Should the U.S. Increase Security Cooperation to Address Terrorism?

Middle East and North Africa

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 the below debate, Dr. Derek S. Reveron, one of the panelists at the hearing, and Dr. Oleg Svet argue that Washington should seek ways to improve its capacity to assist and equip foreign security forces. In response, Dr. Christopher Fettweis 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. Dr. Fettweis’s article can also be found here.

The Future of U.S. Security Assistance Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan

by Derek S. Reveron, PhD and Oleg Svet, PhD

Security cooperation and assistance programs – activities designed to train and equip foreign security forces – have historically been one of the most important tools in America’s foreign policy toolkit. Working with almost every military in the world, building partners’ capacities have gained prominence over the past 15 years as the U.S. seeks to reinforce sovereignty against subnational, transnational and regional challengers. The rapid overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Baathist-controlled military in Iraq necessitated a surge in security force assistance as an important component in stability operations. American civilians, military personnel, contractors and partner forces (from both NATO and non-NATO countries) have advised, trained, equipped and assisted hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi military personnel, ministry of defense and interior officials, intelligence operators, policemen and border guards. These programs were made possible by the doubling of U.S. government authorities for security cooperation and assistance since 9/11. Despite the setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, security cooperation will remain an important instrument in America’s foreign policy toolkit. Consequently, Washington should seek ways to improve its capacity to assist, train, advise and equip foreign security forces.

When it comes to industrial-scale security cooperation efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the results are dismal. Despite spending $25 billion on training and equipping of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Iraq was unable to meet basic security functions of a sovereign state as evidenced by the rise of ISIL. In Afghanistan, the United States spent $65 billion on training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) since 2002, yet the ANSF have been unable to secure much of the country. As the Wall Street Journal reported on November 12, 2015, “the writ of the Afghan national government barely extends beyond Kabul.” In recent weeks, Kunduz, the country’s fifth-largest city, temporarily fell to the Taliban. More recently, militants aligned with the Islamic State beheaded seven Hazaras (an Afghan Shiite ethnic and religious minority); an estimated twenty-thousand protestors took to the streets of Kabul to rally not as much at the brutality of the ISIL-aligned militants, but at the inability of the central government to provide sufficient security to its own citizens.

The deficits in outcomes may tempt policymakers to put pause on future security cooperation programs and wonder whether alternative strategies should not be tried instead. Some of the questions that policymakers will invariably ask include: Should the United States “go it alone” and recommit combat troops to both countries, essentially transitioning the current train-and-advise missions to combat operations? Should the U.S. military rely more on airpower to repel insurgent forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, essentially borrowing the Royal Air Force-buttressed policy, which Great Britain used – effectively for a time – in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan and elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s? While alternative strategies and programs can be considered (and if need be implemented), security cooperation presents innumerable political, security and economic benefits in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries that the addition of U.S. combat troops on the ground or the use of airpower cannot. Rather than considering abandoning security cooperation for other instruments of foreign policy, Washington should seek to ways to improve it.

Since U.S.-led coalition operations are a norm today, security cooperation ensures partners are interoperable with U.S. forces and promotes regional stability. For example, in Afghanistan, the United States operated with 50 partners. In Bahrain, a U.S. officer directs three naval task forces composed of 30 partners who collectively protect vital trade routes. And in Key West, Joint Interagency Task Force South serves as a fusion center supporting international efforts to eliminate illicit trafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America. Even in Egypt, where U.S. military aid has recently come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the Arab Spring, security assistance to Cairo enabled Washington to promote regional stability by contributing to peaceful Egyptian-Israeli relations. As importantly, military aid allowed the United States to remain the fulcrum in one of the most important regions in the world.

As the United States looks ahead, the country is sure to follow the tradition in defense strategy that prioritizes enabling partners through training and equipping their forces. Over the last 15 years, the number of status of forces agreements (SOFAs) increased from 40 to 117. This is due, in part, to the fact that while administrations may change, fundamental U.S. interests do not change. Long-term U.S. interests in which security cooperation can aid include: protecting the U.S. homeland from catastrophic attack, sustaining a global system marked by open lines of communication to facilitate commerce, promoting international security and preventing powers hostile to the United States from being able to dominate important areas of the world.

The United States aspires to create true partners who can confront their own threats to internal stability, which organized crime, violent actors and regional rivals exploit. Known as the “indirect approach,” the United States helps countries fill security deficits that exist when a country cannot independently protect its own national security. American generosity helps explain this, but U.S. national security benefits too. For example, by providing radars and surveillance technology, Central American countries can control their airspace and can interdict drug-filled planes bound for the United States; by providing logistic support, Pakistan can lead a maritime coalition promoting maritime security in the Indian Ocean; and by selling AEGIS destroyers, Japan can counter North Korean missiles and provide early warning of missile threats to the United States.

Through security cooperation programs like these, the United States helps other countries meet their immediate national security needs, but there is also an effort to foster independence so states can contribute to global security. This is most visible in a program such as the Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative (GPOI) that trains and equips foreign militaries to participate in peacekeeping operations. While the United States does not want to deploy ground forces under the United Nations flag, it does play a key role in peacekeeping by training and equipping over 250,000 peacekeepers since 2005. Programs like GPOI enabled Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to participate in an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. An officer from Chad seemed to capture the rationale for other countries’ efforts to contribute to global security: “When your neighbor’s house is burning, you have to put it out, because if not, yours is next.” U.S. security cooperation often provides the tools countries need when their national security demands exceed their security capacities.

Importantly, there are three interrelated areas where we can improve security cooperation: assessments, monitoring and evaluations. To do security cooperation better, an initial assessment of the partner country is essential. The assessment will allow us to make a better judgment of what the partner country actually needs and what we will need to provide; measuring the progress made as security cooperation programs are implemented in order to make any necessary course corrections; and finally evaluating whether the implementation of our security cooperation programs are successful.

At times security cooperation can be limitless, dissatisfying, and futile. Disappointments abound, but the value of security cooperation should not be ignored. When thinking about security cooperation, we should look at how international partners contribute to coalition operations, peacekeeping and global security. U.S. budgetary declines will likely reinforce the importance of security cooperation, as the United States will need more partners and allies to augment its own defense capacities. To be sure, there are challenges of the “by, with, and through partners” approach, but security cooperation is now an important pillar of U.S. defense strategy to be institutionalized at the operational level.

Dr. Derek Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and Faculty Affiliate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Dr. Oleg Svet is a security sector assistance analyst at Group W, Inc. and completed his PhD on the impact that security cooperation played in the expansion of the Iraqi armed forces between 1968 and 1990. The views are the authors’ own.


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

by Christopher Fettweis, PhD

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.