Small Wars Journal

Getting American Security Force Assistance Right: Political Context Matters

Sat, 02/23/2019 - 12:17am

Getting American Security Force Assistance Right: Political Context Matters by Jahara Matisek and William Reno - Joint Force Quarterly

If one accepts that the American military is the most powerful armed force in human history, why does it have a mixed record when it comes to building up foreign armies in weak states? With immense experience, capability, and resources, the United States should be able to train and develop competent armed forces in any host nation. Yet evidence over the past several decades has shown how difficult this task is. When a Senegalese general was asked why the United States struggled to create effective militaries throughout Africa, despite the United States (and other countries) committing tremendous resources (for example, funding, equipment, trainers/advisors, among others), he explained, “The logic of their politics will show you the quality of their military.”1 His remark should not come as surprise, yet in interviews with officials that oversee (and conduct) security force assistance (SFA), there is a massive disconnect between what is believed possible and what can actually be accomplished given the political context within each country.2 This highlights a substantial problem with Western SFA: it is too focused on building an army in the absence of a viable state that has the institutional capacity and political willpower to sustain that army.

There are several sides to the SFA debate. First, there are critics who view SFA as enabling host-nation militaries to engage in more violence and human rights abuses—an increase in capacity, but without proper discipline in its use.3 In this vein, some argue that SFA in the form of International Military Education and Training and the Countering Terrorism Fellowship program leads to an increase in coups d’état.4 Others argue that military assistance to Colombia played a role in increasing political violence and undermined domestic political institutions as pro-government paramilitaries indirectly benefited from this assistance.5 These arguments rest on the assumption that any aid to militaries in weak states does more harm than good…

Read on.