The Case Against Security Cooperation in Fragile States

kabul evacuation

A dark cloud hangs over the Department of Defense. After the “strategic failure” that was Afghanistan, the department is struggling to figure out how not to repeat it. In particular, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the lead agency for advising, training, and equipping foreign governments, has taken a number of key steps to prevent this from reoccurring. My fellow colleagues in the agency, whose key mission is to build the military capacity of foreign partners, took the collapse in Afghanistan particularly hard. After the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act the agency established certification programs for its workforce and introduced new concepts such as “building capacity” and “full-spectrum capability.” This is in addition to various other initiatives, such as changing security cooperation planning methods and requiring the assessment, monitoring, and evaluation of outcomes. Though these initiatives predate the recent events in Afghanistan, they symbolize a widespread recognition of a problem with how the United States conducts military assistance, a recognition grimly underscored by the collapse of the Afghan security forces in August 2021 and the failures of Iraqi reconstruction.



For years, the United States has struggled with how best to build foreign militaries, with minor successes here and there but nothing substantial over the long term. These noted difficulties have led to what Jahara Matisek has called the “Faberge Egg army problem, an expensively built military … easily broken by insurgents.” Some have argued that to address these poor outcomes the United States should consolidate and simplify the complicated domestic processes used to execute security cooperation, in addition to augmenting programs by building the capacity of formal defense institutions. However, military assistance outcomes will not improve simply by making the foreign military sales process faster or by improving a country’s defense institutions, as argued by Jeremy Gwinn. Many past articles on security cooperation focused on the minutiae of how to improve the process as opposed to asking whether security cooperation is the best means by which to accomplish national security objectives. Security cooperation analyses have a tendency to focus on the “tactical” level of security cooperation and concentrate on how to get the equipment to countries faster, or what other augmentations or incentives the United States should add to make it work. My argument focuses on the strategic use of security cooperation to accomplish wider American interests in fragile states. By fragile states, I specifically reference those countries that are dealing with

“extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, institutionalized persecution or discrimination, severe demographic pressures, brain drain, and environmental decay.”

Rather than being a key foreign policy tool, the United States should carefully consider the ramifications of increasing security cooperation in fragile states. For one, the partner nation will likely be unable to sustain this newfound military capacity. Second, miliary assistance is likely to lead to an increase in political instability, corruption, human-rights abuses, and incidences of political oppression. This is because, at its core, the U.S. approach to security cooperation is contradictory and anachronistic. It is based on faulty assumptions about conditions in partner nations, often designed to defeat an enemy the partner nation does not have, and rooted in American models of defense institutions that do not exist. Even during the era of great-power competition, it is not clear that U.S. interests are best served by sending millions of dollars in defense articles and training to fragile states under the guise of “regional stability,” with the primary purpose of keeping Russia and China out.

Inherent in the definition of security cooperation are explicit goals to “build capacity,” which often translate to ensuring that foreign countries can use, maintain, and sustain the equipment that the United States has transferred to them, either through grant assistance or by foreign military sales. Given the internal instability of fragile states, most military capabilities that the United States is seeking to foster are for the purposes of internal defense, counter-insurgency, or counter-terrorism. The suite of programs used to transfer training and equipment are referred to as “building partner capacity” or “train and equip programs.” Often recipients of these programs are states that cannot or will not provide basic services for their population or control their own territory, because the government lacks either the resources, the authority, or the trust of many of its citizens. While the state exists de jure, there is no state de facto. The idea of transferring millions of dollars of state-of-the-art American equipment to a country that cannot provide the most basic services to its population seems counter-intuitive. How is the recipient country expected to maintain it?

While the issue of sustainment is important, let’s sidestep it and focus on what happens after the equipment is delivered and the training has been completed. There may be anecdotal evidence of how security cooperation programs have been “successful” in building military capacity, but numerous commentaries and studies argue that the outcomes of this newfound capacity have been less than ideal. According to these studies, an increase in security cooperation and security assistance correlated with an increased incidence of military coups, political oppression, human-rights violations, and other forms of political instability. For example, a 2020 study conducted by Patricia Sullivan, Leo Blanken, and Ian Rice analyzing post-conflict countries between 1956 and 2012 found a statistically significant increase in incidences of torture, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, political imprisonment and executions, and incidents of genocide among recipients of military assistance. A second study, analyzing U.S. security assistance to 150 countries, found a similar result: An increase in military assistance (security cooperation) correlated with worse performance on human rights. Both of these studies include years in which United States security cooperation programs were tied to Leahy Amendment conditions concerning human rights that barred sending material to units on a human-rights watch list and having every recipient of training vetted. Regardless, the results of these studies should not be surprising. Fragile states in which leaders lack resources to provide basic services for their population often turn to well-resourced (thanks to military assistance) militaries to repress restless populations and target political opponents. Political leaders in fragile states often use newfound military capacity to shore up power. Moreover, if political leaders can depend on an outside donor, like the United States, to resource their military, as opposed to taxes or some other internal resources, it further severs the tie between the government and its citizens.

Regardless of these outcomes, the primary purpose of security cooperation is “to build partner nation capacity consistent with [American] defense objectives.” While the National Defense Strategy outlines numerous defense objectives, in regions with fragile states these objectives often include promoting regional stability, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and even policing (countering human trafficking and drug trafficking). Therefore, the purpose of building military capacity in weak and failed states is mostly to ensure the internal security of that state. However, the American military, by law and tradition, is not designed to play an internal security role. When the United States has engaged in building foreign militaries, it has tended to reflect the American way of war centered around playing its economic strength and technological advantage into a tactical advantage on the battlefield. From doctrine to defense institutions and logistics systems, the entire Department of Defense is built around this American way of war. In fact, for U.S. forces counter-insurgency was a subset of total war until the late 2000s. Through building partner capacity programs, especially those under Department of Defense authorities, the approach to security cooperation has been to mirror American ways of war, doctrine, logistics systems, and training by asking American military members and institutions to help to build the capacity of defense institutions. In Afghanistan in particular, the Department of Defense sought to build a military “that was modeled on the centralized command structures and complex bureaucracy of the Defense Department” rather than build a military to defeat the specific threat(s) that Afghanistan faces rooted in defense institutions that Afghanistan could support. The U.S. implementers drew on what they knew, which resulted in Afghan forces not being able to function without American support operationally and logistically. Ultimately, once the United States withdrew, the Afghan forces fell quickly.

U.S. security practitioners specializing in institutional capacity-building point to Afghanistan as an example of not taking institutional capacity-building seriously, therefore dooming the rebuilding of the Afghan military, and not necessarily of broader security cooperation failure. Congress listened, and required frequently used security cooperation programs to address institutional capacity-building, which advocates argue can even help to prevent human rights abuses, mostly through education or some sort of subject-matter expert or military advisor exchanges. However, institutional capacity-building is not the panacea to the security cooperation dilemma that many within the Department of Defense think it is. Institutional capacity-building programs still focus on the technical aspects of institutions, or give cursory education on issues such as the law of armed conflict. But these programs fail to consider the politics of how authority within states emerges, develops, or changes in order to institutionalize these newly introduced practices. To be clear, I am not arguing that security cooperation planners do not consider politics at all. In fact, U.S. law requires the Department of Defense to “jointly consider political, social, economic, diplomatic, and historical factors, if any, of the foreign country that may impact the effectiveness of the program.” However, assessments of these factors are often shallow and concentrate on the politics of formal institutions, overlooking the importance of informal institutions and how power and authority is actually wielded in fragile states.

In order to understand the deep politics of fragile states, it is crucial to have an understanding of what a state is. The noted sociologist Max Weber defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The key for the Weberian conception of the state is the term legitimate use of force. Weber argued that even states that appear to be authoritarian will seek to root their claim of legitimacy in one of three “pure” types of authority: legal, traditional, or charismatic. Authority in the American state most closely aligns itself with legal legitimation, meaning that U.S. citizens see the American state and government as legitimate because a leader’s power is derived from written laws, procedures, and regulations. Leaders in fragile states often try to legitimize their rule not through legal means, but in a sub-categorization of traditional authority: the neo-patrimonial system. Leaders in neo-patrimonial states, while having a veneer of bureaucracy, also seek to remain in power through clientelism, or the exchange of goods and services for political support. Neo-patrimonial governments also prefer to keep state institutions weak by stacking bureaucracies, like defense institutions, with supporters and encouraging competition amongst individuals to keep them divided and therefore not a threat to their rule. This allows key military leaders to be dependent on the ruler for their wealth while also keeping “national armies divided and faction-ridden.” U.S. military assistance is especially prone to contribute to corruption as often this assistance accounts for a large portion of defense budgets. “Ghost soldiers” (nonexistent military personnel manufactured by corrupt officials to pocket their salary) in Iraq and Uganda are two well-known examples of how easy it can be for military institutions to engage in corruption. Clientelism is not considered corruption, but just the way governance is done in states in which the central government competes with local actors for legitimacy. The Taliban understood this and struck deals “with low-level representatives of the standing Afghan government through bribes or safety guarantees” in order to quickly seize control of various regions.

With this understanding of the state, a deeper look into the approach to institutional capacity-building still shows the failures of security cooperation. According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, institutional capacity-building initiatives are to be “driven by U.S. interests and values” but at the same time avoid “the projection or imposition of United States’ models, which may not fit an ally or partner’s specific context.” How can institutional capacity-building be driven by U.S. values while also not be driven by U.S. models? Often Americans sent to help build institutions are subject-matter experts in developing and running logistics systems, human resource institutions, and other formal defense institutions in the United States, not state-building or political development scholars with a deep understanding of the informal politics of the state. These gaps in knowledge are then filled in by their experience in running institutions in the United States, resulting in foreign defense institutions modeled on the complex American bureaucratic system, a system rooted in rational legitimacy. Additionally, institutional capacity programs are often aimed at improving the skills of functionaries and/or rewriting laws, processes, or regulations that improve the veneer of the neo-patrimonial system without necessarily shifting governance style further down the legal continuum. This veneer serves to further enhance a leader’s international legitimacy while doing nothing to improve their domestic legitimacy, to say nothing of the standard of living of the country’s citizens.

Security cooperation observers may point to Ukraine as an example of successful security cooperation, with the United States providing military assistance to deny Russia an easy win, and so far it seems to be working. Observers did not expect Ukraine to do so well against Russia. However, this is the exception that proves the rule. Ukraine by most measures is not a deeply fragile state. In fact, according to the fragile state index, where a lower number indicates less fragility, it has ranked anywhere from 86 to as low as 117 out of 179 countries. Currently, about 88 out of 179 countries are deemed more fragile than Ukraine. Compared to countries like the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many African countries, it was relatively more stable. Second, American defense articles and services are being used to fight off an external threat. Third, government legitimacy is not in question. The reason that security cooperation is “working” is that Ukrainian citizens see the government as trying to provide them with protection against the Russian invasion: They see an arrangement in which they (the Ukrainians) are giving their blood, with much of the treasure being provided by the United States. After the war, Ukraine may come out with a stronger nation-state identity and perhaps a less corrupt government. In addition, following the path identified by Charles Tilly, becoming efficient and effective at war contributes to moving states further down the legal legitimacy continuum. The issue with many fragile states, especially in African countries, is that their citizens see a variety of actors as legitimate governors, not the central government. In turn, often, governments of fragile states see their own citizens and groups as potential political rivals, not communities to be served. Some fragile states are only states because international society says so, not because their citizens believe them to be, unlike in Ukraine.

Engaging in security cooperation in fragile countries is a wicked problem, in that any approach the United States takes will invariably not be good enough to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the National Security Strategy. When the United States helps to build foreign militaries it cannot help but use an American model, one that also assumes an objective control of civil-military relations, which neo-patrimonial regimes do not follow. Political leaders in fragile states will gladly take whatever military training and equipment that the United States is willing to give while also ensuring they can still hold on to power, through various forms of patronage and/or coup-proofing. In addition, Chinese and Russian military and economic assistance is waiting in the wings to supplement or even supplant American assistance. Suggestions to tie continued U.S. security cooperation to improvement in domestic conditions may not work, as fragile states often use the threat of going to Russia or China to gain concessions. U.S. policymakers need to rethink their approach to security cooperation by first deciding whether keeping Russia and China out is enough of a national interest to justify providing support to specific fragile states.

Despite great-power competition, U.S. interests may be best served by abandoning security-cooperation efforts in fragile states. Arguments to improve the foreign military sales process or incentivize a country’s behavior are largely irrelevant and will not lead to better security cooperation outcomes, at least not within the timelines imposed by U.S. government programs. It is very difficult to build a sustainable military capacity in fragile countries whose governments lack resources, both monetary and human, and to do so against the desires of political leaders who may see keeping institutions weak as a way to stay in power. The United States should only choose to conduct security cooperation, especially if paid for by taxpayer dollars — because not all programs are, and some are funded by the foreign governments themselves — in very specific cases that truly serve national interests. U.S. policymakers should also be prepared for the fallout that comes with increasing military capacity in states that cannot provide basic needs for their own population or have governments that lack legitimacy, namely human-rights abuses, corruption, and general regional instability. When the United States does choose to pour millions of taxpayer dollars into the security sector of a fragile state, it should be ready to make a long-term commitment and embed any approach in both the formal and informal political structures of the state.



Barbara Salera is currently an associate professor of security cooperation management at the Defense Security Cooperation University, School of Security Cooperation Studies. She has previously published articles on the pedagogy of teaching political science, humanitarian assistance, and security cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect official policy of the Defense Security Cooperation University, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara