Unexamined Risks: The Pentagon’s Military Aid Abroad

Since September 11, the U.S. government has overseen a massive expansion in Pentagon-funded aid to foreign security forces, moving from $800 million in FY 2001 to more than $10.8 billion in FY 2015. The bulk of this funding to arm and train partner security forces is focused on counterterrorism efforts around the world, and for many national security experts, the expansion of this aid remained relatively unquestioned. However, a string of reports and articles over the past year have highlighted serious concerns with the Defense Department’s aid efforts, including a surprising lack of risk assessments and evaluations.

While U.S. security assistance used to be led almost exclusively by the State Department, the Defense Department is increasingly taking the lead. In FY 2015, the Pentagon led the design and implementation of over 50 different military and police aid authorities to more than 180 countries. By contrast, the State Department leads the design of security assistance efforts using just five or six authorities. Large amounts of the Pentagon’s military aid goes to some of the most fragile and repressive governments such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Mauritania, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uganda.

Based on a RAND study last year, U.S. security assistance to fragile countries in Africa has several serious risks. These risks include undermining legitimate governance, exacerbating the balance of power within the state, giving weapons to non-state actors instead of legitimate sources, and abetting human rights violations. African security experts also highlighted a moral hazard risk. Since transnational terrorism is seldom high on foreign country’s security concerns, they said there is an incentive for some countries to make slow progress against terrorism to keep the aid flowing.

Despite these elevated risks, the RAND report indicated that “[t]he systematic and documented identification and monitoring of risk is almost completely absent” from decision-making in the security assistance process.” The report mentions that the Defense Department frequently defers such assessments to the State Department; however, the State Department often goes about the assessments in an informal or intuitive way. Equally concerning, a Center for New America Security report indicated that, “the U.S. has never done any systematic evaluation of whether security assistance is being used effectively.”

Part of the problem appears to be that Congress doesn’t require the Pentagon to regularly assess and evaluate its military and police aid. While elements within the Defense Department are pushing for more comprehensive evaluations of U.S. security cooperation efforts, some experts have indicated that a change in Pentagon culture may be needed. In the past, U.S. security assistance was often seen to be more about building relationships and gaining access to territory instead of building effective foreign fighting forces, and as a result, more detailed evaluations weren’t needed.

In some cases, Congress doesn’t even require the Pentagon to report on how much aid its giving to a region or country through some of the lesser know Defense Department security cooperation authorities. The Congressional Research Service, after attempting to assess whether specific programs were meeting their objectives, stated that “identifying how much money DOD actually spends on BPC [Building Partner Capability] activities is nearly impossible at present.”

So what are some of the potential effects of this lack of risk assessments, evaluations, and transparency? One concern is a lack of effective coordination between the State and Defense Department. According to a Politico article, the State Department discovered that the Pentagon provided aid to a controversial Cambodian army general first from media reports. In some cases, the Defense Department isn’t even coordinating with itself. In Liberia, one Pentagon program started an effort to assist the Liberians in creating a national security strategy only to learn that another Pentagon program had been working on the same project for several years.

Wasteful spending is a key concern. Last year, the New York Times published a detailed story calling into question tens of billions of dollars the Pentagon spent to build effective security forces to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Yemen. After the Defense Department provided more than $20 billion in military aid to build a fighting force in Iraq, for instance, the Iraqi Army crumbled in the face of a much smaller number of ISIS fighters in 2014. While there are many factors that played a role in failures in the above countries, it’s likely that more detailed risks assessments could have steered the Pentagon away from some ineffective approaches such as ignoring efforts to build accountable security institutions.

African security specialists have also raised concerns about other U.S. security assistance efforts to combat terrorism. In Kenya, they’ve indicated that U.S. aid and pressure to fight terrorism has led Kenyan security forces to increase human rights abuses against Muslim minorities. There have been concerns that U.S. military aid to Mauritania’s security regime provided an important crutch that permitted a previous regime to take undemocratic actions.” In Niger, the U.S. trained Niger Rapid Intervention Company reportedly defected to Tuareg insurgents.

To help address the transparency and coordination issues, Congress could require the Defense Department to submit an annual, public budget justification similar to the one the State Department provides to Congress each year. Within the State Department report is a summary of the main goals of security aid for each country and the various security aid authorities the State Department plans to use support these goals. Since the Defense Department already provides budget justifications for many of its sensitive security cooperation efforts such as through the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, these reports can be done without compromising security.

Congress could also support Defense and State Department’s efforts to increase their efforts at conducting risk assessments and project evaluations. The Defense Department has funded evaluations of some authorities already, but there needs to be a much more systematic effort. This could be accomplished by stipulating that 2 to 3 percent of the overall budget for a U.S. security assistance authority would be used to conduct these assessments and evaluations. RAND has published several useful reports that lay a strong foundation for identifying and monitoring risk and potential negative impacts. The Pentagon could also learn from USAID’s evaluation efforts.

While these efforts would certainly not prevent the problems mentioned above from ever happening again, they would help the Pentagon learn from its mistakes faster and correct problems before they become major failures. It help the United States eliminate duplicative security assistance efforts, improve coordination within the U.S. government and other foreign governments, and ensure that U.S. government funds are focused on the right priorities within the country. The Pentagon would also broaden the groups of people able to review U.S. security assistance efforts and provide Pentagon evaluators useful information.

Without such efforts, much of the Pentagon’s efforts to address terrorism may be wasted and in some cases counterproductive.