U.S. security assistance and cooperation programs have come under a lot of fire recently.  The failure of the $500 million program to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria is the latest example. However, there is a longer history, including the collapse of the Iraqi military in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) despite $25 billion in U.S. support; doubts about the reliability of the Afghan military, which has received $65 billion in American military assistance; and the dismal results of U.S. programs to support the security forces of Yemen, Libya, and Mali.  So when the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing in October on the Department of Defense’s security cooperation effort, one might have expected a deep re-evaluation.

Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
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However, as baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The usual think tank experts were rounded up to testify, the usual prescriptions, many technical and small-bore, were offered, and everyone agreed the United States can do better. The same conversation about the failures of U.S. security cooperation has been going on for decades in the executive branch and among a handful of members of Congress and security assistance experts.  But until the executive branch and Congress gain a deeper understanding of why these problems keep recurring, they will keep making the same mistakes and getting the same results.

The most fundamental cause of security assistance failures is the disconnect between these programs and the broader problem of politics and governance in recipient countries.  Governance and politics are arguably the key ingredients to the success or failure of security cooperation, but this core issue received virtually no attention during the recent hearing.

U.S. security assistance policy should be constructed with these critical ingredients at the heart of programming. A good starting point is to divide recipient countries into three baskets.  In the first are those with failing armed forces and security institutions in nations that aren’t really nations; they lack competent governance outside of security forces, or are severely wracked by civil wars and conflicts, as is the case in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Libya.  National armies and security institutions reflect the society and culture writ large.  All the conflict, cleavages, and corruption within these societies will be mirrored in the security forces, and they cannot be fixed with more training and equipment, especially when they are in the middle of nasty wars. 

Ultimately, security in these countries depends not on strengthening the security forces but on homegrown political decisions, conflict resolution and conflict prevention, and the creation of reasonably competent and legitimate governing institutions.  The notion that the U.S. government can solve these core problems or make them better with some security assistance dollars smacks of hubris.  It reflects the misguided view that there isn’t a problem the U.S. military cannot solve with enough good-old fashioned American ingenuity, know-how, money, and exceptional skill.  Security cooperation is almost certainly doomed to failure in these cases.

In the second category are modern, wealthy, and democratic countries with well-established, functioning military forces.  These security institutions are embedded in strong, effective, efficient, and accountable governance, and respect for rule of law, human rights, and the principle of civilian control over the armed forces.  Many countries in Latin America fall into this category.  U.S. security cooperation can be highly effective with these countries, because there is a solid foundation upon which to build: for example, high literacy levels, low corruption, an absence of civil conflict, and strong state capacity to absorb and integrate the assistance.

The countries in the third basket are the toughest cases.  It consists of a large number of countries that have relatively weak governance institutions and small overall public budgets, such as Egypt or Pakistan. Perversely, U.S. security assistance to these countries enables poor performance, both by the security institutions and the broader structure of governance.  Washington spreads its scarce security cooperation resources among too many countries in this basket and allows them to treat U.S. security assistance as an entitlement.  Nor do we hold these recipients accountable for results. The result, not surprisingly, is that Washington rewards bad behavior, and the recipients fall victim to moral hazard.  In these cases, the link to governance and development is key to avoiding that risk.

There may be other reasons to finance such failures—the pressure in domestic politics to “just don’t stand there, do something” (Syria), the temptation to kick the can down the road to make it the next administration’s problem (Afghanistan), and desperation (the Horn of Africa).  But failure is inevitable if the United States takes a “one size fits all” approach to these three baskets.

The bottom line, as we have also argued elsewhere, is that the United States needs to realign its security assistance and cooperation programs more closely with governance objectives, and we should be more discriminating about the governing capacity of the countries with which we are dealing.  A good place to start is by aligning U.S. security cooperation programs with the kind of norms, standards, and procedures that the reasonably successful U.S. Millennium Challenge Fund applies to its decisions on the allocation of development assistance.  This would link security support to countries that have proven their commitment and capacity to govern, use the money effectively, and are held accountable for the results.  

This article originally appeared in the Cipher Brief.