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The New Theology: Building Partner Capacity

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The New Theology: Building Partner Capacity

by Nathan Freier

Download the full article: The New Theology: Building Partner Capacity

In a recent Foreign Affairs commentary, Secretary Gates again extolled the virtues of "building partner capacity" (BPC) — a cornerstone of contemporary defense policy and a key mission area in the QDR. The common Pentagon narrative on BPC holds that in a world where terrorists, insurgents, cartels, mobs, and proliferators pose fundamental security hazards, the best defense is local. In short, we don't fight ourselves; we make others better at fighting for us. At its foundation, BPC posits that training and equipping foreign security forces is a cheaper and more effective way of extending U.S. influence into areas where it is otherwise difficult to do so. A note of caution is in order. There is precious little room for error in BPC, as the distinction between true partner and unreliable mercenary picket is less clear than most appreciate.

Today, in an era of declining discretionary defense resources, finding efficiencies is essential. "Cheaper" and "more effective" are popular concepts. After all, the secretary already warned that the resource "gusher" is off indefinitely. Thus, competing DoD choices will soon become zero sum propositions. Key among them — the tension between investing in prevention via BPC and hedging against prevention's failure through prudent investment in contingency response. In the current environment, one's gain may be the other's loss. Thus, caution is warranted when deciding where and how to proceed with BPC.

Download the full article: The New Theology: Building Partner Capacity

Nathan Freier is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Visiting Professor at the Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.

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Mr Freier writes that "a more preventive BPC approach is potentially a more cost-effective way to secure common interests". Perhaps I missed it in the article but what constitutes "a more preventive BPC approach"?

JD (not verified)

Tue, 06/01/2010 - 3:16am

As with the comment about BPC being bread and butter SF tasks/goals, I wonder--as a recovering international trade agreement negotiator--whether Sec. Gates is simply talking about adopting elemental tools of US bilateral foreign policy to military purposes and goals.

For example, the US might provide banking regulators in Country X with technical assistance to build their expertise and capacity so that they will understand the value of reforming/building a stronger banking/credit sector because it facilitates economic growth and trade.

This may not be news to anyone, but I could understand value placed on trying to force military thinkers to think in conventional, commonplace, civilian ways. I mean, really, "BPC"? Do we really need to tart up a simple idea with a jargony abbreviation?

Can't we just call it capacity building? It's what the rest of the USG calls it--even USAID. If we used common terms, it might help in the formulation/adoption/implementation of a common and coherent strategy of military and non-military resources.

As Sec Gates seems to be targeting some very elemental things in the military, I don't wonder if his cooperation with Sec Clinton is not also having an impact.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 05/30/2010 - 8:45pm


Could we say that, in the circumstances described immediately above (nation/society divided by United States agenda and involvement in their affairs), that the foreign security forces are fighting for BOTH (1) the United States AND (2) themselves?

("Themselves," however, only implying that faction or segment of the population that, for the moment, chooses to work with the United States.)

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 05/30/2010 - 6:17pm

In determining whether these foreign security forces are "fighting for us" or "fighting for themselves," should we consider two things:

a. The author's contention as to the reason for BPC, to wit: "... as a cheaper and more effective way of extending U.S. influence into areas where it would otherwise be difficult to do so" and

b. United States foreign policy which, in these regions, is focused on "transforming" various nations and societies so as to make them (1) less troublesome and (2) more "open" and more available to our needs and to the needs of the rest of the world.

Could we say that this involvement by the United States tends to divide the population of these nations/societies between (1) those who would agree with and follow our agenda and (2) those who would not?

In such circumstances (wherein the population of the nation/society is clearly divided) who should we say that the foreign security forces are fighting for?

Bob's World

Sun, 05/30/2010 - 1:39am

As soon as I get over the shock of seeing a headline that describes building partner capacity as a "new theology" I'll be able to continue this

This is bread and butter SF stuff; and certainly has been the drumbeat out of SOCPAC for the past 8 years.

That said, this author is putting very much a British spin on this. We are not out to develop Ghurka Battalions to travel the globe to fight our battles for us. You will not see, every I would be willing to bet, the very fine partner capacity of Afghan Commando Kandaks being employed by the US to stabilize the Sudan. (It being a totally different thing if 10 years from now a stable and more effective Afghan partner contributed such a capacity to an international effort).

Not sure where the Secretary is heading with this, but am hoping that he is staying on azimuth. We have not been building partner capacity to get other to "fight for us"; we have been building partner capacity so that others can deal more effectively with their own security challenges at home.

Do we only do this where we see important U.S. National Interests to reside? Of course.

I would only add, that when applying the Jones Insurgency Model to this line of engagement, that we focus equally hard on ensuring that the governments who we are supporting through these efforts are committed to improving the "goodness" of their governance to their popualces at the same time, and are not merely employing this newly gained security capacity to artifically suppress popular resistance to Poor Governance.


Sun, 05/30/2010 - 12:53am

Tom and kdog101,

Totally agree with both of you as well as Mr. Freier. This is the same point I tried to bring out in my Charlie Wilson/Taliban article (which really stirred up a hornet's nest because of the way I interpreted hindsight). But at its core, it was about BPC, or on the larger strategic/theoretical level, assuming the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

Just as the author brought out here, the convenient 'allies' we think we have today are only pragmatically using our foreign military assistance, financing, and sales, or training, educating, and 'advising,' to get what they want from us to squash <i>their</i> clear and present danger. We *always* turn a blind eye to 2nd and 3rd order effects and how strategically reliable these <i>friends</i> truly are.

In other words, the convenient "partners" of today are very well likely the sources of instability in the future that will most likely bite the hand that fed them. Why? Because *no* two country's interests align exactly. Having met the short-term need of a 'partner,' he will soon part ways with us and get back his own strategic path. Unless an open checkbook and unending intervention in their sovereignty ensure otherwise. That is unless we stop assuming a short-term fix and using a proxy-war/Cold War/on the cheap, military mindset is the solution to our long-term security needs.

Furthermore, a BPC strategy will only require that we stay in the PC-COIN business so we can cozy up to failing states or corrupt regimes and "fix" their problems for them. BPC has no military strategic end state because, as much as they say it's <i>proactive</i>, it really keeps our military chasing tails like a modern day British 'Forward Policy' of the 19th century. It will create welfare state after welfare state as we or other allies stay on the hook to subsidize foreign governments. The strategy isn't nearly well-defined enough for us to assume BPC is the answer; too many gray, undefined lines exist. I think it will usually be just the first step leading to further forms of support, subsidy, foreign internal defense, or outright COIN intervention.

- Jeremy

kdog101 (not verified)

Sat, 05/29/2010 - 5:10pm

I was in general agreement until this line:

"In short, we dont fight ourselves; we make others better at fighting for us."

The key words being "we make others". That sounds a little imperialistic to me.

Tom Skarda (not verified)

Fri, 05/28/2010 - 3:27am

The article misses the main problem associated with the majority of US led BPC efforts:sustainment.

When the US puts these kinds of programs together we largely look at operational need (i.e. you need x number of brigades or x number of squadrons to control y problem). This is universally done in a vacuum regarding the ability of the partner nation to support such a capability.

Over the long term these efforts fail in the event the economic growth of the partner nation is unable to absorb the financial liability we have provided them relative to the cessation of US financial support. The most dramatic of these was the fall of South Vietnam.

US contibutions to the long term support of these efforts is extremely mixed and generally points towards failure in the less developed nations.

Generally speaking, I've found that virtually any society no matter how underdeveloped can provide enough people to conduct operations at an acceptable level of performance with adequate training. Very rarely have I seen these same societies sustain or support the provided capability over the long term. That is the problem with the majority of BPC.