The Case for the Militarization of Foreign Aid


In the stereotype lexicon of Western development experts, military personnel are coarse brutes whose only solution to any problem is the sledgehammer. According to the stereotype field manual of the military, development specialists are sandal-wearing hippies who care more about showing how enlightened and generous they are than about protecting the interests of their own country.

There is a grain of truth in these stereotypes, but most members of both groups are better than the stereotypes would indicate. Some, in fact, have crossed the dividing line to work together, particularly in the crucibles of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sharing a willingness to spend months or years in impoverished countries — which distinguishes them from nearly all of their countrymen — they often develop an unexpected respect for one another.

Nevertheless, the two groups tend to operate according to very different interpretations of the world. They often address civil and military problems in isolation from one another, a tendency promoted by organizational structures that put developmental assistance in the hands of civilian organizations and bequeath military assistance to military organizations. This separation obscures the symbiotic relationships among those problems and discourages adoption of a unified assistance strategy.

In recent years, concern has mounted among American development practitioners and theorists over the “militarization” of development assistance. To militarize development assistance, they warn, is to marginalize the real aid experts and consign recipient countries to military tyranny. Helping poor nations develop economically and politically is the preserve of civilian experts rather than American military personnel, who are not qualified to perform this work and should instead stick to helping foreign militaries contend with external threats (if they are to do anything at all). In addition, this camp often argues that American troops should be kept away from development assistance because their very presence alienates local populations. Some go even further and maintain that Western troops should be kept away from internal security lest it encourage the local military to stage a coup.

In theory, this position can be quite compelling. A detailed examination of what has actually been taking place in the world’s poorer countries, however, indicates that the U.S. military should become more, not less, involved in sectors traditionally allocated to civilians — socioeconomic development, governance, and internal security. As I argue in my new book, Aid for Elites: Building Partner Nations and Ending Poverty through Human Capital, civilians will always be involved in these sectors, but we hurt ourselves when we seek to keep the military out of them.

Our Military Must Do It Because Their Military Does It

Outside the West, most foreign militaries are already involved in non-military activities. The U.S. military is the only part of the U.S. government suited to advising and assisting military organizations. Therefore, only the U.S. military can bolster foreign military counterparts through advice and assistance. American officials have often taken the position that a nation’s internal affairs should be handled exclusively by civil authorities, in large part because that is how it is done in the United States. But exclusive reliance on civil agencies to handle internal problems is a luxury that few poor countries can afford.

Most foreign military organizations are deeply involved in development and governance not because they enjoy running health clinics or issuing driver licenses but because the civil administration either lacks the required human and material resources or is incapable of using its resources because of insecurity. Lack of civic virtue and politicization of government hiring have left many countries devoid of effective civil servants. Numerous police forces in the developing world are rife with corrupt and predatory behavior, fomenting social unrest and impeding the maintenance of order.

In poorer nations, the military is almost invariably less prone to abuses of power than the police and other civil security institutions. This reality is widely appreciated by residents of these countries, as shown by much higher public approval ratings for the military than for the police and by frequent clamoring for military intervention in internal matters. It is unfortunately not understood by Western opponents of military involvement in domestic affairs, who are given to gross exaggerations of military foibles and to similar exaggerations of enlightenment and selflessness on the civil side of government.  Military institutions in the developing world tend to attract more idealistic people than their police counterparts because militaries cultivate an ethos of self-sacrifice and because military service typically offers fewer opportunities for graft than police duty. The rigors of military training and life permit the inculcation of virtue and the elimination of malign cultural influences to a degree that is not possible with police or other civil institutions.

Heavier weaponry and larger formations give military forces decided advantages over police forces in combating internal enemies. The United States has belatedly learned this lesson in several critical countries after initially steering security aid to the police and other civil organizations and away from the military. During the late 1950s, the United States concentrated aid to South Vietnam on lightly armed police, whose pistols and night sticks proved no match for the AK-47s of the Viet Cong when insurgency flared in 1960. During the 1990s, the United States insisted that its security aid to Colombia be used to beef up the civilian police rather than the military, and then watched the Colombian police be routinely steamrolled by narcotics traffickers and insurgents. A similar story unfolded in Mexico a few years later. In each of these cases, the United States ended up funneling great resources to local military forces to prevent internal enemies from overrunning the state.

Of the scores of countries that have employed their militaries in governance, development, or internal security in recent decades, very few have turned into military dictatorships. When the military has ousted a civil government, it has usually sought to replace a bad civil government with a good one not to install military rule on a permanent basis. In the small number of cases where the military has been guilty of governing oppressively, such as Nigeria, its misdeeds did not result from the fact that its leaders were military officers. Rather, the misrule stemmed from the lack of professionalism among those officers, as those individuals had been deprived of the Western tutelage that has helped make these militaries the most virtuous elements of governments around the globe.

 Our Military Must Do It Because Our Civilian Agencies Cannot

The U.S. military should also become more involved in governance, development, and internal security because U.S. civil agencies cannot provide adequate support to the civil side of foreign governments. These agencies are small, especially in relation to the U.S. military, and they do not have the administrative capabilities, infrastructure, or managerial experience to facilitate large-scale deployment of personnel overseas. They have not wanted to participate on a large scale in dangerous countries because of aversion to cooperation with the U.S. military or fear that their personnel would come to harm. Unlike the U.S. military, whose members must go wherever the Pentagon directs them, America’s civil agencies are constrained in their overseas personnel deployments by unions and congressional committees with high degrees of risk aversion.

While the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has traditionally claimed primacy in social and economic development, no arm of the U.S. government serves as the primary agency for governance. Two U.S. civil agencies aspire to provide full-spectrum assistance in governance — USAID and its larger parent organization, the State Department — but neither has yet to come close to meeting this aspiration. In the long term, it would make sense to create a new civil organization dedicated exclusively to governance assistance, falling under either the State Department or Defense Department. Past U.S. government attempts to form such a new organization foundered because of a lack of high-level support, indicating that presidential involvement will be necessary for success in the future.

For the time being, the only institution capable of filling the governance void is the Defense Department. The military’s civil affairs units are staffed by personnel with experience as town mayors, city managers, police officers, and civil engineers. Because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some civil affairs personnel have extensive experience in overseas governance under the most trying of circumstances. The Pentagon’s Ministry of Defense Advisors program deploys large numbers of Defense Department civilians to advise the ministries of foreign governments. The oft-heard claim that U.S. military involvement in governance alienates the population has been borne out neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, nor in many other places where the military has delved into governance, to include the American South during Reconstruction; Germany, Japan, and Italy after World War II; and Bosnia during the late 1990s.

The U.S. military has often exceeded its civil counterparts not only in the quantity of training it can provide but also in the quality. Nowadays, most civil training is short in duration and intermittent in frequency, which prevents it from conferring skills or influencing culture. Civilian personnel involved in training, moreover, often lack the desire or capabilities to instill cultural change. By contrast, American military officers tend to come from communities that have fewer doubts about the soundness of transmitting American cultural values, and they often have personalities conducive to imposing their views on others. Demonstrating little concern for possible affronts to cultural sensitivities, they demand adherence to American standards of discipline and respect for human rights, reprimanding those who do not conform. They call upon trainees to think independently and make decisions using formal logic as Americans do, which for many non-Westerners is very different from how they are accustomed to thinking and making decisions.

American training of foreign police forces has been an especially contentious matter. Development and human rights experts frequently oppose any international support to police organizations on the grounds that it constitutes the politicization of aid and could lead to empowerment of oppressive police organizations. This reasoning has prevented the World Bank from assisting police and other law enforcement organizations in most countries.

Some human rights advocates, police specialists, and U.S. government officials favor the involvement of U.S. civil agencies in training foreign police but oppose any participation by the U.S. military. They warn that ill-intentioned militarists within the indigenous military leadership would take advantage of such involvement to subvert the police. They also argue  that military personnel are unqualified to train police because they lack the necessary skills and are predisposed to use brute force rather than the more delicate methods of professional police.

These fears are largely unfounded. Since the days of the Roman army, military forces have shown themselves capable of serving as police and training policemen. Militarization of police training and police operations has not generally led to wanton abuse and bloodshed but has in fact reduced abuses in numerous cases.

At present, the U.S. Justice and State Departments are both extensively involved in training foreign law enforcement organizations. The Justice Department’s programs are well conceived, but they are constrained by low resources. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) has a much larger budget for police training, but it relies heavily on contractors, and its staff are stretched too thin to ensure that companies hire qualified personnel and perform up to standards.

In the early stages of the 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, INL had responsibility for police training but the repeated trouncing of Afghan and Iraqi police forces by heavily armed insurgents led U.S. policymakers to transfer police training to the Department of Defense and give the recruits heavy doses of paramilitary instruction. As soon as the U.S. military took over, the quality of police training shot up. Relying heavily on its own manpower and the manpower of allied militaries, the U.S. military was able to confer paramilitary skills, instill discipline, cultivate leadership, and promote ethical behavior — none of which the State Department’s civilian contractors had been able to do. Having also taken on the mission of working with police units in the field, the military did a much better job than its civilian predecessors of identifying underperforming police commanders and convincing the host government to replace them.

The Obama administration decided to return Iraqi police training to the State Department in conjunction with the drawdown of U.S. military personnel. According to the administration’s plan, INL was to maintain 350 civilian police advisors in Iraq from 2012 onward. By July 2012, however, problems of resources and logistics had caused the State Department to reduce the number of advisors from 350 to 36, almost all of whom were contractors. The State Department’s risk aversion and the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, moreover, led to a curtailment of travel for those individuals. Despite heavy expenditures on private security firms and a relatively low level of violence, the State Department’s trainers stopped traveling to Iraqi facilities that the U.S. military’s police trainers had routinely visited at times of much higher insurgent violence.


The arrival of a new president is the ideal time to reform foreign aid. A new administration brings with it new leaders who are seeking new ideas and are free of the investment in the status quo that caused their predecessors to spurn innovations in their last months. New members of Congress and their staffs will be searching for fresh ideas and initiatives. For the next U.S. administration, a broad foreign aid reform agenda is in order.

Among the top agenda items should be an increase in Defense Department support to foreign military, police, and administrative organizations in order to combat domestic threats as well as external ones. American military involvement is critical to alleviating problems that can transit international borders, such as insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, money laundering, disease, illicit migration, and extreme poverty. Far from endangering civilians and civil institutions, it is a means towards better and safer lives for those residing in the developing world.


Dr. Mark Moyar is the Director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History at the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the author of Aid for Elites: Building Partner Nations and Ending Poverty through Human Capital, newly published by Cambridge University Press.

Image: U.S. Army