COLUMN

Ties That Bind

From Afghanistan to Mali to Iraq, training and equipping other countries' militaries has a terrible track record. Why would we want to make it a permanent part of U.S. strategy?

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

This is an urgent memo to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees: Making Section 1206, a DoD program that trains and equips militaries around the world, a part of permanent law is a bad idea. Stop now, before it is too late.

You’ll see what this is and why it is important in a minute. But first: This column is not about the bombing of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. I have my doubts about the effectiveness and the long-term consequences of the Obama effort to "ultimately destroy" IS. Thirteen years of U.S. military operations, including the training and arming of indigenous forces in Afghanistan did not eliminate the Taliban. And, clearly, 10 years of training and equipping forces in Iraq failed; they ran for it as soon as IS moved in.

We are on a policy hamster wheel here: developing new security assistance programs, throwing money at them, failing to evaluate the outcomes, and, when the failure becomes manifest, throwing more programs and money on the fire.

Once again, we are headed down the road of training and equipping foreign security forces on a global basis — this time, imagining that we can reform their security institutions and enshrining that effort in the Pentagon’s permanent toolkit. It’s like second marriages: the triumph of hope over experience.

Section 1206 is just a piece of the problem. The bigger concern is a Pentagon strategy called Building Partner Capacity (BPC). This summer and fall, the administration has decided to double down on the failure of U.S. programs to reform and strengthen other countries’ security forces, expand BPC programs and funding, and give the Pentagon even more responsibility for this effort.

Forget boots on the ground. Not only is Building Partner Capacity, the White House announced, a key part of the U.S. campaign against IS — it is now the mantra for U.S. global engagement. Under this label, Washington is slowly creating a vast architecture of programs to engage and influence foreign security forces in the expectation these forces will emerge well trained, operationally effective, respectful of human rights, and susceptible to civilian control and oversight. Perhaps even more important, these programs are intended to create militaries that will partner with us and give us access to their countries while they provide precious security inside their own countries.

As part of the expanding portfolio of programs, President Barack Obama proposed a new $5 billion Counter Terrorism Partnership Fund (which I have written about); as part of that fund he now seeks a $500 million training and equipping effort for the Syrian opposition (which was authorized by Congress in September). 

Creating what are called "deliverables" (money an administration can offer to another country) for the Africa Summit in August, Obama proposed a $110 million dollar African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership program (for Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda); and a $65 million Security Governance Initiative (for Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia).

Add up all these programs and it makes clear that Washington is starting to build overseas training operations into the statutory architecture of the Defense Department, without any clear evaluation of whether it works or will backfire.

Successive administrations have imagined that the U.S. military can make other people’s security forces more effective. We have been at this for more than a decade, under one name or another. It is a continually expanding global effort, steered and implemented by the Defense Department and the military, to strengthen and empower allied forces around the globe. This effort has expanded both geographically and in the types of forces supported. The military is deeply involved in these programs, as are a number of military hardware and training contractors, making millions on the funding.

Starting in Iraq and Afghanistan, BPC has expanded into South Asia, parts of the Middle East (Lebanon, and today, the Syrian "moderate" opposition), and on to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, Kenya, the Sahel region, Mali, and other West African nations. BPC went global in 2006 with the creation of a temporary DoD authority (Section 1206), which supports training and equipping for security forces around the world. And that global concept was further enshrined in 2011, when DoD and State proposed and Congress approved a Global Security Contingency Fund, which is jointly operate..

BPC has expanded as well in what it considers the "target group" that should be trained and equipped. It is no longer a question of training and equipping militaries; now the Pentagon is reforming the entire security sector of other countries. DoD has programs to train and equip other countries’ paramilitary and special operations forces, internal security forces, border guards, and police forces — even provide advice on how to set up counterterrorism centers, ministries of defense and interior, and (get this) justice systems of other countries. 

It all sounds so perfect. We train other forces of all kinds, in many countries, and spread the benefits of security, all the while ensuring other countries can take care of themselves and make U.S. military deployments unnecessary. (Let’s set aside the issue of whether U.S. deployment of forces is a wise policy, in its own right.) The challenge to the supporters of a broad, global U.S. security-sector assistance and reform program are two-fold: 1. Whether it works; 2. Whether the U.S. military knows how to do it so the changes last.

But the bigger questions for the rest of us are: 1. Whether the military is the right institution to evaluate whether and when we should provide such assistance; and 2. What the consequences are of putting military assistance at the front edge of U.S. foreign policy.

I deal with this issue in depth in a book called Mission Creep, which I co-edited with my American University colleague Shoon Murray, due this December. But let me summarize here the likely consequences of these programs for our security and the effectiveness of our foreign policy.

Spoiler alert: The military does not do this mission well, especially when it is extended to security forces outside the recipient’s military. The military forces we train and equip have, too often, turned out to be ineffective, corrupt, or dangerous to internal security in their countries. The U.S. military has no special skills at border control, internal security (our military can’t and doesn’t do that), policing (our military doesn’t do that, either), ministry-building (no other country can possibly need something like the Pentagon, nor should they), or the rule of law (um, Guantanamo?). When they fail, as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does not enhance our security or the support overseas for U.S. military operations.

How do we know this? Statistically, we do not. Anecdotally, the evidence is compelling. The Iraqi military fell apart; there are doubts about the Afghan forces, the Malian military fell apart after a U.S.-trained officer carried out a coup, even the Kurdish Peshmerga had to scramble when IS attacked. There has never been a clear set of goals for U.S. security assistance, nor has there ever been a systematic evaluation of seven decades of security assistance efforts under State Department guidance, all of which preceded the Pentagon’s BPC effort. Becky Williams and I pointed this out in a Stimson Center report three years ago. A State Department advisory group said the same thing two years ago. That evaluation is still not done, and while assessment is part of the language of the 1206 Section bill now in conference on the Hill, maybe Congress should wait for it before it makes 1206 permanent.

Though the past failures of train and equip programs have had bad consequences for U.S. foreign relations in various countries, by expanding DoD’s responsibility and control over these programs, we are systematically undermining the State Department’s capacity to oversee them and adjudicate their effect on our foreign relations. Some of these programs require the Secretary of State to sign off on particular countries and activities, as long as the proposed projects and funding belong to DoD, State has become a secondary player in the security assistance business. That tends to militarize our foreign policy judgments, a problem Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned of about six years ago.

The most serious consequence of relying on a global, permanent security assistance program at DoD is it is increasingly putting a uniformed face on U.S. international engagement. When it fails (which it will), when a coup happens (which it does), and when nothing changes but the further empowerment of military and security forces which already are the most organized and well-funded part of many nation’s governments (which is the inevitable result), America encounters blow-back and hostility — which is, in the end detrimental to our security. 

Slowly, but surely, these programs draw the United States into security situations not of our making, which we are hard pressed to control. Sure, the militaries and special forces of another country love the funds and equipment; joint training and exercising is celebrated. It means funds, hardware, uniforms, and boots for cash-strapped militaries. But what happens when the coup takes place, as it did in Mali, or the forces we train misbehave, as in the Sudan? Downstream, the risks inherent in such programs become our risks, and American forces are thus impelled to deal with the consequences. Rather than a way of side-stepping military deployments, BPC can create fly-traps drawing Washington into internal politics and security relations that are not core interests, but commit our forces.

This brings us back to 1206. The authority to train and equip counterterrorism capabilities around the world has existed for eight years. But it has always been a temporary authority, extended year-by-year, because Congress has been uncertain both about its effectiveness and about the wisdom of having the Pentagon in charge of the program. Now, pressured heavily, I am told, by Sen. Jim Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate conferees on the pending National Defense Authorization Act want to make 1206 a permanent law, enshrining it in DoD’s statutory authorities (Title 10 of the U.S. code).

As you can gather, I think this is unwise. Not only is there minimal evaluation of a program that has been around for eight years, but it is far from clear that DoD ought to be the institution in charge of the overall security assistance policy. 

Rather then step off this institutional cliff and make 1206 permanent, it makes a lot more sense to step back and evaluate whether the $20 billion a year or so America has been investing in such programs since we invaded Iraq has paid off as intended, or has failed, to the detriment of our security. A penny of caution and evaluation here might be worth a pound of foreign policy problems if we continue down this road.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941
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