U.S. Enthusiasm for Security Cooperation Needs to Be Tempered and Realistic

Middle East and North Africa
East Asia and the Pacific

In the past few months, major news outlets have highlighted the massive failures of U.S. security assistance efforts to combat terrorism in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. This has encouraged the U.S. Congress to seek a report on U.S. security cooperation strategy and examine “When It Works and When It Doesn’t” in a recent hearing. With these failures, a key question is whether or not the United States should increase or decrease the use of security cooperation for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In reponse to a article by Dr. Derek S. Reveron, one of the panelists at the hearing, and Dr. Oleg Svet, the below blog post argues that the United States should reconsider the wisdom of its security assistance programs as too often such assistance creates more problems than it tries to solve.

On September 21, 2013, four gunmen affiliated with Somalia’s al-Shabaab entered a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and began shooting.  Kenyan special forces units were on the scene within hours – troops that the United States had spent millions to equip and train, and who were considered the cream of the African counterterrorism crop – but they took two full days to flush out the terrorists, and then spent the next two looting the mall. 

Nine months later, 30,000 Iraqi government troops stationed in Mosul were assaulted by an ISIS force that had about five percent of their strength.  Eight solid years of U.S. training were not enough, apparently, to convince the Iraqis to do much more than drop their guns and run.  That experience has helped foster a nearly universal concern that, were the United States to remove its few remaining troops from Afghanistan, the 200,000-strong Afghan National Army would fold like a house of cards in the face of a much-outnumbered Taliban.  Hundreds of billions of dollars and years of sustained effort have not produced reliable partners in either case.

These experiences are hardly atypical outcomes of U.S. security assistance efforts.  A generation ago, desperate and prolonged attempts to turn the enormous Army of the Republic of Vietnam into a viable, independent fighting force met with limited – very limited – success.  In fact throughout the Cold War our security assistance programs often seemed more successful in passing along coup techniques than military professionalism.

None of this is to say that security assistance is never a worthwhile exercise, or that it is impossible to help others improve their capabilities.  But the United States should temper its enthusiasm for such programs, and be realistic about what security assistance can and cannot do.  America is very good at passing along material and knowledge, for instance, but it has yet to figure out a way to instill motivation and morale.  Just because our partners are capable of putting on an impressive parade does not mean that they will risk their lives for the goals we hope they will achieve. 

At its essence, security assistance seeks to train others to do jobs we want done but don’t want to do ourselves.  In theory, it should help the United States pursue its interests far more cheaply in terms of both blood and treasure than going alone.  In practice, however, this “force multiplier” often ends up creating just as many problems as it’s trying to solve.  Washington cannot force other militaries to be professional if they have little interest in being so, any more than it can build other societies into liberal democracies.

Security assistance is one of the central components of the larger nation-building projects that have been so central to our foreign policy since 9/11.  Untold billions have been spent trying to drag Afghanistan out of the Middle Ages, bolster moderates in Pakistan, spark development in Yemen, train militaries in Africa, ad infinitum, all in the name of counterterrorism.  The looting in Nairobi and panicked retreat from Mosul are good metaphors for how most of these attempts have unfolded; our efforts to make them more like us – whether militarily, economically, politically or socially – have usually ended in disappointment.

Most of the time, those nations we have targeted for building capacity have shown little interest in having their societies reshaped by paternalistic, if well-meaning, outsiders. Their people are happy to take money from Uncle Sam, and have learned to say the right things to keep it flowing, but ignore their uncle’s counsel whenever convenient.

In her analysis of the stupefying folly of Vietnam, historian Barbara Tuchman called nation-building “the most presumptuous of all the illusions,” and expressed amazement that the descendants of settlers to a virgin land “failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.” It is comforting, but illusory, to think otherwise.

The United States should reconsider the wisdom of its security assistance programs.  If it were to scale back both its expectations for and spending on such efforts, in most cases it is hard to see how America would be worse off.  At the very least, reliable metrics to evaluate these programs need to be devised, and their results heeded, so perhaps we could stop pouring good money into failed approaches?

Christopher J. Fettweis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University.  His most recent book on this subject is The Pathologies of Power:  Fear, Honor, Glory and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy.