in directing the appropriate resources toward building partner-nation capacity to begin reversing desertification in the most problematic regions. Doing so decreases economic instability along with the resultant recruitment pools for terrorists and insurgent movements. Special operations forces are also assisted by general-purpose forces, such as the Army’s regionally aligned brigades, which have a key role in training partner-nation general-purpose forces and executing theater security cooperation plans and Joint Chiefs of Staff exercises.This interdependence, combined with strong relationships between the military and its interagency counterparts, enables the military to work proactively toward conflict prevention and lessens the likelihood of large-scale combat deployments in the future.