An expert's point of view on a current event.

Is America Training Too Many Foreign Armies?

Events in Mali show why it’s time to take a fresh look at the Pentagon’s military assistance programs.

The U.S. Army/Flickr
The U.S. Army/Flickr

Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), made an unusually blunt admission last week regarding the failure of U.S. military training to instill respect for human rights in a Malian army now accused of massacring Arabs and Tuaregs as it fights its way north into rebel-held territory. "We didn’t spend probably the requisite time focusing on values, ethics, and a military ethos," Ham acknowledged, saying that most U.S. training for the Malians focused on tactics, strategy, and "technical matters."

Since 1985, the United States has sponsored approximately 156 Malian military officers and non-commissioned officers at U.S. professional military schools and given them training focused on professionalizing the military forces. Over the past three years, this funding has reached at least roughly $400,000 annually, and it is possible U.S. intelligence agencies have also funneled in support as well. Sadly, Mali is hardly an isolated case of U.S. military assistance programs operating with dangerously little oversight and lacking a compelling central rationale. There are many examples of successful U.S. military training programs, but lots of headline cases that have gone badly wrong over the years — from training Indonesian troops that carried out atrocities in East Timor to the billions poured into the Egyptian military to the scores of tainted graduates from the School of the Americas that ran riot in Central America during the 1980s.

In looking at the patterns of U.S. military assistance the question is not who gets American military aid, but who doesn’t. In 2012 the United States delivered bilateral security assistance to 134 countries — meaning that every country on Earth had about a 75 percent chance of receiving U.S. military aid. Once you weed out places like North Korea and Vatican City, you are pretty much assured of receiving military aid no matter how large or small your country, no matter how democratic or despotic your regime, no matter how lofty or minimal your GDP.

At a time when not a day goes by without Beltway handwringing about the impact of a potential sequester, there has been almost zero discussion of how to better focus U.S. military assistance around clear objectives and direct it to countries where it can make a lasting difference. And these aren’t insignificant sums when taken together. The administration requested $9.8 billion in security assistance funding for fiscal year 2013.

Much of this military assistance — through programs like Foreign Military Financing; International Military Education and Training; Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs; International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement; Peacekeeping Operations; and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund — is supposed to be overseen by the State Department with the Defense Department doing the heavy lifting of actually delivering aid and training.

The rationale on paper for such assistance is straightforward and usually receives uncritical congressional support. U.S. military aid helps train security forces, finance the purchase of military equipment, bolster the ability of law enforcement to tackle the illegal narcotics trade, and shape cooperation on nonproliferation issues. But more than anything, the Pentagon has always insisted that spreading military assistance so broadly is all about building relationships with fellow militaries — a cost effective way of establishing contacts who will pick up the phone in a ministry of defense when needed. For those who say U.S. dollars propped up an autocratic military in Egypt, other argue that it was the senior flag relationships between the Pentagon and Cairo that kept the military from opening fire on democratic protesters during the Arab Spring.

But U.S. military aid looks much better on paper than in practice, in large part because it is often delivered as if on autopilot without a reasoned discussion of its merits. The State Department largely offers rubber-stamp approvals, and the Foreign Service currently lacks personnel with the expertise needed to engage in a rigorous debate with the Pentagon about who deserves aid and why. As Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center has argued, the State Department’s "internal capacity to plan, budget, and manage these programs needs to be seriously strengthened." This, combined with the general tendency of Congress to treat military spending requests as something just short of a papal writ, has meant that U.S. security assistance programs receive very little oversight.

Equally troubling, military and economic assistance are treated as quite different creatures. For economic assistance, the United States has increasingly insisted that aid recipients at least demonstrate some marginal commitment to democracy and open markets. Not so on the military side, where concerns about corruption, the rule of law, and human rights are treated as something we are too polite to ask about. Indeed, we probably would offer military training to everyone if it were not for the minor restrictions imposed by Senate Democrats like the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military assistance to known thugs and war criminals that violate human rights with impunity. Yes, having military-to-military contacts through U.S. military training and aid is often useful and can build important relations and lasting trust. But it is equally true that the list of U.S.-trained officers that have led coups against their sitting governments is a lengthy one in countries ranging from Honduras to Haiti to the Gambia. Contrary to what Ham’s remark suggested, a few months spent studying tactics and logistics in Kansas or Georgia rarely seems to slow down a power-hungry colonel when he is hell bent on toppling the elected government that just threatened to cut his budget.

Underwriting security assistance to countries with autocratic leadership or nations that are of little strategic significance doesn’t make much sense. U.S. military aid and training should be concentrated in a far fewer countries rather than being sprinkled all around the globe like fairy dust in hopes that good relations result. Nations should be chosen to receive such military aid and training based on their commitment to reform — both within the military and within the broader structures of democratic governance, free markets, and respect for human rights. Such aid should be a reward for high-performing countries, not a party favor dispensed at the door.

General Ham sounded genuinely surprised that American-trained officers were up to nefarious deeds. But the accusations of indcriminate killing should not come as much of a surprise. A U.S. trained captain led a coup against the government of Mali just last March — the first incident that led Ham to think that we might need to take a second look at training.

Take the fun quiz: which of the nations below were slated to receive U.S. military assistance in 2012:

Czech Republic
The Bahamas
Costa Rica
Cape Verde
The Gambia
Sao Tome and Principe
Trinidad and Tobago

Well, all of them, of course.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the full context of General Ham’s remarks.

John Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.