Why is it so hard to build stronger militaries in partner countries?
Fundamentally, then, the core challenge of security assistance for the United States is the challenge of influence. The United States builds better militaries when recipient leaders take U.S. military advice along with U.S. assistance — and U.S. security assistance fails when U.S. influence fails.
The U.S. relies on persuasion — which rarely works
The U.S. military’s reliance on persuasion is puzzling. Security force assistance is well-suited to carrot-and-stick-style leverage. Not only are recipients usually highly dependent on the United States, but the United States can build the credibility necessary for effective bargaining by turning the assistance dial up or down — or by targeting specific units, individuals or contingencies — over the course of a long-term relationship.
So why rely on persuasion?
The U.S. military, like most large bureaucracies, tends to pursue its bureaucratic interests and to stick to patterns of behavior that advance them. When the U.S. military settles on a preferred way of doing business that does not advance objectives set in Washington, it often takes a major push from Washington for the military to change tack.
Adding conditions to security force assistance may be an effective tool of influence. But a threat by military advisers to curtail assistance to partner units could disrupt the U.S. military’s own security assistance routines. By focusing instead on maintaining rapport, the U.S. military can keep its training, advising and equipping processes moving without interruption. Maintaining positive interpersonal relationships with the partner also helps to avoid the kind of spats that could draw negative attention in Washington.
To encourage Washington to keep the assistance taps open while staying out of its business, the military may play down the partner’s fundamental lack of resolve — a challenge that more money and more time can’t fix. Instead, reports to Washington often emphasize overall progress and good relations with the partner, while flagging discrete areas, such as poor logistical capabilities, that could benefit from additional funding.
The buck stops with Washington
Civilian leaders authorize the U.S. military’s efforts to build foreign militaries in the context of government failure, societal upheaval, insurgency and civil war. Misconceptions of military assistance as a narrow, technical challenge, entrenched norms of civilian deference to the military, and a preference to show progress combine to weaken the civilian oversight and direction that might otherwise guide course correction.
From the fall of Saigon, to the fall of Mosul, to the Taliban’s latest gains across Afghanistan, the story of the longest, least successful U.S. wars is also a story of the U.S. struggle to build effective local militaries. There’s a logic to providing security force assistance — improving the capacity of partner militaries to manage their own backyards means the U.S. military should be able to shift its own weight to higher priorities. Uncooperative partners and the U.S. military’s reliance on rapport-based persuasion, however, stand in the way.
Rachel Tecott (@racheltecott) is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy or the Defense Department.