Rethink, but don’t dismiss – on U.S. training of foreign troops

Robert Egnell (MA and PhD KCL War Studies) is Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is the author (with David Ucko) of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and Challenges of Modern War (CUP forthcoming 2013) and Complex Peace Operations and Civil-Military Relations (Routledge 2009)

On Friday last week the Obama White House released a new policy on U.S. Security Sector Assistance. The goals of the new policy are to “help partner nations build the sustainable capacity to address common security challenges; promote partner support for the policies and interests of the United States; strengthen collective security and multinational defense arrangements and organizations; and promote universal values.” The policy is nevertheless released in the midst of an increasingly intense debate regarding the impact of training and assisting activities in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. Then the New York Times published a debate on the topic with the title “A Lesson in Futility for the Pentagon?” However, rather than dismissing these activities, a more interesting discussion should involve the effectiveness of these missions in relation to the conduct and approaches employed, as well as how train and assist activities serve the broader U.S. national security agenda.

The United States has an ambitious and truly global security strategy. This is reflected not only in the deep global deployment of U.S. troops, but also in the vast number of military training and assistance missions globally. Arguing that the efforts to train and assist foreign forces abroad are futile is the wrong approach as there are no viable alternatives without a complete revision of U.S. grand strategy. However, the current conduct of these activities, involving limited political judgment and inappropriate military self-replication, tends to produce results that contradict the main purposes of these activities – to maintain global order at a low cost. Instead, vast sums of money and resources are spent for ineffective foreign forces that in the end reduce the power and legitimacy of America in the international system.

Let us not delude ourselves by thinking this is a particularly new problem. Great powers have sought to build the capacity of friendly foreign security forces for all of recorded history, from Sun Tzu and Thucydides to western trainers in Afghanistan and Africa today. While comparisons between the great powers of today and the empires of the past have clear limits, the key challenges they face are the same – maintaining a functional level of order and stability in vast overseas areas but with a limited enough level of investment to avoid crippling the homeland. Indeed, the reliance on local military and police forces were instrumental in holding the British Empire together.

The United States military, although incredibly impressive and already verging on cripplingly costly to its citizens, still do not have close to enough power and resources to maintain global order without allies, cooperating partners, proxies, and most importantly – political legitimacy. American military assistance and training abroad are therefore necessary features of U.S. policy to maintain global order to serve its purpose. What is true, though, is that the train and assist activities are currently poorly conducted and need a thorough rethink. This text focuses on three main problems:

First, willfully or not, the training and assistance focuses on replicating our own image abroad. The structure, training and equipment look like comfortably familiar, but are often culturally or strategically inappropriate for the local context. Afghanistan is not well served by, and certainly cannot sustain, a vast motorized army with modern equipment. It is the inappropriate tool for internal security and risks being perceived as a source of instability in the region. Moreover, the input is always coopted by the local structures and political forces that maintain the traditional structures of patrimony beneath the recognizable surface. The end results are therefore not what we had in mind, not what is needed and sustainable for the local context, but “hybrid organizations” that no one knows how they will behave and respond to different challenges, but that often disappoint or work against us in the end.

Second, these operations are too often taking place with little regard for the all-important Having friends among officers and ministries of defense around the world really is not useful if they are not accountable to responsible governments. Instead, the local and global populations perceive the training and support activities as support of corrupt or violent regimes, which reflects poorly on the U.S. as a legitimate actor in international politics.

Third, while lip service is paid to long-term commitments and sustainability, there seems to be a clear preference for quick and dirty – clear “accomplishments” and withdrawal.

A more promising approach would involve deep understanding of local socio-political dynamics and work outwards to security force assistance projects that could primarily serve the security interests of the local populations and their governments, and then by extension also serve western interests in that context. Moreover, these activities should be characterized by slow and deliberate employment through long duration activities, by building relationships, ensuring political legitimacy and sustainability. In short, rethink but do not abort.


4 thoughts on “Rethink, but don’t dismiss – on U.S. training of foreign troops

  1. The most famous examples of military training come in wartime – ARVN and ANA – but by definition those are sub-optimal conditions in which to do it. The idea should presumably be to strengthen a military before it is tested. The UK signalled an intention to do more long-term and pre-emptive partnering in the National Security Strategy, though obviously it cannot match the scale of US assistance.

    Can we name effective partnerships of this kind, which have adequately prepared a force (without entirely replacing the officer corps with foreigners, so the imperial British Indian Army is out). My understanding is that British training of Omani forces is said to have been quite effective, but beyond that I’m struggling. Missions to build up the Bosnian and Lebanese armed forces have been partially successful, but certainly not unqualified victories.

  2. Callum Lane says:


    The Indian Army when it was officered by the British still relied heavily on Indian officers. What would be an interesting study is how the British transitioned the Indian Armed Forces in the 1930s and onwards to a state where they could competently operate at all levels without British officers.

    The British concept of Loan Service is an interesting one to look at. British officers are loaned to a foreign army where they become integral to that army’s structure. Still in use, but less so today.

    Recent experience of the rebuilding of the Sierra Leone defence forces is also illustrative.

  3. Pingback: Amateur Hour?: Reframing the Debate over US Security Assistance | Notes on the Periphery

  4. Dave Jesmer says:

    I think your example of the Lebanese Army is a good one in terms of military capability (in the early 1980s), but also points to the necessity, as the author indicates, of ensuring the military being trained is in support of a legitimate government. So despite the increase in capability, the LAF was (is?) unwilling to enforce domestic security on behalf of just one side in their neverending civil conflict.

    Perhaps a better example is that of the Jordanian Armed Forces which, even by Israeli accounts, was a quite capable military in combat in 1967–years after their British trainers had departed.

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