Small Wars Journal

Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (Book review)

Sun, 04/28/2024 - 9:19am

BUILDING MILITARIES IN FRAGILE STATES: CHALLENGES FOR THE UNITED STATES. Mara E. Karlin. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. 283 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $79.95.


Reviewed by Scott Simeral


A group of men in military uniforms

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In Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, Dr. Mara Karlin presents a comparative case study of four United States Government (USG) attempts to strengthen partner militaries’ internal defense. Building Militaries opens with a summary of the Islamic State’s defeat of the Iraqi Army in 2014 after the USG trained the Iraqi Army for ten years and provided $20B in assistance. This scene-setter underscores Karlin’s assessment that the USG’s traditional approach of throwing resources and training at fragile states to shore up those states’ internal defense is not working.


Karlin attributes USG motivation for involving itself in foreign internal defense (FID) to empowering partner militaries with the ability to confront and contain security challenges before those challenges pose a national security threat to the U.S. She notes that policymakers will likely have less time and resources to work with fragile states as American foreign policy advances into an era steeped in Great Power Competition (GPC), implying the USG must learn to do more with less. Building Militaries compiles Karlin’s policy-relevant answers to when, why, and under what circumstances U.S. FID programs are likely to succeed.[1] Using primary and secondary sources (including archival research), interviews, and field research, Karlin tests her hypothesis that a partner military is more likely to establish internal defense if (1) the USG gets deeply involved in the partner nation’s sensitive military affairs, and (2) its antagonistic external actors (i.e., insurgents, terrorists, and their supporters) play a diminishing role.


Karlin’s research methodology is a qualitative, comparative study of four cases (Greece in the late-1940s, South Vietnam in the 1950s, Lebanon in the early-1980s, and Lebanon in the mid-2000s), in which the USG:


  1. Led a FID program to strengthen a fragile state’s military (vice law enforcement entity) that was up against an insurgency,
  2. Acted as the only friendly external power,
  3. Became involved due to the magnitude of implications which could have resulted from the state completely failing, and
  4. Constrained its involvement to a single administration in Washington, DC.


Each case study provides a detailed examination of key decisions, program execution, and the nature of U.S. involvement with the partner state. Despite only one of the FID case studies (Greece) resulting in total success for the USG, Karlin extracts new and impactful findings from all four cases for policymakers to consider. Specifically, she opines a partner military is more likely to establish internal defense if the USG involves itself in sensitive partner military affairs such as determining the partner military’s organizational structure (including personnel appointments), defining the internal defense mission, and uniting military personnel appointees in the vision and initiative of that mission.[2] Additionally, she maintains a partner military is more likely to establish internal defense if antagonistic actors lose the capability, will, or legitimacy to use physical force (a concept Karlin refers to as monopoly on violence) for achieving their ends.[3]


Army General Richard Clarke, the twelfth Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), selected Building Militaries as one of 20 titles for his official “USSOCOM Commander’s Reading List.” Such recognition is a testament to both the quality of Karlin’s research and the strategic importance of her findings to USG foreign policy in the foreseeable future. I agree with most of Karlin’s analyses in Building Militaries and believe American foreign policymakers, Department of Defense (DoD) professionals, and scholars of Strategic Studies will find the book insightful and relevant. Should Karlin decide to publish a second edition of Building Militaries, she might consider incorporating some substantive changes.


For example, Karlin utilizes the “Variables Framework” figure[4] to demonstrate her hypothesis regarding the optimal internal defense of a partner state. According to her, this optimal defense can be achieved when certain independent variables align in a specific way. These variables include the “Nature of U.S. Involvement” penetrating deeply into the partner state’s sensitive military affairs, as well as an “External Threat Environment” that renders antagonistic actions by external actors ineffective. The dependent variable, titled “Monopoly on Violence is More Enforceable and Sustainable,” in the context of Karlin’s stated goal of “measur[ing] the extent to which the U.S. program results in a more enforced[5] and sustainable[6] monopoly on violence extended by the partner state” makes sense if the independent variables harmonize.


However, what happens when these independent variables do not harmonize? The current framework fails to account for a wider range of scenarios, such as a reduction in the “Nature of U.S. Involvement” while the “External Threat Environment” intensifies. In such cases, it is likely that the dependent variable within the context of the partner state will not remain “Monopoly on Violence is More Enforceable and Sustainable.” Instead, it would more accurately reflect a situation where the monopoly on violence becomes less enforceable and sustainable.


To address this limitation and provide a more comprehensive illustration of Karlin’s stated goal for the book, the dependent variable could be reframed as “Partner State’s Ability to Enforce and Sustain Monopoly on Violence.” This reframing would allow the framework to encompass a wider range of scenarios and make it more relevant for future research.


Additionally, in the fifth chapter of Building Militaries, Karlin describes training provided to members of the Lebanese military as examples of USG efforts to improve FID against antagonistic actors’ effectiveness. Such examples help support her assessment, with one exception. Karlin’s emphasis on the Lebanese officer who graduated from the U.S. Navy SEAL course and the six officers who graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School overstates the abilities of Lebanese special operations forces (SOF) and, by association, antagonistic actors’ ability to go head-to-head with Lebanese SOF. Such emphasis is distracting to readers, particularly those who understand that training standards for foreign military personnel enrolled in U.S. SOF training are much lower than those of their American military classmates.


I do agree with Karlin’s South Vietnam case study assessment that the entire Vietnam War might have been prevented had the USG involved itself more deeply with South Vietnamese military affairs and focused on improving the military’s FID program against communist guerillas. In my opinion, such tasks would never have been possible with Lieutenant General Samuel Williams (U.S. Army) leading USG FID efforts in South Vietnam because he was an infantry officer who believed unconventional problems could be solved with conventional frameworks.[7] A general officer with an understanding of internal defense and experience as a Ranger, Special Forces, and/or Office of Strategic Services operator would have been better suited to lead the USG FID effort in South Vietnam.


There is room for additional books in the same genre as Building Militaries, especially those addressing the research topics Karlin proposes. Such topics include comparisons of more complex twenty-first-century campaigns, including the USG’s FID efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other research gaps include the application of Figure 2 to FID efforts not led by the USG, democratic governments, or capitalist nations. Further research might highlight successful FID case studies which were successful, despite (1) the partner state’s unwillingness to allow the USG to become deeply involved in its military affairs, (2) the training of the partner state’s law enforcement, vice military, for internal defense, and/or (3) otherwise outside the scope of Karlin’s research methodology.    


As of this writing, Karlin recently stepped down from her role as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities. In that role, she was charged with developing and implementing the 2022 National Defense Strategy. Previously, she was the Director of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Karlin’s research for Building Militaries was funded by SAIS and the International Studies Association, among others. As DoD strategy pivots to new priorities informed by GPC, its future is bright with Karlin at the helm. USG’s ability to replicate successful FID programs against antagonistic actors in and around fragile states will likely be necessary for USG to maintain advantages over its near-peer competitors for decades to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, policy, or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, U.S. Special Operations Command, or the Joint Special Operations University.


[1] Mara E. Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 10.

[2] Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 4.

[3] Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 11.

[4] Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 12.

[5] Enforcement “assesses the extent to which antagonistic external actors are able to use violence to disrupt and manipulate the partner state” and “includes declining levels of violence and the partner military’s willingness (or lack thereof) to actively confront its opponents” (Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 11).

[6] Sustainability “accounts for the partner state’s long-term ability to monopolize violence within its borders, even without U.S. support” and “includes increasing partner state military control of national territory” (Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 11).

[7] Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, 99.

About the Author(s)

Scott Simeral is the Academic Chair, Naval Special Warfare, at the Joint Special Operations University.