Small Wars Journal

security force assistance

US Security Force Assistance in Africa: Human Rights, Ethics Training a Must

The Malian army that took over the government in the March 2012 coup was led by a US trained officer, Captain Sanogo.  The Malian military continues to exert great influence in the political process in Mali and as they try to expel insurgents that have taken over the northern part of Mali.  The Malian army, however, is also accused of human rights abuses that took place during the purge of Sanogo opponents, as well as with enemy combatants.  Besides training the leader of the coup, the US military also trained the Malian military for years through the African Contingency Operations Training Assistance program (ACOTA), its predecessor the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), and other programs.

On 24 January 2013, the US AFRICOM Commander, General Ham, acknowledged the role the US military played in training Malian forces and found the outcome worrying.  He said that the focus of US efforts was tactical training but “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos.” 

The US has trained many African militaries on the continent; notably with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) following the UN brokered Liberian peace deal that sent Charles Taylor to exile in Nigeria in 2003.  After dismissing the former Liberian military, the US vetted and recruited a new force and drew up a comprehensive training plan in 2005 that included intensive human rights, rule of law, ethics and values training.  However, in 2007, after the first class of new Liberian soldiers graduated, US trainers cut out the bulk of these training blocks due to time and cost constraints.  US trainers promised to incorporate the training at a later date but were unable to do so. 

The only test for the AFL so far was the Fall 2012 deployment under “Operation Restore Hope” to patrol the porous borders with Cote d’Ivoire.  Desertion remains a concern as over ten percent of the AFL has quit the force.  Frequent stories of AFL soldiers committing crimes are featured in the local Monrovian news, causing concern about the ethics and values of the new Liberian troops. 

Another example of a US trained soldier gone bad is President Jammeh in the Gambia, who took power in a 1994 military coup.  This has also taken place in Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, and Bolivia.  African leaders are rightfully afraid that US training can lead to regime change. 

The values and ethics training incorporated in ACOTA training has not prevented abuses by African militaries either.  Of the 25 current ACOTA partners, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Nigerian troops have been accused of atrocities. 

Upcoming budget cuts and sequestration will put greater restraints on US military spending and our capabilities in training African forces.  If the primary intent of US training is to increase the tactical capabilities in US partners on the continent it is likely that human rights, values, and ethics training will also fall by the wayside in the rapidly approaching lean years.  US leaders need to ensure that these essential training modules are reinforced in all US funded training.

Trial by Fire in Afghanistan

As the endgame in Afghanistan nears, debate over the pace of withdrawal has intensified. Commanders in Afghanistan worried about ground conditions have argued for a slow transition. Some officials in Congress and the White House have pushed for an accelerated withdrawal, citing political concerns about declining popular support for the war effort.

Few have argued for a faster withdrawal based on what is best for Afghanistan. The proponents of a more gradual transition argue that pulling out too quickly could lead to a split in the army, mass defections, or even the collapse of the government. These are real possibilities. What is certain is that at some point in the near future, western troops will depart and the Afghan army and police will face a trial by fire.

It would be better for Afghanistan to face that trial sooner rather than later, before the Taliban manage to recover from the surge of US forces and while there is still time for the government to adjust to independence. Continuing with the current gradualist effort will only delay the inevitable and give the Taliban time to prepare for another offensive.

There is little additional value to be gained from another year or two of advising and training at the tactical level. If after more than a decade the Afghan security forces cannot operate without foreign partners and embedded advisors, they will never be able to.

For years now, US and NATO forces have operated closely with their Afghan partners – patrolling alongside them, supporting them logistically, and helping them plan and execute operations. Afghan soldiers and police have taken heavy casualties and fought bravely and well.

Yet, rarely have Afghan units been truly tested in fully independent operations, for fear they might fail. With few exceptions, Afghans have operated only under the comfortable umbrella of western combat forces. They have come to expect that western troops will rescue them if they get into a bind and give them fuel and ammunition if they run out. In the words of one Afghan army officer in Helmand, "we like drinking the American milk."

The potential for the Afghans to stand on their own will remain in doubt until they have demonstrated their ability to do so. As long as large numbers of foreign troops remain embedded in the Afghan army and police, the perception that western forces are propping up the security forces will persist, as will the growing belief that they will collapse as soon as the bulk of US and NATO troops depart.

These perceptions are among the Taliban's main advantages. They are also a major obstacle to successful negotiations. The Taliban have little reason to come to the bargaining table as long as they believe the Kabul government will not survive the departure of western troops.

Commanders in Afghanistan are understandably cautious about pulling back too quickly. No one wants to see an Afghan army battalion or district police force fail, given the amount of blood, treasure, and sheer grit that has been devoted to raising them. So far, these fears have not been realized. Helmand, for example, where the number of US Marines has been cut by more than two thirds, remains stable.

Instead of causing chaos, the draw-down has forced the US and NATO to do things they should have done years ago – such as handing greater responsibility to Afghan forces, conducting fewer operations on their own, and refraining from pushing into remote areas that the Afghan government has no intention of securing on its own. Above all, the draw-down has compelled the US pursue a political solution after more than a decade of war.

As any good parent or teacher knows, the bird must leave the nest before it can learn how to fly. When ordinary Afghans see that their army and police can function with minimal foreign support, they will have greater confidence in the future and the Taliban will not seem so frightening.

It is time to pull US forces out of Afghanistan’s towns and villages and out of tactical army and police units. The US and NATO should continue to provide the Afghan security forces with whatever they need, in terms of material support and over-watch, but should no longer patrol or train with Afghan forces or live with them on small, remote bases.