Beyond Performance: Lessons Learned from U.S. Security Assistance to Tunisia


In the wake of the long, drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American policymakers’ growing aversion to military operations involving the large-scale deployment of United States (U.S.) troops has precipitated a rise in programs that train, advise, and equip foreign security forces to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions. In the two decades since 9/11, these programs have expanded rapidly in scope, cost, and global reach under the assumption that the enhanced capabilities of foreign partners would benefit U.S. national security interests and minimize the need for direct U.S. intervention. But after more than $170 billion spent in the last twenty years through Department of Defense (DOD)-funded programs to build up foreign militaries, the track record for Security Sector Assistance (SSA) programming is uneven at best.

The varying degrees of success and deficiency of these programs raises the question of what variables are contributing to positive SSA outcomes, and what lessons learned can inform ongoing and future SSA initiatives.  The following case study looks at U.S. SSA activities in Tunisia, a country that is generally considered a model case for SSA amongst U.S. government agencies and U.S. Africa Command, especially compared to similar programs in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. 

This report identifies a number of positive elements in the current U.S.-Tunisia framework, particularly at the tactical and resource allocation levels. Commendable practices from both Tunisian and U.S. officials have substantially improved the country’s security environment, both in terms of terrorist activity and insurgent militancy.  However, the report also finds that the relative success of this nascent security partnership is due in large part to unique conditions in Tunisia, many of which do not factor into current SSA thinking, leaving a blind-spot in the U.S.’s understanding of its security relationship with the country.  The current paradigm for evaluating security cooperation isolates socio-political considerations from security aid analysis, and thus poses a serious challenge to ensuring SSA aligns with broader strategic objects, rather than working at cross-purposes to them. With regard to Tunisia, the U.S.’s lack of a holistic approach in understanding the impact of security cooperation creates unseen vulnerabilities in the country’s democratic transformation, many of which are, ironically, obscured by successes in the country’s security services.

Accordingly, this report takes a holistic look at Tunisia’s unique civil-military and political history in its broad assessment of Washington’s security partnership with Tunis.  By mapping out these factors, this project aims to illustrate conditions and decisions that aid in the development of strong, healthy, and mutually beneficial security partnerships.

This report identifies several key lessons learned from the U.S.-Tunisia SSA partnership that helped shape both success and shortcomings of the relationship. They include the following:

  • Security assistance impacts the political landscape of a recipient country, especially in environments undergoing governing transformations, socio-political changes, or unrest.
  • Civilian-military relations and the historical relationship between the security sector and national governance are determining factors in the efficacy or SSA and in the risks associated with assistance.
  • Robust frameworks for SSA, with political buy-in up and down chains of command from both patron and recipient, are essential for aligning interests, working towards sequenced long-term objectives, and providing a foundation for Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation (AM&E). 
  • Fresh starts are valuable. In the inception phase of security partnerships, both patron and recipient have an opportunity to make important structural, strategic, and political decisions that will shape the trajectory of the relationship, including a spirit of collaboration, candor, and political buy-in.

Taken together, in the Tunisian context, the report finds that the prioritization of performance in the U.S.-Tunisian security partnership has undercut efforts towards security sector reform. While a highly disciplined and tactically thoughtful U.S. security assistance framework has contributed to laudable improvements in the capabilities in Tunisian security services, current evaluative paradigms that silo assistance from its potential political impact in environments where security governance, civil-military affairs, and political reform are in flux leaves a significant gap in the current U.S. understanding of its security partnership with Tunis.  Accordingly, the report recommends that any evaluative framework for U.S. security assistance should systematically assess the political implications of aid, with a special attention to the realms of security governance and political reform.