Study: U.S. Military Aid May Be Ineffective in Autocratic and Weak Governments

Middle East and North Africa

In highly and extremely fragile countries such as Chad, Nigeria and Yemen, U.S. security assistance may have little to no effect on reducing fragility in these countries, according to a RAND Corporation study from late last year.  The report, which is titled “Assessing U.S. Security Cooperation as Preventative Tool,” will likely spark renewed discussion and debate about the proper use of U.S. foreign security aid in volatile countries as well as about the specific types of military and police aid given.

Commissioned by the U.S. Army to test a Defense Department assertion now central to U.S. military strategy, including for counterterrorism – that U.S. security assistance can be used to “help prevent instability and reduce fragility” in foreign governments – the study concluded there was a correlation between U.S. security cooperation and a reduction in fragility in 107 countries between 1991 and 2008. The correlation was strongest in countries with stronger state institutions and greater state reach as well as countries with developed democratic regimes.

In contrast, U.S. security cooperation was not correlated with an improvement in stability in countries experiencing high or extremely high fragility rates as indicated in the State Fragility Index (SFI). There was no effect on improving fragility with U.S. security aid to “highly autocratic regimes” and limited effect with “weak state institutions” and “low state reach.”

State Fragility and Warfare in the Global SystemAccording to a review of U.S. security aid in fiscal year 2013, the United States provided extensive U.S. security assistance to all but two of the 28 countries considered to have high or extremely high fragility rates (rates ranging from 25 to 16 on the SFI, see table for examples). Some of these countries receive significant U.S. security assistance such as Somalia and Pakistan. In response, the report suggests the United States place a greater focus on aid to prevent countries from reaching these rates, including by supporting institution building. And “in some cases of low state reach, development assistance, with its long-term focus, may be a better tool than SC [Security Cooperation].”

To shed light on some of the potential effects of U.S. security assistance, which often includes goals outside of just reducing fragility, the authors noted that U.S. security aid improved military effectiveness in Jordan and helped maintain security in Mali, among others. However, they stated it was not possible to ascertain whether such aid helped reduce fragility. In the case of Mali, military experts have also said U.S. security aid did little to maintain long-term security with an increase in terrorism after 2008 and a military coup d’état in 2012.

In addition to an analysis on the effect the type of government has on fragility, the RAND report also reviewed the correlation of particular types of U.S. security assistance. Perhaps surprising to some defense experts, U.S. transfers of weapons and military equipment, which forms the bulk of money spent on U.S. security aid, did not have an effect on a reduction in fragility in recipient countries.

The type of U.S. security assistance that did have the strongest correlation was military education training such as through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and the Combatting Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) even at small funding levels. U.S. security assistance programs that focused on law enforcement and counternarcotics also “appear to be highly correlated with reduction in fragility.” This may be because the U.S. government generally provides more development and governance aid associated with these types of assistance according to the authors.

While it’s too early to tell what the report’s impact may be and how much debate it may stir, its broad findings add interesting points to key discussions about U.S. security aid. Large-scale statistical studies can only go so far though, and the authors hope further research on the issue will continue. In order to have a clearer understanding of the effect of U.S. security assistance and the RAND study’s findings, short and long-term country evaluations are key tool.

Colby Goodman is the Senior Research Associate at the Security Assistance Monitor and leads research on a range of U.S. security assistance issues.