Does Security Assistance Reduce Terrorism?

Does Security Assistance Reduce Terrorism?

Matthew Saintsing

The United States spends nearly $18 billion annually training and arming more than 56,000 soldiers in 155 countries. For the past 15 years, most of this security partnership with other nations has been  aimed at countering terrorism. Given the rising importance of this strategy, it is essential to assess how well it has been working.

What is the track record of security assistance in preventing or ending terrorism? General Ray Odierno, outgoing Army Chief of Staff, provides an answer:  "Here's what I've learned over the last 10 years or so,” he said in his final press conference, “There's limits to military power”. It is clear that the United States needs to think more critically about how it fights terrorism.

No large-scale quantitative studies find a positive correlation between U.S. security assistance and a reduction in terrorism; however, there are successes. The Armed forces of the Philippines (AFP), trained and supported by U.S. Special Forces, were successful in combating the Abu Sayyaf insurgency. The AFP reduced the number of Abu Sayyaf fighters from 1,270 in 2000 to 380 in 2008. This success is an exceptional case as the AFP took the lead in combat operations. Furthermore, S.F. advisers assisted and facilitated the AFP, but were barred from direct combat.

While the Philippines remain a success story, military aid to other countries can have unintended consequences. Military assistance in democracies can be counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. Countries in democratic transition often feature broad and harsh counterterror policies, as repression is a vestige of authoritarian rule. This can increase sympathy for the terrorist groups’ cause. Care will need to be taken in such situations to ensure that external security assistance does not unintentionally fuel the violent opposition.

Perhaps more noteworthy, a cross-national study of 137 countries implies that security assistance may actually drive terrorist attacks. Attacks are more frequent in countries that have more sophisticated militaries, and less frequent in countries with more administrative capacity. Enhancing military capability while ignoring governance abroad may in some cases work against the United States’ intended goal.

That is not to say that security assistance is never a viable option, but the U.S. should condition the provision of military aid on ending discriminatory practices. Governments that economically discriminate against their minority groups are much more likely to experience domestic terrorism. For example, both Turkey and Kenya experience attacks from their economically marginalized minority communities. Fostering an inclusive environment that gives opportunity to Kurds in Turkey and Somalis and Muslims in Kenya may sway young people who currently lack many prospects from becoming radicalized.

It is time for the U.S. to take new strategies seriously to better combat violent extremism. Several studies find a positive correlation between assistance to aid sectors other than police and military of partner nations and a reduction in terrorism. For example, one large-scale analysis finds that the existence of an independent judiciary, unaffected by political influence, substantially decreases the likelihood of terrorism. In addition to governance aid, one robust quantitative article finds that targeted aid to education, health, and civil society sectors is more effective at reducing transnational terrorism than conflict prevention and resolution initiatives.

Lifting people out of poverty may be an effective tool against violent extremism. An examination of transnational and domestic terrorism incidents from 1968-2003 finds that countries which spend more on social welfare are less likely to experience terrorism, or have their citizens engage in terrorism abroad. While many global south countries with active terrorist groups may not be in the financial position to increase social welfare spending, the United States can prioritize policies and assistance that promote economic growth in these countries.

While none of the above approaches are quick-fix answers, after more than a decade of military operations including direct combat and approximately $80 billion of military assistance, the available evidence indicates that the U.S. government and Congress would achieve better results in combatting terrorism if they prioritized political and economic assistance.

For sustainable long-term solutions to violent extremism, the U.S. should explore every tool in has in its counterterror arsenal.

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