Senior Trump administration officials have proposed sending 3,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Their mission? Advise and assist Afghan security forces.
The Obama administration’s plan was much the same. So is the U.S. strategy for Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Ukraine, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mauritania and many other locations around the world. In all these places, U.S. strategy relies on Security Force Assistance (SFA): using a small U.S. force to advise, train, equip and assist local allies to do the difficult ground fighting that Americans would rather avoid.
There’s a reason Security Force Assistance is so common. But it rarely works.
Why is SFA so widely used? The United States faces threats to interests that are real but often limited. U.S. officials feel the need to do something, but they are unwilling to send tens of thousands of American troops. SFA’s low cost and small footprint makes it look like a cheap solution that seems appropriate to the stakes.
But results are often disappointing. The massive train-and-equip program in Iraq after 2003 yielded an army that dissolved facing Islamic State forces in the June 2014 offensive in Mosul. SFA operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan fared little better.
That’s no accident. As we show in our recently published paper in the Journal of Strategic Studies, the low-cost SFA strategy rarely succeeds. Only when the host nation’s interests align very closely with Washington’s — and when the U.S. presence is both substantial and conditional — can SFA really substitute for a larger U.S. troop deployment.
Why Security Force Assistance often goes to waste
The United States rarely conducts SFA missions in Switzerland or Canada — because allies like these don’t need it. Rather, SFA usually goes to weak states with corrupt, unrepresentative regimes whose military shortcomings gave rise to the need for assistance in the first place.
This weakness also leads to a mismatch between U.S. interests and those of SFA recipients. Americans are looking for a local partner to fight an external threat, such as the Islamic State. But local leaders are typically more concerned with threats to their own rule from other elites within their state, especially the risk of a coup d’etat from dissatisfied officers or militia leaders.
SFA partners thus have a strong incentive to use U.S. aid to bolster their own internal security, rather than for whatever military operations that the United States wants.
Host regimes therefore often look the other way when their officers sell U.S. supplies on the black market, pocket the U.S.-provided salaries of “ghost soldiers,” use U.S.-provided equipment to settle scores with rival groups or extort protection payments from local civilians. This kind of corruption buys the loyalty of heavily armed elites who might otherwise be rivals, and it protects the regime’s internal political position. But it saps military readiness and undermines combat motivation: Why should Afghan or Iraqi soldiers risk their lives in combat for corrupt, cronyist officers who care only about lining their own pockets? The result is a military designed for internal politics, not for effectiveness against the external enemies that Americans care about.
Security Force Assistance can work, but only if the stars align and the conditions are right
In our paper, we looked at three historical examples where the United States sent significant security force assistance: Iraq from 2003-2014, El Salvador from 1979-1992, and South Korea from 1949-1953. These examples show just how hard it is to pull off SFA successfully.
In Iraq, the United States invested more than $25 billion on the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), deployed thousands of trainers and advisers, and by 2007 fielded more than 100,000 other U.S. troops to provide security until the ISF could take over. Yet the resulting Iraqi military collapsed in June 2014 when challenged by numerically inferior Islamic State fighters in Mosul. How could all this assistance produce so little real military power?
Here’s the problem: The U.S. and Iraqi governments had two very different visions for the ISF. The United States wanted trained military technocrats who could defeat the insurgency. The Iraqi regimes of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki, however, saw that kind of ISF as a danger to their power, not an asset. The regime preferred a corrupt military it could control to a professionalized one it could not. All that U.S. effort thus created a military that was well-suited to Jaafari’s or Maliki’s internal political requirements, but a very poor tool for defeating ISIS.
The Salvadoran civil war, by contrast, is often seen as an SFA success story. Between 1979 and 1982, $5 billion in U.S. aid and fewer than 200 American advisers helped the Salvadoran government survive the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front insurgency. And U.S. SFA certainly was helpful. Without it, the government could well have fallen.
Yet a closer look reveals that the results of the U.S. investment in SFA were only modest. The Salvadoran regime shared the U.S. goal of preventing its overthrow, but the regime also wanted to preserve its internal position. Hence the regime permitted just enough military improvement to keep the FMLN from toppling the government, but never enough for the army to get proficient enough to deliver a knockout blow. As a result, the war lapsed into a long, bloody deadlock that ended only when the Cold War came to a close. The net result was a real — but limited — payoff for SFA.
The one major SFA success we examine — Korea — is the exception that proves just how hard it is to do effectively. When North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, a weak, corrupt South Korean army collapsed. For South Korean President Syngman Rhee, the threat of outside conquest by North Korea now posed a more immediate threat than internal violence. His personal interests now aligned with that of the Americans in an urgent need to defeat a strong external enemy.
The United States rapidly expanded its aid, but it also monitored its use and threatened to withdraw assistance from Korean units that didn’t professionalize to U.S. standards. Since Rhee was more threatened by North Korean conquest than by a coup from within, he accepted these conditions and permitted politically risky military reforms that Iraqi and Salvadoran elites resisted. The result was major improvement in South Korean military proficiency by 1953. But the Korean case shows just how much the stars must align for SFA to work.
Sending more usually isn’t the answer
U.S. officials and politicians often see SFA as engineering rather than politics: Just send enough military aid and an ally’s forces will improve. When SFA falls short, as it often does, this implies the aid wasn’t enough — and so critics call for more.
But this view misses the key fact that SFA often directly affects local politics. SFA is unlikely to work unless the U.S. invests enough to gain leverage over its local host, and puts conditions on that aid to help ensure that the partner’s military really does improve.
On balance, then, SFA does not really offer a free lunch. Where limited U.S. interests mean that the U.S. will not deploy large numbers of its own troops, SFA will not yield major results from minor investments. For the foreseeable future, small footprints mean small payoffs for the United States.
Stephen Biddle is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Julia Macdonald is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and an assistant professor at the University of Denver.
Ryan Baker is a PhD candidate at George Washington University.