Small Wars Journal

US Security Force Assistance is Much More than Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam

Tue, 09/14/2021 - 10:15pm


By Sandor Fabian

“The only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!”

Winston Churchill

In her recent articles in Foreign Affairs and the Irregular Warfare Initiative at Modern War Institute Rachel Tecott paints a quite bleak picture about US Security Force Assistance efforts. In both of these articles the author arrives to strong conclusions by suggesting that the US approach to building foreign militaries does not deliver the expected results and even argues that recent events “exposed the rot” within these efforts.    

While there are several compelling and thought-provoking points in these articles their arguments and conclusions seem to be significantly weakened by the authors` narrow definition of US security force assistance efforts` scope and objectives, and the cherry-picking of scholarly literature and cases that scream obvious confirmation bias. A more comprehensive investigation of the issue at hand reveals that the topic is much more complex than presented in these two articles and while undeniably there are several bad cases in the history of US security force assistance efforts they also have yield some great results as well.

Better understanding the effects of these efforts is important not only because of the increasing number of negative commentaries and the recent experience in Afghanistan, but also because recent U.S. administrations have been giving a significant role in their national security strategies to activities through, by and with allied and partner militaries without a clearly established and effective feedback mechanism regarding the actual effects of the U.S. security force assistance programs. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act codifies the requirement for the US Department of Defense to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs, however no such evaluation mechanism seems to exist yet. Without such comprehensive evaluation mechanism policymakers and scholars all seem to judge US security force assistance efforts on the results of the most recent high visibility cases -like the ones the author cites - without understanding that these are rather outliers than the norm when one analyzes the US security force assistance efforts in their entirety.   

While the term, Security force assistance is indeed quite recent since it was coined in 2006 building foreign military capacity is not new or unique to the United States. Different forms of military aid have been used by donors to support foreign militaries and through them influence recipients` behavior since the beginnings of human history. The Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, and different European empires all employed different forms of foreign military aid to achieve their political goals. The United States is not an exception since it has been using different military aid programs to augment its military strategy and achieve its foreign policy goals since World War II. Since the introduction of the first foreign military aid program with the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 the US has provided different forms of military aid to over 150 countries around the globe.

The scope and objectives of these foreign military aid efforts evolved over time. Until mid-1970s the term military assistance was officially used to describe the foreign military aid programs, which only referred to the transfer of US military weapons, equipment, and training to recipient governments. With the 1976 Congressional amendment of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 additional political and economic aspects were added to these programs and a new term, security assistance was introduced. While all these definitions already included activities aimed at building foreign military forces the term security force assistance was only coined in 2006. Its current definition isthe unified action to generate, employ, and sustain local, host-nation or regional security forces in support of a legitimate authority. Security force assistance (SFA) improves the capability and capacity of host-nation or regional security organization’s security forces. These forces are collectively referred to as foreign security forces. Foreign security forces are forces—including but not limited to military, paramilitary, police, and intelligence forces; border police, coast guard, and customs officials; and prison guards and correctional personnel—that provide security for a host nation and its relevant population or support a regional security organization’s mission.” This short and oversimplified review of the evolution of the US foreign military building efforts` evolution presents two immediate challenges for the above-mentioned articles. First, the scope and objectives of the US security force assistance efforts are much wider than presented in these arguments. Second, the US security force assistance efforts spam over 70 years and include more than 150 countries. This means that drawing conclusions from only three recent cases carries a lot of potential bias and excludes a lot of data that could either confirm or refute the conclusions of the author.

Another point of criticism is in order for the articles` biased literature selection. In both articles the author only uses scholarly literature that supports the overall argument and does not discuss studies yielding results potentially questioning the conclusions of these articles. International relations literature has been paying attention to the exploration of the effects of US security force assistance efforts since the mid-1970s. This literature divides US security force assistance efforts into two general categories: arms and equipment transfer, and foreign military education and training programs. Scholarly studies exploring the effects of US arms and equipment transfer can also be divided into two groups from a theoretical perspective: the encouragement and the discouragement literature. Those studies that belong to the former group (Sylvan, 1976; Schrodt, 1983; Brzoska and Pearson, 1984; Pearson, Brzoska, and Crantz, 1992; Craft and Smaldone, 2002) argue that US security force assistance efforts yield negative results because they make recipient countries aggressive and increase the probability interstate conflicts. Contradictory to these arguments the restraint literature (Huth and Russett, 1984; Huth, 1988; Kinsella and Tillema, 1995) proposes that US military arms and equipment transfer have positive effects on recipient states` conflict behavior and this form of US foreign military aid reduces the probability of recipient states becoming involved in interstate conflicts. Talmadge (2015) argues that the effectiveness of the US security assistance efforts depends on whether they are delivered to a weak (failed) or a strong state. At the same time Durch (2000) finds that there is no relationship between US arms and equipment transfer and recipient states` involvement in armed conflicts.

When it comes to scholarly studies investigating the effects of US foreign military aid in the form of foreign military education and training efforts their results are quite similar to the contradictory results of the above discussed literature. Lefever (1976) finds US efforts increase the professional performance and readiness level of the participant countries` militaries leading to more security and stability. Fitch (1979) finds somewhat contradictory results and argues that US foreign military education and training efforts increase the political involvement of the military and institutionalizes the coup d’état as a form of political progress. Savage and Caverley (2017)  also suggest that US foreign military education and training efforts yield negative results. They argue that these programs improve the professionalism of foreign militaries which increases the recipient militaries` capabilities relative to the regime in a way that no other foreign aids do and this improved capability doubles the probability of military-backed coup attempts. Ruby and Gibler (2010) arrive to an opposite conclusion. According to these authors foreign military personnel trained and educated in the United States absorb the idea of civilian control over the military decreases the probability of coups.

Another set of studies investigating whether US foreign military education and training programs deliver the expected results focus on the exploration of the relationship between participation in these programs and democratic values and human rights both at the individual and state levels. Reynolds (2001) investigates whether US programs successfully improve individual participants` attitudes towards internationally recognized human rights. Through surveying actual program participants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua Reynolds (2001) finds promising but inconclusive results suggesting that participation facilitates improvement in individuals` respect for internationally recognized human rights. Additionally, in her two studies Atkinson (2010, 2015) argues that the US IMET programs are effective soft power tools in the hands of the United States since they effectively promote American values and help diffusing democratic norms to foreign militaries. Using Reynolds (2001) and Atkinson`s (2015) findings as their fundamental assumptions Omelicheva et al. (2017) investigate how US foreign military education and training program participation affects the probability of human rights violations in conflict at the state level. The authors find that more participation in these US programs is associated with less atrocities against civilians during conflict. Finally, in my own studies I find that participation in US foreign military education and training programs have positive effects both at the individual and country level. First, using semi-structured, in-depth interviews and an original survey conducted in Hungary I find that the professional norms and values of the US military are indeed transmitted to program participants and with that the military human capital of the recipient states improves. Additionally, the study provides initial evidence for further norm diffusion within the military as a whole. Second, analyzing a new dataset that includes detailed information on insurgencies and US foreign military education and training efforts between 1976 and 2003 I find that government militaries receiving more US support in the form of foreign military education and training have a significantly higher probability of winning against insurgents while also fighting longer civil conflicts. Finally, I also find support to my initial assertion that more US foreign military education and training leads to decreased probability of recipient countries instigating interstate conflicts while they are also less likely to escalate the level of violence in ongoing interstate conflicts.

While this literature review is not all encompassing it once again highlights the complexity of US security force assistance efforts and demonstrates that there is no agreement among scholars regarding the effects of these US efforts. While it is indeed extremely important to study and scrutinize the US security force assistance efforts to understand why they deliver suboptimal effects in some cases, it is equally important that such investigation is done through the most rigorous process using a combination of advanced research methods, reliable and up-to-date data, analyzing all available cases and considering the widest range of necessary and sufficient conditions as well as exploring potential alternative explanations. Studies falling short of these requirements might present premature results, mislead policymakers, and can have unintended detrimental effects on the future of US security force assistance efforts.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than twenty years of military experience. He is a graduate of the Miklos Zrinyi Hungarian National Defense University, holds a master’s degree in Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) from the US Naval Postgraduate School, has a graduate certificate in National Security and Intelligence Studies and a PhD in Security Studies from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Fabian is currently a research associate at the University of Central Florida and a curriculum developer and team leader at LEIDOS. Dr. Fabian is the author of the book titled “Irregular Warfare, The Future Military Strategy For Small States.” His research has appeared in Defence Studies, Defense & Security Analysis, the Special Operations Journal, the Combating Terrorism Exchange Journal, the Florida Political Chronicle, and the Hungarian Seregszemle Journal.