Training the Man on Horseback: The Connection Between U.S. Training and Military Coups


It may seem heartening that then-Central Command’s Gen. James Mattis’s famous quip, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” is reflected, less pithily, in the writings of the chief of staff of the Middle East’s largest military. While a student at the U.S. Army War College in 2005, Egypt’s Sedki Sobhy observed, “U.S. military presence in the Middle East and the Gulf is only one instrument in this campaign [against terror],” and “the United States should pursue its strategic goals in the region through socioeconomic means.”

Mattis now manages a militarized foreign policy for an administration that seeks to cut development spending to fund the Pentagon. More poignantly, General Sobhy, the number two officer in the coup that removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, presides over a militarized domestic policy for a regime that trades, in the words of Cairo-based political scientist Ashraf El-Sherif, military-backed “authoritarianism in exchange for non-development.” Ironically, and we argue not coincidentally, Sohby’s War College time, as well as that of his boss Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was funded by one of the United States’ most generous foreign military aid packages.

Favoring the military over alternative tools of U.S. foreign policy remains one of the few consistencies within the current administration. Internal documents have proposed folding USAID into the State Department and “zeroing” out development assistance programs that do not advance specific U.S. political or strategic objectives. With few civilian appointees in either the Departments of Defense or State and unprecedented levels of “authorization,” the uniformed services enjoy tremendous operational discretion with few civilian counterbalances either inside or outside the Pentagon.

The trend of shifting foreign policy funds towards programs with an explicit security focus long predates the Trump administration. A third of all U.S. foreign aid funds, $17 billion, goes towards military aid and security assistance, making it on its own the fourth-largest foreign aid budget in the world. Moreover, management of this security assistance money has migrated away from the State Department to the Pentagon. A recent Open Society report shows that, whereas in 2011 the Defense Department directed only 17 percent of all security assistance (compared to the State Department’s 80 percent), by 2015 the Defense Department’s share had increased to 57 percent and the State Department’s had dropped to 42 percent. Officials wearing digicam rather than pinstripes are delivering an increasing percentage of U.S. assistance.

While the broad potential problems with this trend have been wellexplored, in this article we focus on a concrete implication by looking at an important component of U.S. assistance: the training of other states’ militaries and security personnel, known as foreign military training (FMT). As in the case of Egypt, this training can empower its uniformed recipients to participate more in their home countries’ internal politics, up to and including coups.

Human Capital Threatening the Capitol

According to the U.S. government, in fiscal year 2015 approximately 76,400 students from 154 countries participated in U.S. foreign military training, costing $876.5 million. Colleagues have recently argued that this sort of security assistance rarely achieves its stated goals of contributing to U.S. foreign policy objectives through “helping allies and partners improve their defense capabilities and enhance their ability to participate in missions alongside U.S. forces.” In contrast, we argue that in some cases, security assistance does have a profound effect, albeit in ways unintended by the donor. By strengthening the military in states with few counterbalancing civilian institutions, U.S. foreign military training can lead to both more military-backed coup attempts, as well as a higher likelihood of a coup’s success.

Amadou Sanogo received U.S. training and went on to lead a coup in Mali. (Credit: VOA)

Gambian Lt. Col. Lamin Sanneh spearheaded a failed coup after receiving a degree from a U.S. military university. In March 2012, U.S.-trained junior officer Capt. Amadou Sanogo led a coup in Mali. The United States is not the only country to produce such students: Moussau Dadis Camara, the leader of a 2008 coup in Guinea, trained in Germany.

This might seem counterintuitive since the training provided to these officers is designed to encourage liberal values including respect for civilian control, a norm central to the U.S. military’s own identity. Moreover, the United States normally cuts security assistance when a coup occurs, which should deter military officers from attempting a takeover.

We argue, however, that the norm most likely to be transmitted by U.S. training is one to which foreign military officers are already receptive: a professional identity independent from that of their own government. The U.S. military’s distinct professional culture is largely based on Samuel Huntington’s notion of “objective civilian control.” This ideal precludes military interference by in politics, but it also generates a strong, separate corporate identity. Huntington himself recognized that, in countries that are not solidly established democracies, the more professional the military considers itself, the higher its temptation to intervene in political affairs.

A former National Defense University professor, discussing a coup attempt by one of his students, laid out the problem clearly in War on the Rocks:

We teach them our approach to a “profession of arms” and professional ethics, and we teach them our approach to how they can create a successful, secure, and prosperous society back home. But what happens when there are profound contradictions between the ideal they are taught…and the reality they see back home?

In addition to reinforcing recipients’ professional identity, aid in the form of military training provides more concrete benefits. Students gain professional knowledge on topics ranging from small unit tactics to grand strategy, enabling them to conduct military operations more effectively. But U.S. foreign military training can also impart a more ineffable form of “social capital,” establishing a powerful network of prestige, trust, and reciprocal relations that allows privileged actors to enhance their status.

This human capital is analogous to the “soft power” that, as Naunihal Singh argues in a wonderful book, plays an essential role in successful coups. Singh emphasizes that coups tend to succeed not because of “the differences in hard military power among the parties but the resources available for setting and coordinating expectations and making facts.” U.S. military training can shift the balance of human capital, enhancing the ability of soldiers to conduct a coup.

Sanneh received an aid-funded master’s degree from the National Defense University. Returning home from this prestigious assignment, he was chosen to lead the personal security force of Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh. Later purged from the army, Sanneh fled to the United States, where he helped assemble a small group from the Gambian diaspora to conduct an unsuccessful coup attempt. His six-page “Military Strategy for Operation Gambian Freedom” is replete with the unique language of Pentagon operational doctrine: “ends, ways, means,” “critical vulnerabilities,” and “centers of gravity,” right down to the generic PowerPoint slide.

Credit: Stuart Reid

Following his 2012 coup in Mali, Sanogo prominently displayed the insignia of the U.S. Marine Corps, a souvenir from his extensive training in the United States. Bruce Whitehouse argues that the pin “conveys not only that the wearer has undergone special preparation, but also … that he has access to distinctive outside sources of power … As such, it distinguishes him from other army officers.” More practically, Sanogo’s position as a popular English teacher (a language he learned during his extensive time in the United States) allowed him to assume leadership of a band of mutinying soldiers on his base and seize power.

Anecdotes suggest this dynamic is not limited to American training. The 2008 seizure in Guinea was known as “the German coup” because the small number of low-level, Bundeswehr-trained officers discreetly communicated in this common language. Camara’s rule only lasted until Dec. 3, 2009, when, following an assassination attempt, he was replaced by his vice president, a French-trained paratrooper.

Moussau Dadis Camara wearing a German paratrooper beret. Credit: Diplomatica via Wikimedia Commons

A Statistical Perspective on U.S. Training and Coup Attempts

Given the qualitative evidence, we turned to statistical analysis to see if the effect was more widespread. We collected all instances of military-backed coups from two data sets (Powell & Thyne and the Center for Systemic Peace). We then collected data from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency focusing on students trained and money spent for the “flagship” International Military Education and Training program (1970 to 2009), which explicitly focuses in part on civil-military relations and human rights training.

Table 1 divides up our data by whether a country received some U.S. training for any given year, and whether a coup attempt occurred the following year. Among these attempted coups, Table 2 depicts how many succeeded. We found that, across the years 1971 to 2009, 60 percent of military-backed coups occurred in countries that received training in the previous year. While 2.7 percent of the countries receiving no International Military Education Training in a particular year experienced a coup, among countries with some training, the percentage for those years is 5.3 percent, nearly double. Table 2 shows that, among attempted coups, militaries that have received training account for almost two-thirds of successes.

In more in-depth multivariate statistical analysis, we found evidence that any training leads to a rough doubling of the odds of a coup that year for the average case in the global sample, a similar magnitude to what the simple statistics above show. In additional analysis, we showed that U.S. foreign military training also correlates to coup success. We also found the effect both during and after the Cold War. Finally, while the effect is smaller in democracies than in non-democracies, it is still significant.

These findings remained after we went to great lengths to combat possible selection effects, such as that the United States sends training to states already likely to experience coups or that it recruits talented trainees who would have initiated a coup anyway. The best predictor of a coup in the future is having had a coup in the recent past, yet U.S. policy is to reduce training following coups. And the United States does not pick the most talented students (and thus the more coup-prone) from a global pool. Rather, the Defense and State Departments determine country-specific quotas based on U.S. national interests, and then largely leave it to recipient governments to identify and send trainees (subject to “Leahy Law” vetting).

The Dark Side of Militarizing U.S. Foreign Policy

The current, unusual state of civil-military relations in the United States has been noted many times. Many count on the deeply ingrained professionalism of the U.S. military (rather than their political leaders) to guard against unwarranted engagement in domestic politics. It is not clear we can have the same optimism in other countries, particularly as the United States works to strengthen foreign militaries with little counterbalancing assistance to other parts of civil society. Training imparts valuable resources to a potentially dangerous section of a developing state — the security forces — and increases the distance between them and the rest of the government and society. Increasing trainees’ human capital is likely to increase resource demands on the regime and improve the military’s ability to remove the regime should its demands not be met.

The good news is that the Pentagon seems to be taking these lessons seriously, evidenced by its sponsoring research on the subject. But tinkering with curriculum is unlikely to provide a solution. We argue that the social capital that comes with any kind of U.S. military training increases the temptation to carry out a coup. Instead, the United States must carefully consider whether countries should receive any training at all.

The military’s approach to foreign military training, like most issues, focuses on the operational level: producing soldiers better able to fight in lieu of, or alongside, U.S. personnel. But the decision to provide security assistance must factor in the strategic effects of second-order outcomes like coups. This has not been the Pentagon’s forte, nor should it be, in normal times. But these are not normal times for U.S. foreign policy.

The State Department has traditionally played this role, allowing the Pentagon to concentrate on operational matters, but has recently ceded the field thanks to an ongoing shift in resources toward the military (and State’s self-inflicted problems). If no one else in the U.S. government is thinking about the strategic implications of foreign military training, then the Department of Defense cannot avoid the responsibility. The ironic implication for the newly empowered generals in the United States is that they should be wary of empowering their counterparts elsewhere.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to attribute a quote to Ashraf El-Sherif, per the authors’ request. 

Jesse Dillon Savage is Assistant Professor in Global Politics, Political Science, Trinity College Dublin. Jonathan D. Caverley is Associate Professor of Strategy, United States Naval War College and Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other branch or agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: U. S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ken Melton