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The promise and perils of security force assistance September 1, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.

Guest Blog

This is the second posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features Robert Haddick, Managing Editor of Small Wars Journal. He writes the “This Week at War” column for Foreign Policy and is a full-time member of the Small Wars Journal management team.

The promise and perils of security force assistance

by Robert Haddick

Of all the consequences of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps the most important for U.S. policymakers will be the desire to avoid another prolonged and costly engagement of U.S. ground forces. Yet America’s global security responsibilities are not going away. U.S. policymakers will look to the security forces of allies and partners to substitute for U.S. manpower they will be reluctant to employ. Thus, security force assistance will very likely become a more important pillar of U.S. national security strategy.

But security force assistance is not a panacea. If U.S. policymakers are hoping that foreign security forces, boosted by U.S. assistance, will always be a competent and reliable substitute for U.S. military manpower, those policymakers will frequently find themselves disappointed. Foreign partners receiving security assistance from the U.S. will have to show an interest in cooperating with U.S. national security objectives, a condition that won’t always be the case. In order for foreign security forces to substitute for U.S. forces, those foreign forces will have to have sufficient skills, numbers, and equipment at the time a security challenge presents itself, another condition that may not occur. In many cases the U.S. government will have to accept the burden of sustaining a foreign military capability the partner cannot afford on its own. And U.S. security force assistant programs may create foreign military capabilities that may come back to haunt the U.S. in the future.

In spite of these challenges, security force assistance will be a “growth business” in the period ahead. Policymakers can implement several reforms to improve the effectiveness of U.S. security force assistance.

Why security force assistance is not a panacea

  1. Will the partner receiving U.S. assistance help the U.S. with its objectives? For many of today’s U.S. security assistance programs, there is little daylight between U.S. security interests and those of the receiving country. For example, the U.S. and Iraqi governments seem equally interested in eliminating al Qaeda’s presence in Iraq. Other times the linkage between U.S. and foreign goals won’t be so tight; the massive U.S. security assistance program in Afghanistan has resulted in miniscule Afghan government support for the U.S. Marine Corps operation against the Taliban’s opium infrastructure in Helmand province. And until recently, Pakistan steered billions in U.S. security assistance to guard against India rather than to suppress Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border as the U.S. sought. Decades of U.S. security assistance to Turkey didn’t matter in 2003 when the Turkish parliament refused to assist the U.S. with its invasion of Iraq.
  2. Can foreign military forces do the job? Assuming the security objectives of the U.S. and the partner match up, can that partner’s security forces accomplish the mission? The foreign security forces U.S. military and Foreign Service officers work with run the range from embryonic to highly trained and well equipped. Should a partner receiving security assistance need to address a new security problem of common concern, U.S. officials will hope that previous security assistance efforts have prepared the partner for the challenge. But building and maintaining security forces is a long and costly process which in any particular case may or may not have prepared forces for the threat. For example, in August 1990 Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, all recipients of U.S. security assistance, lacked the command and control, doctrine, training, and the experience operating together they required to stand up by themselves against Iraq’s military forces.
  3. Can the foreign partner sustain the military capabilities created by U.S. security assistance? Sustaining modern military forces requires more than just a lot of money. It requires large and competent government institutions able to manage complex procurement processes, deal with hardware and service contractors, and capable of assessing technical and engineering risks. Even more important, the foreign partner needs a military training and education system that will develop competent leaders and a culture of confidence and success in its military institutions. These institutional capabilities take decades of sustained effort and funding to create. Without them, a state will not be able to sustain a military effort for very long no matter how much money it has to throw at the problem.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Afghanistan and Iraq both exhibit problems with sustainability. Afghan government revenues are a fraction of what will be needed in the years ahead to pay for the security forces needed to defend the country. The U.S. government’s security assistance policy will make Afghanistan a permanent ward of the U.S. long after U.S. combat forces have departed. And although Iraq’s oil revenues could pay for its future military capability, Iraq’s institutional capacity to sustain that military capability will takes years to mature.
  4. Might a U.S. security assistance mission create a “Frankenstein monster” that will later haunt the U.S.? The most trumpeted example of the “Frankenstein” effect is the CIA’s unconventional warfare campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia indirectly received military assistance from the U.S. government and was one of the most effective groups resisting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Today, Hekmatyar and his men fight against U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan’s east.

A better example of a formal U.S. security assistance mission going awry occurred in Iran in the late 1970s. The U.S. government and a variety of military contractors ran a large security assistance program in Iran involving advanced weapons systems. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, U.S. defense planners had to cope with an adversary suddenly possessing squadrons of F-14 interceptor aircraft, then the state-of-the-art.

More recently, the U.S. security assistance mission in Pakistan has struggled with how to improve the ability of the Pakistani army to fight at night.  While implementing this program, U.S. officials are seeking to prevent high-end night vision equipment provided by the program from ending up in the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Making security assistance work

In spite of these difficulties, U.S. policymakers will look to security force assistance as an important pillar of national security strategy. There are some actions policymakers can take to improve the execution of security force assistance and reduce its risks.

  1. Provide leadership from the top. Leaders need to clearly communicate their priorities to their bureaucracies. The Secretaries of State and Defense need to make security force assistance a priority, establish a joint vision for what part security force assistance will play in U.S. national security strategy, and closely supervise the implementation of that vision within their departments.
  2. Achieve unity of command. Responsibility for the execution of security force assistance has become muddled as the Defense Department’s role in foreign policy implementation has increased this decade. The State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs needs to have clear responsibility for security forces assistance with support from Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Stimson’s October 2008 report on reforming the U.S. government’s foreign affairs budget contains recommendations (see page 47) on how to shift some security assistance resources and authorities from Defense to State. These recommendations would improve unity of command and the coordination of U.S. security assistance efforts with U.S. national security goals.
  3. Use diplomacy to improve coordination with partners. As mentioned above, U.S. security assistance programs risk being uncoordinated with a foreign partner’s goals, with U.S. security objectives, and risk creating military capabilities that may later come back to haunt U.S. interests. The first line of defense for these pitfalls is improved communication with foreign partners and improved communication between the U.S. country teams and Washington on security assistance matters.

Security force assistance will be a “growth business”

With the U.S. now weighing the heavy political, financial, and human costs of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers will be eager to find new methods of achieving national security objectives. Recent security force assistance successes in the Philippines, Colombia, the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Sahel area will be attractive role models, both as ways of avoiding large-scale and damaging U.S. interventions and as ways of preventing security problems from growing in the first place. Similarly, if the U.S. opts for a containment strategy of a future nuclear-armed Iran, security force assistance to Gulf Cooperation Council countries will be an essential component of such a containment strategy. At the same time security assistance debacles such as what occurred in Iran after 1979 provide a cautionary example.

Security force assistance will be a more important pillar of U.S. defense strategy in the years ahead. Security force assistance will achieve more of its promise and avoid some of its perils when it receives greater attention from top, when it achieves greater unity of command under State Department authority, and when it is supported by the State Department’s diplomatic strategies.



1. Rob Thornton from the Joint Center for International Security Force Assitance (JCISFA) - September 1, 2009

I think the key issues that Robert brings up here are focused on the policy choices (and the associated possible implications and outcomes) we make about using our SFA capabilities to Organize, Train, Equip, Rebuild/Build and Advise toward developing a given Foreign Security Force’s capabilities. This would be emphasis on “acceptability” aspect of scrutinizing our choice.

Who pays, be it SA $$ or SC $$ and what authorities preside over its implementation is really more emphasis on “feasibility” and “sustainability” of a given choice, and are issues that ultimately plague the implementation of that choice.

As Robert noted, the decision to support the development of capabilities that sustain the generation and employment of foreign security forces is no light undertaking, and at a minimum should be seen within the political context of how those forces will or may be employed both wrt the political problem at hand, and those that may face their authority in the future.

SFA then is not a panacea for every political problem that we face, and is the case with other ways to address political problems often gives rise to some new set of problems, hopefully ones that we prefer, or that are easier to tolerate.

Having said that, developing and institutionalizing the capabilities to organize, train, equip, rebuild/build and advise FSFs on a scale that supports the capacity to address our strategic concerns – e.g. being able to do it when we need to do it, is I think smart, as it provides us other options to pursue owur own objectives. Knowing why you should do it, when you should do it and where to do it is I think, wisdom – as it aligns those capabilities with good strategy.

Best, Rob

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