Making Security Assistance Work: Rethinking U.S. Efforts to Boost Partner Militaries

Security Assistance

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Building Militaries in Fragile States from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

In the years since the United States deployed massive amounts of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in the early to late 2000s, it has changed tactics, relying upon local security forces to fight its enemies abroad in order to avoid the costs of large-scale military commitments. The United States provides security assistance on every continent except Antarctica, and to every country in the bottom quartile of fragile states, except for Eritrea and Syria. Support to these local forces takes many forms, from simple train-and-equip missions, to acting in an advisory role, to training and educating foreign armies, to institutional and ministerial reform. The U.S. government has invested heavily in building the military capacity of fragile states because it is much cheaper to support developing militaries than it is for the United States to stabilize these countries itself.

Yet, these efforts have produced mixed results at best. Mara Karlin, in her excellent new book, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, proposes to explain under what conditions efforts to build partner capacity succeed and fail when the United States is attempting to stabilize a fragile state undergoing civil conflict — specifically, conflict that challenges the government’s monopoly on the use of force. Offering an elegant and parsimonious model, Karlin argues that there are two overarching variables that help a partner military achieve sustainable control over the state: the nature of U.S. involvement and the external threat environment. The former is determined by how the United States organizes the foreign military (for internal or external defense), the U.S. role in selecting key partner military leaders, and the ability of the United States to limit its involvement to assistance only and not become a party to the conflict. The external threat environment describes the role of external actors in the conflict.

According to Karlin’s model, building a partner’s military capacity is more likely to be successful — measured as the partner’s monopoly of force within its borders — when American involvement is greater and the role of antagonistic external actors is decreased. Thus, when U.S. involvement is low and external antagonism is high, building partner capacity is expected to be a complete failure. The remaining two combinations lead to two different varieties of partial failure: When there is limited antagonistic influence but U.S. efforts are not fully engaged, insufficient progress is made toward securing a monopoly of force for the local government. Conversely, heavy U.S. involvement alongside significant external antagonism result in a spoiler effect where both actors — the United States and the external antagonistic actor — cancel out the effect of the other.

Karlin draws her empirical evidence from a number of historical case studies, relying on unique archival research and interviews. The exemplar case of building partner capacity is Greece in the late 1940s, an intervention in which U.S. military officers wielded great power over the personnel decisions and force structuring in the Greek military as a condition of assistance. Coupled with limited external support for the communist rebels, the U.S. assistance was extremely effective in defeating the insurgency. Alternatively, complete failure in such efforts is exemplified by U.S. intervention in South Vietnam in the late 1950s. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to allow American interference in military leadership decisions. Instead, his paranoia led him to only appoint officers whose personal loyalty to him was unquestionable. American advisors continued to structure, equip, and train the South Vietnamese military to face external threats, while the insurgency — increasingly backed by North Vietnam — surged to unmanageable levels of capability. The assistance mission was a disaster, leading the United States to become more and more involved with direct military action, the consequences of which need no further discussion here.

Karlin illustrates her model’s predictions of partial failure by examining two assistance programs in Lebanon. The first example was during Lebanon’s civil war in the early 1980s, when the United States was significantly involved in leadership decisions and force structuring in the country but was ultimately defeated by the destabilizing effects of proxy forces supported by Israel, Iran, and Syria. In this case, antagonistic external actors were able to overcome American attempts to improve the Lebanese military. The second example is from the subsequent U.S. efforts in the late 2000s after the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon. In this example, there were fewer outside actors pushing against U.S. efforts, but America failed to affect leadership decisions in the Lebanese military, which was unable to gain or maintain control over all of the state’s territory.

Karlin’s model is not meant to apply to cases where the United States is a direct co-combatant in a civil conflict. As she notes, these are rare events, most notably Vietnam (post-1961), Afghanistan (post-2001), and Iraq (post-2003). Karlin explains, “the nature of U.S. programs to strengthen militaries during a massive occupation is harder to disentangle given the numerous other variables that exist.” Nor is her model meant to apply to assistance that is focused on external defense. The measure of success in Karlin’s model is the ability to control the state’s territory, an outcome which does not apply in cases of state-on-state conflict.



How Much Involvement Is Enough, and for Whom?

In addition to the great explanatory power that Karlin’s two-dimensional model provides and the key questions she raises for any policymaker considering embarking on a partner capacity mission, her study provides a great starting point for a suite of additional studies, including exploring how much assistance is enough and how the recipient country’s legitimacy affects U.S. effectiveness.

First, given that assistance recipients are often concerned about how much U.S. involvement to accept, it would be invaluable to explore how much U.S. involvement is enough — and no more. There is ample research on the reticence of countries receiving U.S. assistance in appearing to be clients of the American hegemon, a point made by each of the reviewers. A government seen as too cozy with the United States could easily be viewed as not legitimate by its people, endangering its ability to expand and maintain control over the entirety of the state. Understanding the effective limits of U.S. involvement — and how much antagonistic external meddling can be tolerated — is also important to the United States as it would help frame the challenges for individual assistance programs and create expectations about costs for decision-makers, Congress, and the public. It is also important to set expectations with partner governments so they can gauge how much involvement to expect, which, if communicated well, could limit accusations of clientelism to a foreign power.

A second potential path for future research is the addition of a third dimension to Karlin’s model, also discussed by Walter Ladwig: the recipient government’s legitimacy. While measuring legitimacy remains a squishy endeavor, the reality is that some governments cannot be helped regardless of how much involvement the United States may offer or how little outside assistance insurgencies receive. Autocratic regimes that undertake coup-proofing measures with their military will not accept American influence on leadership decisions no matter what the United States does: the weakness of their military is essential in maintaining their rule. Karlin’s case study in South Vietnam illustrates just this; however, Karlin identified the American advisors as the explanatory variable, not the very nature of Diem’s rule, which precluded any serious U.S. involvement.

Moreover, in fragile states the government is often created by divvying public goods among warlords or other powerful elites, who would otherwise be in conflict with one another, in order to create a coalition. Such coalitions are sensitive to changes in the power dynamics resulting from U.S. involvement. Replacing key military leaders may make the military a more capable force, but it degrades the political power structures that undergird the existence of the government. Assistance in this case is doomed to fail, as is the case in Afghanistan.

And while some governments may or may not engage in coup-proofing or in efforts to maintain shaky political coalitions, their actions nevertheless prevent them from building legitimacy despite U.S. involvement in leadership decisions and force structuring. Such actions typically entail political exclusion or repression, both of which were on display in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. Instances where the recipient government seeking stability may be a major source of fragility warrant the inclusion of a third dimension that considers the nature and actions of the recipient government.

The Unlikelihood of Success

Karlin, an exceptional academic who was also a senior official in the Department of Defense, examines security assistance deftly, with the rigor of a scholar and the practicality of a practitioner. The three reviewers in this roundtable — Walter Ladwig, Tommy Ross, and Loren DeJonge Shulman — each express agreement with Karlin’s model, but remain skeptical in the entire endeavor of building partner militaries. They focus on different points of failure for these missions, but think policymakers would be well served if America’s leaders in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom analyzed each case according to the questions posed in Karlin’s conclusion. However, if policymakers were to rigorously analyze each mission as Karlin suggests, the reviewers are skeptical that U.S. partners would be up to the task, that the U.S. government is organized to build partner militaries, or that exogenous forces can be adequately deterred. In any of these cases, they expect the United States to be more likely to fail in these missions than not.

Ladwig focuses his review on the recipient government and its propensity to accept outside involvement. He cites a number of studies that identify the partner government itself as the greatest obstacle to achieving state control and subsequent stability. Ladwig identifies that the country offering assistance and the recipient governments may have differing objectives that preclude the unity of effort necessary for deep outside involvement. Additionally, Ladwig points out that because assistance is an inherently political act, it may upset the political coalitions of the state, using the second Lebanon case as an example. Ultimately, Ladwig argues that although Karlin’s book is an excellent start, additional dimensions should also be explored when considering what makes for a successful foray into building partner capacity.

Ross and DeJonge Schulman both acknowledge that building partner capacity has become America’s default response to fragile states, largely because it is cheaper than direct combat involvement. However, they also question whether the U.S. government is organized to conduct such assistance operations effectively. Ross notes that within the military, foreign assistance is marginalized — the U.S. government has invested little to create the capacity to conduct partner capacity missions at a scale commensurate with demand. Similarly, DeJonge Schulman doubts the ability of policymakers to fully analyze any specific mission adequately, per Karlin’s conclusion, in an environment where the operational tempo often precludes obtaining a rigorous understanding of the political conditions in the country in question. Furthermore, she is concerned about the existence of expertise at the country level, something that is necessary in order for the United States to make deep involvement effective (a point also made by Ross).

Finally, Ross focuses in on the role of external actors more deeply. In his analysis, Karlin’s model treats antagonistic external actors as exogenous to the internal conflict and U.S. influence. This is undoubtedly for the sake of parsimony. But Ross argues that U.S. actions can both limit and inspire external actions, a point that is underexplored in Karlin’s model and case analysis. He notes that the United States has “an underdeveloped suite of tools available to confront the activities of adversarial actors in a third country” and that U.S. planners may not be aware of the few tools that do exist. Ross ultimately proposes this as an additional area of exploration in future research.

Each of the reviewers acknowledges that assistance to foreign militaries has been a key aspect of U.S. security efforts in fragile states for nearly 20 years, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. And yet, the United States has not had a great record in using that assistance to create stability in states of great strategic interest, particularly in the Middle East and throughout Africa. Karlin’s book provides a practical analytical path to predict the success of such assistance efforts. While scholars can enjoy the elegant model she presents and the lines of research the model uncovers, policymakers would be well advised to read and abide by the principles she lays out.



Jason Fritz is a senior research analyst and project manager in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program, a senior editor at War on the Rocks, and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Advanced Academic Programs.


Image: U.S. Army photo by Derek Hamilton