Editor’s Note: Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with convening the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Following the public launch of the Task Force’s final report, four groups of experts came together to discuss how to implement the report’s recommendations. This four-part series will discuss the findings from these strategy sessions. Part two summarizes expert discussion on the report’s recommendations on security cooperation and assistance and practical steps that could be taken to better align security cooperation and assistance with prevention.

The U.S. military organizes a demonstration at the Iraqi Armor School after the Iraqi soldiers completed a 21-day tank training course, in Besmaya, Iraq, Oct. 18, 2011. (Andrea Bruce/The New York Times)
The U.S. military organizes a demonstration at the Iraqi Armor School after the Iraqi soldiers completed a 21-day tank training course, in Besmaya, Iraq, Oct. 18, 2011. (Andrea Bruce/The New York Times)

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States spent over a decade attempting to turn the Iraqi National Army into a modern fighting force. The Iraqi army received some $25 billion dollars in security assistance, including sophisticated weapons, training on everything from countering improved explosive devices to border security, and the opportunity to accompany the U.S. military on operations against insurgent groups. Yet this astronomical investment was not enough to prevent the Iraqi Army from fleeing Mosul as Islamic State fighters advanced on the city in June 2014, despite outnumbering the insurgents by more than 30 to one.

The reason for this failure? In one word: governance. In Iraq, U.S. security assistance efforts were mostly focused on building tactical capacity, and did not address deep sectarian divides and a culture of corruption and patronage that hollowed out the Iraqi military. Unfortunately, Iraq is not an isolated example. From Afghanistan to Mali to Somalia, U.S.-led or supported efforts to work by, with, and through partner militaries in fragile states regularly fail to sustainably improve military capacity, foster stability, or reduce threats from extremists.

There is a growing consensus that in order for security assistance to be effective in fragile contexts, it must take into account the very kinds of security sector governance challenges that have plagued the Iraqi military. As laid out in the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States’ report, sophisticated equipment and training may be necessary, but it won’t result in a stronger military force or a sustained increase in counterterrorism capacity absent reforms to curb patronage, reduce corruption, improve threat assessments, mitigate the risk of defection, and improve governance in the security sector.

Recommendations and Implementation Challenges

The Task Force offered four recommendations that would radically reshape how the United States engages in security sector cooperation with and assistance to fragile states (see Appendix 6 of the Task Force report). These included:

  • The adoption of a compact-based approach to all security sector assistance;
  • A policy of “graduated assistance” that would tie increases in assistance to improvements in security sector governance;
  • The creation of a security sector reform endowment to support partner-led reform efforts; and
  • An expansion of existing efforts to improve the transparency and effectiveness of security cooperation and assistance.

These recommendations could mitigate the significant risk that security assistance will fail to improve security conditions or exacerbate extremism. Implementation, however, faces multiple hurdles. Without more consolidated authority and more centralized oversight within the U.S. government for security cooperation and assistance, it is hard to envision a system of assessments, compacts, and evaluations working well. Moreover, there will likely be exceptions in cases where improving security sector governance in fragile states or fighting extremism faces trade-offs with other objectives. Attempting to balance these trade-offs may run afoul of those who wish for more drastic measures against the world’s more repressive states.

Perhaps most important, insight from academic research, as well as lessons learned from the experience of organizations like the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), strongly suggest that assistance is not a potent enough tool to significantly impact how our partners assess their interests. The U.S. will not make much progress with governments who deem repression, corruption, or non-meritocratic recruitment policies in the security sector essential to maintaining power.

Instead, the United States should adopt a long-term view, one that accepts that change both in U.S. and partner-country policies will be iterative and incremental.

Low-Hanging Fruit: Demonstration Projects and Reform Efforts

As the U.S. seeks to find its footing in a rapidly changing global order, security cooperation and assistance is receiving increased scrutiny by policymakers. One strategy to increase its effectiveness would be to enact a graduated, compact-based and partner-led approach in a pilot country or countries to enable iterative learning and adaptation that could be applied to more comprehensive reforms. Embassies, rather than authorities from Washington, could be given the lead in negotiating security assistance compacts and in enforcing conditionalities. Building on lessons learned from the NATO Partnerships for Peace and the MCC, these compacts should at a minimum include:

  • A joint agreement between the U.S. and the partner country on what is to be funded;
  • Predictable, long-term funding;
  • The inclusion of civilians and civil society in negotiations and oversight; and
  • Rigorous evaluation that holds both the U.S. and its partners accountable for results.

If passed by Congress, the countries selected as a result of the Global Fragility Acts (GFA) could provide ideal candidates. The GFA legislation would apply the broader preventive framework to U.S. government diplomatic and development partnerships recommended by the Task Force to a number of fragile states, making them appealing candidates to pilot the approach to security sector assistance as well.

Other opportunities may exist to enact the Task Force’s recommendations in future National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA). The FY 2017-2019 NDAA consolidated authorities and made assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and institution-building mandatary components of all Defense Department managed security cooperation. These crucial reforms need continued support both from Congress and in the executive branch to ensure that they become meaningfully institutionalized.

Similar reforms of State Department managed security assistance could be on the horizon, and, in addition to mirroring the reforms in the Defense Department, may provide opportunities to implement a graduated approach to security assistance.

A crucial enabling piece of the Task Force’s recommendations is the creation of a security sector governance index. An index could help set potential eligibility criteria for compacts, measure progress, and be used to enforce a policy of graduated assistance. The index should inform, but not determine, decisions that should also draw on qualitative, contextual, and politically sensitive information. Much of the information needed to develop an index already exists: What is needed are the resources to construct and regularly update the index and further research to determine the exact data requirements needed for each of the index’s potential uses. Ideally, the index would be independently managed, rather than directly sponsored by the U.S. government.

The Research and Policy Frontier

There are several aspects of U.S. security cooperation and assistance to fragile states that the Task Force’s report did not address. One is the need to share the international burden with U.S. allies for improving security sector governance in fragile states. Even as it seeks to reform how it manages security cooperation in fragile states, the United States can and should be asking more of its allies.

In addition, security sectors in fragile states ultimately should be held accountable to their people, and not just the United States. Civilian legislators and civil society actors should be included as parties to security assistance compacts between donors and fragile states, as well as in the assessment, monitoring and evaluation frameworks of all security sector assistance. Personal interactions between security forces and citizens are among the most crucial determinants of recruitment into extremist organizations. Therefore, fostering greater cooperation and trust between security forces and the citizens they are supposed to protect should be one of the overriding aims of security assistance.

Finally, U.S. security cooperation and assistance are biased toward working with partner militaries. Police, intelligence, militia, and community defense groups are the most frequent points of contact between the government and citizens in fragile states, yet the United States does not possess dedicated capabilities or the expertise to systematically work with such groups. The United States should consider how it could develop such capabilities, but it should do so with caution and due diligence. Any new approaches should focus on improving trust between civilian security forces and citizens, not reproducing the tactically driven approach that is unfortunately all-too characteristic of U.S. interventions in the security sector.

Without better security sector governance, fragile states will struggle to improve the effectiveness of their security forces and to temper extremism. Security forces that exploit and abuse citizens breach what is perhaps the first and most sacred obligation a state has toward its people. This is why the United States should place longer term improvements in security sector governance—and not short-term tactical success on the battlefield—at the heart of its approach toward security cooperation and assistance in fragile states.

Dr. Nathaniel Allen is a policy advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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