Amateur Hour?: Reframing the Debate over US Security Assistance


US Navy Commander assists at Internally Displaced Persons camp in Ethiopia
By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mary Popejoy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a timely “Room for Debate” discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of the current American system for training foreign militaries. You can read the six contributions to the debate here.

While an important subject, a few of the submissions make dubious, even borderline laughable, claims. But instead of picking apart the line-by-line, I decided it might be more beneficial to look at the issue of US support for foreign militaries from the 10,000-foot level: what is “security assistance” and what are the primary debates? Then: how should we look at problems with the current system?

The concept

A valuable lesson for understanding any issue: an observer’s background—be it as an anthropologist, economist, political scientist, etc.—will inevitably suffer from at least some degree of analytical bias. Naturally, “security assistance” means a different thing to different people. To activists, often blindsided by the infamous “School of the Americas” experience, it is a euphemism for providing weapons and training to bad guys, who in turn use the reins of power to commit human rights abuses, etc. To foreign aid critics, it is a dubious effort thrown in with the other “wastes”—ineffective and corrupted economic and development assistance. To academics, it is a mind-boggling exercise with few reliable metrics by which to measure effectiveness.

This post will not (and cannot) attempt to deconstruct these biases. Rather, I will only try to present the side of the story similar to that told by US government officials—particularly those who work constructing policy to improve political-military and military-military cooperation on a daily basis. (Having spent eight months right in the mix of this effort in 2011, I will fuse personal observations from that time into this response.) Better understanding this perspective will hopefully help demystify an often-misunderstood concept.

What is the overall objective/strategy?

So: security assistance, from the US government point of view, roughly translates to mean activities aiming to improve the “security capacity” of a foreign country. Of course, this term is not precisely defined, but one can easily discern the line of reasoning: in a complex and ever-changing world, the US military is not prepared (nor should they be required) to swoop in to aid every ailing government in times of crisis. At the same time, however, U.S. armed forces are uniquely capable and can provide invaluable advice, equipment, and training (in both specific tactics and broader US strengths like instilling discipline in the ranks) to foreign militaries. In many cases, it is in both America’s and a recipient country’s interests to collaborate—“burden-sharing” in order to contain potential international security threats (e.g., terrorists, drug traffickers).

The (albeit cliché) “teach a man to fish” analogy fits well here. Because it is aimed at bolstering underdeveloped militaries to govern their own territory, security assistance provides a low-cost alternative to waiting until a country has virtually collapsed (i.e., Somalia and Bosnia in early 1990s) to send in an expensive intervention force to save the day. Few serious skeptics of US security assistance are likely to disagree with this objective.

What should security assistance entail?

Most security assistance programs are innocuous—like joint efforts to conduct demining, remove cluster munitions and MANPADS, or train peacekeepers for future UN operations. Nonetheless, some lament the more controversial Foreign Military Financing/Sales programs (though most critics are oblivious of these names and associated processes), arguing simply that the United States should not be involved in the weapons-selling business. Perhaps so, but the reality is that the majority of US support is “non-lethal” in nature (think body armor, light aircraft, and training—not tanks). And significant scrutiny is applied in the case of lethal equipment—for example, the State Department issues licenses restricting the scope of their sale and use. Penalties are assessed for offenders—be it states or private defense contractors.

Along that thread, countries’ original requests for military equipment often begin as “wish lists.” A team of Defense Department specialists is then dispatched to the country to assess a military’s true needs, and only after then does a separate set of State Department officials (largely in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, or PM) clear and send along for Congressional budgetary approval. The result, after all the distilling, is often a rather slow trickle in military sales—hardly enough to transform a military into a potent killer overnight.

Another catchy line of argument is to claim US military assistance efforts should be more “holistic”—incorporating not just tactical training, but emphasis on human rights, governance, etc. Of course, the International Military Education and Training (IMET), a program that brings talented officers from foreign countries to the United States for classes at the National War College, etc. does indeed already include instruction on these subjects.

Who should oversee military assistance?

This is where amateur hour begins. Critics love to make the argument that security assistance involves far too little oversight—portraying an inaccurate picture that the Defense Department is able to essentially able to conduct weapons transfers and training programs at will. The reality is much different. To start, for essentially the express purpose of providing checks and balances, the State Department’s PM Bureau handles most of the accounts (Afghanistan and Iraq excluded, though State input is incorporated here). On top of that, relevant Embassies, multiple other branches of DoD and State, and the Office of Management and Budget all provide input on budgetary decisions—and every new allocation of resources (e.g., use of funds for an expressed purpose) must be approved by a multitude of Congressional committees (see ISAB report, pgs. 5-7). Rather than demonstrating “limited political judgment and inappropriate military self-replication,” security assistance policy actually requires approval from far more institutions assessing the “political” ramifications than first meets the eye.

(On a similar note, CAP fellow John Norris makes the egregious claim that military training requests are “rubber stamped” by Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) at State with little interest in political-military affairs, “not a well-regarded career track.” Yet the PM bureau is actually stacked with mostly civil servants/Presidential Management Fellows (not FSOs on two-year stints)—many of whom spend many years in the bureau developing expertise in these issues.)

Who should receive security assistance?

This is where the debate is filled with the most irritable noise—e.g., the School of the Americas hullabaloo or conspiracy theories about how the US is complicit in genocide. How could the United States provide assistance to 134 countries, many of which have bad guys in the military who might become future coup-plotters, genocidaires, etc.? Most who make this argument have little to no understanding of US programming or how the domestic oversight process for security assistance (see above) works. On top of that, they often conveniently forget about an important corrective—the 1997 Leahy Law, which requires State/DoD to vet recipients of assistance, ensuring that the United States does not support human rights violators. Granted, no vetting process is perfect, but cases of failure since 1997 are few and far between. The School of the Americas era represents a remnant of a past, Cold War policy, not the present-day reality.

Here one could also reinterpret the question to mean: “how many—or which—countries should receive security assistance?” One answer is provided by John Norris, who bluntly states the US casts too wide a net, providing assistance to more than 130 countries. His alternative? To “concentrate substantial resources into fewer places”—though he again undercuts his own argument, lamenting that “billions of military aid” given to Pakistan and Afghanistan has amounted to little. So…he wants to concentrate more on select countries…but when we have done this in the past (e.g., AfPak), it has failed anyway?

A note on Mali

Many critics use the recent Mali example as their “aha!” moment. The collapse of the Malian government in 2012 (facilitated by a rogue military captain once trained by the United States) proves that US security assistance is ineffective. But why? As Walter Pincus hints in his WaPo column, if the United States could have a do-over, it would actually spend more money and effort on the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP)—America’s primary security assistance mechanism for West Africa—not less. The failure in Mali does not discredit the objective of TSCTP—to train local militaries to quell extremism in the Sahara—but rather indicates that it was underfunded and did not warrant enough attention. Mali is not alone: sub-Saharan Africa programs constitute a minute fraction of the overall security assistance budget (more than 90% goes to Iraq, AfPak, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan). If John Norris had had his way (spending only on “select countries”), would Mali, or anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa, have made the list?

Finally, if challenges like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali prove that “train and assist activities are currently poorly conducted and need a thorough rethink,” what does one say about AMISOM in Somalia? Or Plan Colombia? Or the many other cases where US-led improvments in local security capacity have made enormous strides that nonetheless go unnoticed? A string of successes suggest US strategy is not entirely broken.

The right questions to ask

This is not to say there are no problems with how the United States conducts security assistance. The Mali failure should indeed compel State, DoD, Congress, and others to take a second look at the process. But one must have a reasonably thorough understanding of the issue before launching a critique against US policy. Several recent analyses, including one of the New York Times pieces, have the right tact. So does a well-researched ISAB report. These more reasonable assessments largely accept the objective and strategy (burden sharing, etc.) but offer a constructive debate over a narrower and more actionable set of questions, such as:

-What can be done to make the process more transparent?

-How can policymakers break out of a “Byzantine process for decisions, funding, and implementation?”

-How can DoD and State internalize and learn from past mistakes?

-How can we better define “success”?

-How can we tweak the Leahy Law, IMET courses, etc.?

In the end, the devil is in the details—on this issue and others. Analysts from different backgrounds looking at the same issue will inevitably often talk past one another. Yet while these biases will never be completely deconstructed, learning to do your homework and ask the right questions is a good start.

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3 Responses to Amateur Hour?: Reframing the Debate over US Security Assistance

  1. Hazel says:

    The devil indeed resides in details. Por ejémplo: when considering the function of security assistance, it was stated, “… it is aimed at bolstering underdeveloped militaries to govern their own territory…”. Deconstructions are difficult, I agree, but be aware of the implicit assumption upon which this defense of security assistance in toto rests. That statement of presumed purpose for security assistance leans heavily upon very specific notions of what the words/phrases “underdeveloped” and “govern” and “their own territory” mean. I have the feeling that the meaning here ascribed to the first might be a bit alienating in cultures with different historicities of standing armies than that traditionally found in European nation states and their colonial offshoots. And I also suspect that many separatist movements wishing and working for autonomy (political and otherwise) might find issue with your presumed definition of those last two.
    This being said, still a thoughtful analysis. I look forward to reading more posts when I have time.
    Be well,

  2. Pingback: Weekly News Roundup: What you missed while watching the “Boston manhunt” | Notes on the Periphery

  3. Pingback: US security assistance: Leahy Law under fire | Notes on the Periphery

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