U.S. Security Cooperation Deserves a Fair Evaluation


Security cooperation has been a critical pillar of U.S. statecraft for decades. However, the enterprise has gotten a bad reputation since the beginning of the 21st century because of the costly misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But perhaps the problem is that we are not evaluating it the right way. 

Much of Washington’s frustration with security cooperation is warranted, but some of it also is misplaced. Any sound assessment of security cooperation’s return on investment should start with a clear understanding of the intended objectives of the security cooperation program, and whether those, and only those, are effectively being met. Underscoring the difference between the process of security cooperation and the strategic/policy outcomes of security cooperation is also crucial for evaluators. Each deserves its own distinct evaluation. The United States has sometimes succeeded with the former only to struggle with the latter due to various external factors that have little or nothing to do with security cooperation itself. 



Correctly evaluating security cooperation — a responsibility that ultimately belongs to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy — matters a great deal because the stakes are currently so high. In a period of strategic competition with China, America’s global network of allies and partners is a unique advantage that should be leveraged and sustained through a better understanding of, and a larger role for, security cooperation. Better assessment would help to ensure that Washington does not abandon or reduce its reliance on this crucial tool when it’s needed most. Better assessment could also help U.S. policymakers to think more strategically about the political pitfalls that undermine security cooperation, so they better pre-empt them and deploy this tool when and where it will be most effective.

Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation

Security cooperation has evolved over the years, in accordance with changes in the strategic environment and U.S. priorities in the world. The United States still uses security cooperation to manage political relationships with friends, forge new partnerships, and acquire access to the partner’s territory. But since 9/11, America has elevated the more challenging and ambitious objective of helping to develop the military capabilities of weaker state and non-state partners to address shared security concerns.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 issued historic security cooperation reforms that called for integrating institutional capacity building into military capability development with partners. Another key element of the reforms is the requirement for the Defense Department to maintain a program of assessment, monitoring, and evaluation in support of these efforts. Today, to sustain a certain security cooperation program with a partner, the department must know, and be able to demonstrate to Congress, that the program is hitting the mark. The challenge, however, is that there is no consensus in the U.S. bureaucracy on what that mark is, oftentimes leading to inaccurate, unfair, or irrelevant security cooperation evaluations. 

The Defense Department’s definition of security cooperation — “all activities undertaken by the Department of Defense to encourage and enable international partners to work with the United States to achieve strategic objectives” — doesn’t help the evaluators much because it is too broad. That said, some aspects of security cooperation are easier to evaluate than others because the desired outcomes are binary. For example, if a partner grants Washington access, basing, and overflight, that is considered a success, and vice versa. 

Yet, assessing security cooperation’s contributions to the military development of a partner, as well as its willingness to contribute to collective security interests, is anything but straightforward. Not only are there multiple (and sometimes interdependent) variables to examine — such as capability and the will to fight — but these have to be assessed in the short and long run both for the United States and for the partner. This can result in at least seven different outcomes, each with unique implications that do not fit into a simple success/failure dichotomy.

The partner succeeds in boosting its combat effectiveness and institutional capacities, and the process itself leads to positive strategic/policy outcomes. This is clearly the best outcome. Yet the record shows that it is the least likely and most difficult to achieve. 

A couple of cases fall into this most precious category, including Colombia and, to a large extent, Indonesia. Through security cooperation and foreign aid from Washington, Colombia was able to upgrade and redesign its armed forces throughout the 2000s. This process, which escalated in early 2008, has sought to enable the Colombian defense and security sector to more effectively address evolving threats in the 21st century beyond narco-terrorism through a set of reforms in defense management including capability-based force planning, budget planning, and human resource management. Defense transformation in Bogotá led to serious inroads in the war against narco-terrorism, pushing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, after suffering significant military losses, to reach a historic agreement with the government in 2016 through which the former promised to declare all its assets and hand them over to the Colombian authorities. 



In Indonesia, security cooperation efforts from 2013 to 2018, which included work on strategic planning and defense reorganization, enhanced bilateral relations with the United States. The process of security cooperation itself was less successful than the Colombian one: More institutional capacity reforms were and still are needed in the Indonesian defense sector. But the process still incentivized and enabled the Indonesian authorities to contribute to shared maritime security aims. 

The partner succeeds in boosting its combat effectiveness temporarily, but struggles to sustain its tactical effectiveness over the long run due to institutional capacity deficits. This is an all-too-familiar scenario in the American universe of security cooperation with developing partners. The main goal here is to help the partner conduct a specific military activity at a specific moment to support operations against a particular threat. In this case, all that security cooperation evaluators should look for to determine success or failure is whether that partner was effectively able to pursue that activity on a short-term basis. Examples of such activities include the United Arab Emirates staging an effective amphibious landing in Yemen in 2016, the Iraqi counterterrorism service clearing towns and villages of Sunni militants, the Bahraini coast guard interdicting smuggling by nefarious actors, and the Saudi military shooting down drones and missiles from Yemen.

However, if Washington wishes that the partner capably pursues such activities, possibly among others, on a consistent basis and with little or no U.S. help, then institutional capacity building — the jewel of the 2017 security cooperation reforms — becomes paramount. In that context, security cooperation evaluation would have to include demonstrable improvements in the partner’s combat and institutional capabilities including strategy, doctrine, acquisition, logistics, human resource management, and defense resource management. The argument here is not that one goal is more important than the other. Rather, it is that correct evaluation requires clearly defined objectives. 

The partner manages to improve its defense readiness and military capabilities in peacetime, but is incapable of displaying combat effectiveness during wartime. This scenario underscores the huge difference between military capability and military effectiveness. The partner could be doing everything, or most things, right in steady-state operations to better prepare itself for various military contingencies and conflict situations. It could develop sound defense and military strategies, come up with doctrine that reflects its strategic culture and processes, invest in all the necessary institutional enablers, train hard, acquire the right weapons, conduct effective defense budgeting, and promote the best personnel (and fire or sideline the under-achievers).

But when the time comes to fight, the partner, for many reasons (some of which are beyond its control), is incapable of performing effectively and meeting its objectives — and the enemy obviously gets a vote, too. Centuries of human warfare have taught us that it’s one thing for an army to possess tools and skills and show high levels of readiness, but it’s another altogether to leverage all these assets and enablers and proficiently execute on the battlefield. 

For example, when the United States withdrew its combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, Iraqi security forces were more or less ready to assume their duties of protecting the country from terrorist groups. By that time, Iraq had more than 700,000 well-equipped and Western-trained military and security personnel. But then, the debacle of 2014 happened. Hundreds of very modestly equipped Islamic State fighters managed to overrun tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their gear and fled the battlefield. Many attributed this outcome to the lack of Iraqi will to fight. While that may be true, had the Iraqi army been capable of initially resisting the Islamic State’s assault, it wouldn’t have elected to leave Mosul while it was under attack.

The armed forces of the partner attain a higher level of military development, but the government is unwilling to take actions that support some or all U.S. policy objectives. This scenario results from an honest disagreement about priorities between Washington and the partner. In this case, there is nothing malicious or ill-intentioned about the partner’s cost-benefit calculation. Through security cooperation (and other means), the United States takes all the necessary steps to enhance the partner’s military capabilities and institutional capacities, but the latter assesses that the potential costs of addressing a particular shared threat and the risks of escalation are too high — politically, militarily, or both. 

The U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State is one example. The United States had helped several regional partners enhance some of their military capabilities in years preceding the start of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014. But when the call to support U.S. operations came, few of those partners answered it effectively. The United States was forced to carry out most of the airstrikes and, with the exception of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish security forces, none of the partners significantly contributed to the fight on the ground. 

The armed forces of the partner attain a higher level of military development, but the government is politically weak and divided, thus rendering it unable to take actions that support some or all U.S. policy objectives. This scenario is similar to the previous one, but is sufficiently different because of its emphasis on the inability of the partner to reach a consensus on a specific threat or U.S. policy objective due to political division and incompetence. One example of that is the security cooperation program with the Lebanese Armed Forces. U.S. military assistance to Lebanon turned the country’s armed forces from a weak and badly run army into one of the most competent and well-managed forces in the region. In 2017, the Lebanese Armed Forces waged a highly effective battle against hundreds of Islamic State fighters in the north and evicted them from the country. By most standards, security cooperation in Lebanon was incredibly effective.  

However, the success of security cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces, unsurprisingly, could not overcome the acute disunity, corruption, and ineptitude of the Lebanese government. Beirut has consistently failed to reach a political consensus on, among other national priorities, how to tackle the problem of Hizballah’s arms, the security of the borders, and the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions relevant to Lebanon. Critics of U.S. assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces have pointed to these negative outcomes to argue for reducing or cutting security cooperation in the country. But the fact that the Lebanon has not been able to achieve these objectives is not proof of the failure of U.S. assistance to the country’s armed forces. Rather, it demonstrates the bankruptcy of the entire Lebanese political system, which itself has hamstrung U.S. policy. Evaluation of security cooperation in Lebanon is a classic case of wrong metrics leading to faulty conclusions. 

The partner enhances its military capabilities over the short or long run, but pursues goals that are antithetical to those of Washington. This scenario has materialized to some extent in Yemen and Libya in recent years. Over the past decade, the United States has helped to enhance the military capabilities of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia through various security cooperation means, a process that has contributed to shared security objectives. But in some situations, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi used these very capabilities to advance policy goals that challenged U.S. policy and preferences. For example, with fighter jets purchased from Washington, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates committed human rights violations in Yemen (as did their antagonists, the Iran-backed Houthis) by conducting airstrikes that killed thousands of innocent civilians. In Libya, the United Arab Emirates deployed warplanes bought from the United States in violation of a U.N. arms embargo to support the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan rebel leader whose army was fighting the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government in the country’s capital, Tripoli. 

In Burkina Faso, in February 2022, the military toppled the democratically-elected government of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. This was the same military that the United States had supported since 2009 because they shared the goal of combating terrorism. Elsewhere in Africa, U.S.-trained local officers led seven coups and coup attempts in 2021 and 2022. Similar stories have been reported in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, where U.S. military assistance has been notorious for perpetuating militarism in the form of military coups and strong-man military regimes that violated human rights and worked against democracy. 

But do these consequences prove the failure of security cooperation in these countries? Not necessarily. Preventing coups and attacks on democracy, upholding international law, incentivizing recipients of U.S. assistance to pursue policies that serve American interests, and attaining country-specific or regional stability are very worthy U.S. foreign policy objectives, but they are not the prerogative of security cooperation. How Washington leverages security cooperation and incorporates it into the integrated country strategy to safeguard collective security interests is the responsibility of the U.S. government as a whole, with the American ambassador stationed in that country playing a coordinating role.

The United States manages to improve the combat effectiveness and perhaps even the institutional capacities of the partner, but ultimately leaves, significantly cuts its presence, or pursues new policies that undermine its success. Assuming that the partner commits to credible military development and defense reform, the United States could hamper if not terminate the security cooperation process by withdrawing or significantly reducing its presence and/or assistance for political or strategic reasons.

This is, to some extent, what happened with the security cooperation program in Afghanistan. Make no mistake about it: The Afghan military was to blame for many sins it committed, including corruption, lack of discipline, division, and disorganization (though some units in the Afghan Air Force did a lot better than others by better leveraging U.S. assistance). But when the United States removed all its troops and even contractors in 2021, paving the way for the Taliban to regain control of the government, the Afghan military disintegrated and all security cooperation progress that was made immediately vanished.

In such a strategic environment, a U.S. policy decision directly contributed to the failure of the security cooperation effort. Perhaps the entire security cooperation enterprise in Afghanistan was doomed to fail. Like many others, it was heavy on military equipment and light on long-term sustainment and defense reform. But there’s no question that when Washington elected to end its military and advisory presence in the country after nearly 20 years, there was no hope for the security cooperation program.  

Process versus Outcomes

The Defense Department deserves credit for committing to the assessment, monitoring, and evaluation of key parts of its military assistance. Congress also should be commended for coming up with legislation that for the first time ever formally instructs the department to conduct this assessment. But the practice still suffers from a basic problem: It’s unclear what is being assessed, monitored, and evaluated, who’s performing those tasks, and what the standards and metrics of success are.

On paper, there are ready answers to these issues. But what matters most is how things are in practice, and that’s where the confusion and subpar performance are noticeable. Defense Department policy suggests that assessment, monitoring, and evaluation should report on “outcomes and sustainability of security cooperation and track, understand, and improve returns on Defense Department security cooperation investments.” But it’s unclear what the department means by outcomes. Is it referring to tactical outcomes pertaining to the development of the partner’s military capabilities, or to strategic/policy outcomes that address the partner’s tangible contributions to collective security interests? 

There are methodological implications for the distinction between process and outcomes when it comes to assessing, monitoring, and evaluating a partner’s military development. A quantitative analysis, including proper coding and measurement of variables, might be more suitable to assessment, monitoring, and evaluation than a qualitative one (in some cases, a combination of the two is needed). The former, however, requires lots of reliable data, which will not be easy to gather, especially when it comes to authoritarian partners. 

The United States has some control over how it advises, trains, and equips the partner, but the moment that strategic/policy outcomes are inserted into the equation, much that is simply outside the control of Washington can go wrong. Security cooperation evaluators should account for that basic reality — yet, more often than not, they don’t. 

There are ways to reduce the chances of things going awry in security cooperation. Before the United States decides to strengthen a partner’s capabilities, it should conduct a serious analysis of its risk profile to determine whether the security cooperation investment will generate acceptable returns. This should happen prior to promising the partner anything or supplying it with any equipment — which is contrary to what Washington typically does with most of its partners. 

In accordance with Defense Department directive, conducting initial assessments of the partner is mandatory, but based on my experience as a senior advisor on security cooperation in the department in 2018–2019, more can be done. That’s because the Defense Department does not have the expertise to conduct comprehensive analysis of the partner. Studying any country’s social, political, cultural, economic, and security systems is the job of various parts of the executive branch, including the intelligence community (hence the need to integrate the input of the latter into initial partner assessments, which is not happening).

The Defense Department oftentimes is good at measuring the partner’s absorptive capacity, but is unable to effectively assess the latter’s political stability or financial condition (this is where the State Department’s analytic capabilities are most needed and should be integrated into assessment, monitoring, and evaluation of security cooperation). Neither does the Department of Defense really know how to assess the partner’s will to fight. These are the responsibilities of diplomats, spies, and subject-matter experts.

In conclusion, helping a partner to attain a higher level of military development and achieving broader strategic objectives of security cooperation requires various parts of the U.S. interagency process to step in and step up. Sometimes security cooperation underperforms because of mistakes committed by the United States, the partner, or both. But sometimes it actually does work, as several cases throughout history have shown. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by using the wrong metrics and drawing the wrong conclusions about security cooperation. 



Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and a former senior advisor for security cooperation in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Image: U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Behlin