Should the U.S. be training and equipping African armies? The logic of security assistance and its discontents

U.S. Marines offer training to a group of African military officers at Camp Pendleton in California By AFRICOM, August 13 2014,

U.S. Marines offer training to a group of African military officers at Camp Pendleton in California
By AFRICOM, August 13 2014,

This month, I wrote a short piece on U.S. security assistance in Africa that was published as the “featured analysis” in the August 2014 issue of the “Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor,” compiled and edited by Consultancy Africa Intelligence. CAI has kindly allowed me to reproduce my article here for Notes on the Periphery readers. Check it out:

In a widely-anticipated foreign policy address in May, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a proposed $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” These partners are likely to include a number of African militaries and police forces—the first line of defence against Islamic extremist groups operating across the continent.

While unique in its size and global scope, the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund is only the latest in a milieu of US programs collectively known as “security assistance.” Building professional African security forces, in fact, has been an important—albeit controversial—component of US Africa policy for nearly two decades. Yet as the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan frees up additional resources, analysts and policymakers expect the US Department of Defense (DoD) to deepen its commitment to training and equipping African militaries in the years ahead, though its success is not assured.

The strategic logic of US security assistance

Tracking US policy toward Africa reveals a complicated mosaic of overlapping objectives, from fostering economic liberalization to defending human rights. It is perhaps not surprising, however, that policymakers at DoD view Africa primarily through the prism of national security. In recent testimony, Gen. David Rodriguez, Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), highlighted the “increasingly syndicated and active violent extremist network in Africa,” the persistent threat to American facilities and personnel, and the risk of widening instability in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. This characterization reflects a paradigm shift following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the US government began to place greater emphasis on addressing emerging transnational threats emanating from weak or “failing” states.

Conversely, budgetary and legal constraints and an American public wary of military adventurism compel DoD to engineer new, creative responses short of war. How can the US both continue to expand its global reach while avoiding the economic and readiness costs of military overstretch? The use of security assistance as a foreign policy tool in the past two decades offers a potential low-cost, high-reward alternative.

Navigating the milieu of security assistance programs in Africa

“Security assistance” traditionally refers to a collection of American aid programs, jointly administered by the State Department and DoD, aimed at training and equipping foreign security forces to combat emerging transnational threats, from terrorism to drug trafficking to piracy. Of the various programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF)—which provides grants for foreign countries to purchase American military equipment—is both the most common and the most controversial. Yet other activities are not directly related to combat; many focus on engaging civil society, improving intelligence capabilities, or facilitating the rule of law. For example, recent projects in Africa include: removing anti-aircraft weapons from post-Qaddafi Libya; equipping African militaries to diminish HIV/AIDS within their ranks; and identifying populations in Niger vulnerable to cross-border attacks by Boko Haram. Hundreds of African military officers are admitted each year to the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, where soldiers receive training at American defense colleges with a focus on human rights, democratic values, and military discipline. Moreover, the Africa-centric Global Peace Operations Initiative has facilitated the training of more than 200,000 peacekeepers to date.

All told, the US spends roughly US$ 9 billion annually on security assistance, twice what was spent in 2001.[1] Africa’s slice of the pie is comparatively small at roughly $2 billion per year (or $650 million excluding Egypt). Yet much of the growth has accrued to Africa: security assistance funds for the region have nearly tripled since 2009.[2]

The guiding principle behind security assistance is conflict prevention: nurturing indigenous military and political institutions capable of thwarting the spread or outbreak of violence before it starts. Furthermore, security assistance aims to operationalize an old English adage: giving a man a fish feeds him for a day, but teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime. “African solutions to African problems” is a popular mantra in both the US defense community and in Africa, a continent historically portrayed as reliant on foreign troops to keep the peace.

Challenges and discontents of US security assistance in Africa

These activities, however, are not universally well-received. In some circles, the advent of AFRICOM in 2008 aggravated fears of “militarizing” America’s relationship with the continent. To be sure, recent U.S. Special Forces raids in Libya and Somalia suggest that the Obama administration is not afraid to occasionally use force in Africa unilaterally. Moreover, the US military presence in Africa has grown to roughly 5-8,000 American military personnel this year. Yet US activities are circumscribed: even officers assigned to combat zones—including 300 US advisers helping Uganda hunt the Lord’s Resistance Army—are limited to support roles, precluded from using force except in self-defense. And in many cases, the US military emphasizes the opposite: the prominence of development, human rights, and governance in security assistance efforts serves to downplay the strictly military dimensions.

A second concern involves the recipients of security assistance. Relatively few African nations receive American munitions through FMF, but all but 13 send officers via IMET to train in the US.[3] Though it cannot control officers’ behavior upon returning to their respective commands, the US is often held liable for disreputable activities that later occur. For instance, critics pounced on the revelation in March 2012 that Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the leader of a coup in Mali, had previously received training in the US. Existing vetting procedures to screen out potential liabilities like Sanogo produce an additional dilemma: ill-disciplined military units least likely to qualify for training are often those that would benefit most from assistance.

A final challenge is the difficulty of measuring success, a central puzzle in conflict prevention. Can the absence of violence be attributed to effective and professional security forces? Or is it primarily driven by other factors? All too often, the signs of dysfunction and decay in the national military are not evident until after a crisis arises. In Africa, measuring effectiveness is also complicated by the fact that the US is not the only player involved in building state institutions: one must also consider the role of the European Union, China, Turkey, regional organizations, and others.

Sidebar: US security cooperation with Niger and Nigeria: two cases worlds apart

To understand the variable response to US security assistance, consider the contrast between two neighbors: Niger and Nigeria. Niger is slated to receive nearly $40 million in US military aid this year and has long been a central player in the US-funded Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). In February 2014, it hosted an annual, multinational military exercise with the US, and the US flies unarmed drones from Niger’s capital city. Though also a member of TSCTP, Nigeria’s security relationship with the US is far less robust. Under American law, rampant human rights abuses disqualify many Nigerian units from receiving training; still others who pass vetting procedures are routinely held up by a Nigerian government lukewarm to foreign assistance. According to Africa analyst Richard Downie, Nigeria believes it is “nice to have the military equipment, but maybe less welcome [is] the teaching and training on human rights respecting.”

To the US, overcoming these obstacles will be a critical test for an emerging national security strategy that prioritizes military cooperation and burden sharing. To Africans, the expansion of security assistance offers many potential rewards, but also costs. Though noble in its stated goals, the verdict on security assistance as a sustainable tool for building professional militaries remains to be heard.

[1] “FY 2015 Congressional Budget Justification – Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs”, US Department of State, 4 March 2014.
[2] Also excludes Egypt, where assistance has remained relatively constant at roughly US$ 1.2-1.3 billion per year. “FY 2010 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations”, US Department of State, November 2009.
[3] “FY 2015 Congressional Budget Justification,” 4 March 2014.
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