Why Military Assistance Programs Disappoint

Minor Tools Can’t Solve Major Problems

This is how we do it: U.S. Special Forces training Iraqi fighters, December 2016 MOHAMMED SALEM / REUTERS

Since the end of World War II, U.S. administrations of both parties have relied on a time-honored foreign policy tool: training and equipping foreign militaries. Seeking to stabilize fragile states, the United States has adopted this approach in nearly every region of the world over the last 70 years. Today, Washington is working with the militaries of more than 100 countries and running large programs to train and equip armed forces in such hot spots as Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan.

The logic behind this approach is simple. Fragile states jeopardize U.S. interests, but large-scale interventions are costly and unpopular. By outsourcing regional security in places where U.S. interests are not immediately threatened, Washington can promote stability without shouldering most of the burden itself. And heading off threats before they metastasize means that the United States can keep its eye on more sophisticated rivals such as China and Russia. 

Among U.S. policymakers, this approach enjoys widespread popularity. Writing in this magazine in 2010, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called weak states “the main security challenge of our time” and made the case for dealing with them by “helping other countries defend themselves or, if necessary, fight alongside U.S. forces by providing them with equipment, training, or other forms of security assistance.” And at a moment when public support for military intervention is falling and once coherent countries are dissolving, the prospect of stabilizing weak states cheaply and quickly is more alluring than ever. Indeed, these days, the commonly accepted narrative in Washington for security assistance in fragile states can be summed up in one word: “more”—more training, more equipment, more money, more quickly. 

But history shows that building militaries in weak states is not the panacea the U.S. national security community imagines it to be. As examples that span the globe have demonstrated, in practice, American efforts to build up local security forces are an oversold halfway measure that is rarely cheap and often

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