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In our active duty days, we were honored to help lead the finest fighting force in the world and we strongly support an increase in military spending to maintain the readiness of those forces. But our experiences also taught us that not all foreign crises are solved on the battlefield; in the 21st century, weapons and war fighters alone are insufficient to keep America secure.

That’s why we support a robust development budget to advance our national security objectives — and we are not alone in this belief. This week, we will join 14 other experienced former four-star generals and admirals in submitting testimony to Congress that military power alone cannot prevent radicalization, nor can it, by itself, prevent despair from turning to anger and increasing outbursts of violence and instability. Over the past 15 years, our national experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, in the Middle East, and now in Africa has shown clearly that development aid is critical to America’s national security.

Unfortunately, the administration’s budget would cut 32 percent from the budgets of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department — including a cut of nearly half to development assistance. This is exactly the wrong decision at a time when development efforts in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries are needed more than ever. In turn, these severe cuts to USAID would only increase the risk to Americans and to our brave military service members. Congress should reject this dangerous path.

Strategic development assistance is not charity; it is an essential, modern tool of U.S. national security. Foreign assistance should be respected — and budgeted — as an investment in the enhancement of stability in the world’s most vulnerable places, not as a no-strings-attached giveaway to poorer nations.

American security is advanced by the development of stable nations that are making progress on social development, economic growth and good governance; by countries that enforce the rule of law and invest in the health and education of their own people. In short, America’s interests are served by nations that give their people hope for a more prosperous and safe future.

Conversely, American security is undermined by frail and failing nations where hope is nonexistent, and where conditions foster radicalism, produce refugees, spark insurgency, and provide safe havens for terrorists, criminal gangs, and human traffickers with global reach.

Fighting extremist groups after they emerge as well-trained and well-funded entities is costlier in lives and money than efforts to prevent such groups from forming in the first place. Research suggests that investing in prevention is, on average, 60 times less costly than war and post-conflict reconstruction costs. It is also more difficult. To prevent the expansion of terrorist groups, states must deprive them of ungoverned territory and the oxygen on which they flourish—the belief that the terrorists’ radical agenda can provide purpose and meaning to the lives of their recruits. That can be a challenge for Western nations, much less for developing ones with weak governance structures.

A host of international terrorist groups — Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIS, among others — have taken root in highly fragile regions and countries with shared characteristics, such as corruption and poor governance, weak institutions, high poverty and inequality, widespread indignity, and low quality of life for ordinary citizens. Local populations frustrated with poor governance and lacking meaningful opportunities to improve their lives or provide for their families are prone to tolerate, if not actively support, extremist groups that challenge government authority or assume the government’s role as social-service provider. To combat these groups and prevent such areas from serving as fertile recruiting grounds, training areas and transit routes for violent extremists, the United States and its allies should become much more proactive in helping address underlying conditions that, left unchecked, invite and foment instability.

Congress can, and should, make America safer with a robust and strategic Phase Zero initiative that engages the U.S. government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to synergistically prevent conflict and promote security, development, and governance rooted in the rule of law. Such an initiative — accompanied by other targeted reforms to our foreign assistance programs — would fill a dangerous vacuum that military intervention alone simply cannot address. Proactive conflict-prevention strategies are far less expensive in terms of resources and lives expended than reactive use of our Armed Forces.

Development experts under the auspices of USAID, State Department, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other federal agencies must be fully committed to a coherent whole-of-government stability-enhancement strategy that will protect America’s interests in the modern security environment while minimizing the exposure of our young men and women to harm’s way.

The faithful service, courage and sacrifice of our service members deserves and demands that we address and develop the strongest possible strategy for conflict-prevention that our nation can muster. Cutting the International Affairs budget will hurt our country’s ability to stop new conflicts from forming, and will place our interests, values and the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk. Congress should reject the administration’s proposed cuts and instead fully fund the international affairs budget. Our military is counting on it.

Admiral (Ret.) Michael Mullen served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. General (Ret.) James Jones was commandant of the Marine Corps and served as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe from 2003 to 2006.

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