Training Other Nations' Soldiers: Help or Hindrance?

Finding the best way to provide assistance is critical to helping promote security in a troublesome world.

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Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With the current budgetary issues and war weariness in the United States, there has been much attention lately on providing security assistance to other nations as a means to protecting our interests with a "light footprint" (or at least a lighter footprint) abroad. Last week the White House released a new policy directive on "security sector assistance." The accompanying "Fact Sheet" to this announcement noted:

United States policy on Security Sector Assistance is aimed at strengthening the ability of the United States to help allies and partner nations build their own security capacity, consistent with the principles of good governance and rule of law. The United States has long recognized that the diversity and complexity of the threats to our national interest require a collaborative approach, both within the United States Government and among allies, partners, and multilateral organizations. More than ever before, we share security responsibilities with other nations and groups to help address security challenges in their countries and regions, whether it is fighting alongside our forces, countering terrorist and international criminal networks, participating in international peacekeeping operations, or building institutions capable of maintaining security, law, and order, and applying justice. U.S. assistance to build capabilities to meet these challenges can yield critical benefits, including reducing the possibility that the United States or partner nations may be required to intervene abroad in response to instability.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This is all well and good, and seems to be a very sensible approach, particularly with its call for multi-year investments, responsiveness, flexibility, and whole of government approaches. But what are the pitfalls?

Robert Egnell over at Kings of War offers a useful perspective on this when he argues that

The United States has an ambitious and truly global security strategy. This is reflected not only in the deep global deployment of U.S. troops, but also in the vast number of military training and assistance missions globally. Arguing that the efforts to train and assist foreign forces abroad are futile is the wrong approach as there are no viable alternatives without a complete revision of U.S. grand strategy. However, the current conduct of these activities, involving limited political judgment and inappropriate military self-replication, tends to produce results that contradict the main purposes of these activities – to maintain global order at a low cost. Instead, vast sums of money and resources are spent for ineffective foreign forces that in the end reduce the power and legitimacy of America in the international system.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

In particular he sees three problems:

  1. ...willfully or not, the training and assistance focuses on replicating our own image abroad...
  2. Having friends among officers and ministries of defense around the world really is not useful if they are not accountable to responsible governments...
  3. While lip service is paid to long-term commitments and sustainability, there seems to be a clear preference for quick and dirty – clear "accomplishments" and withdrawal.

But he sees the need to continue such assistance, even if conducted differently, as important.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

His first point is well taken. For instance, I've heard several times from different military sources about the problem of turning some of the best mountain fighters in the world (i.e., Afghans) into a 4th rate NATO military. But this isn't inherently an American problem.

Soldiers are soldiers and they like soldierly organizational styles and capabilities. The trick, it seems, is to get comfortable with security forces that are "good enough" for their environments and intended purposes rather than " Canal Street imitations" of the U.S., UK, or French armies.

Egnell's second and third points, however, seem right on the money. Similarly, U.S. Army Major Fernando Lujan has covered many of the issues in a recent monograph noting that specialized selection and training are needed to productively advise such overseas security forces – as well as a healthy appreciation for knowing when not to offer such training. And Anna Simons' new monograph, mentioned in my post on Monday, is also important in warning that our agenda for providing assistance may not coincide with the host nation partner's agenda and that we sometimes risk being used in ways we often do not fully realize during such interactions.

This is a vital conversation to continue. Figuring out the best ways to provide such security sector assistance is critical to helping to promote security in a resource constrained, yet troublesome world.