Building Militaries in Fragile States

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Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States. Mara E. Karlin. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Building partner militaries has been an important tool of American foreign policy throughout modern history. Building Militaries in Fragile States brings to light the intricacies of this often underappreciated policy tool and is an important book for policymakers and practitioners in the realms of international affairs and security assistance. Dr. Mara Karlin, who currently teaches strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, has a wealth of academic and professional experience in these fields and recently served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development.

Karlin argues U.S. efforts to build partner militaries are often misguided to the extent that the U.S. looks to these efforts as quick solutions to complex problems. This touches on the policy, strategy, and approach of these efforts. Too often, the U.S. is focused on providing training and equipment to partner militaries, ignoring the development of the institutions and the processes necessary to responsibly sustain newly provided capabilities. Karlin stresses the United States often views training and equipping foreign militaries as an easy solution to a complex problem, but does little to transform them. To be effective at helping partner militaries establish internal defense the U.S. must become deeply involved in the partner state’s sensitive military affairs, and the role of antagonistic external actors must be mitigated. In light of the nearly twenty-year effort to create stability in Afghanistan and the ongoing instability in Iraq, this book makes a compelling argument for what is required to build partner military capacity.

According to Karlin, the U.S. has a poor record when it comes to building partner capacity. Building Militaries in Fragile States is structured around four case studies over a 60-year period detailing U.S. support to Greece’s military immediately following World War II, South Vietnam’s military throughout the 1950s, Lebanon’s military in the early 1980s, and Lebanon’s military again in the early 2000s. Comparing and contrasting case studies over such an extended period and from different regions of the world adds legitimacy to her argument. Although focusing on the military instrument of national power, Karlin shows how diplomacy, economics, and information weave together to inform policy decisions and highlights the importance of a whole of government approach.

As policymakers are increasingly focused on the challenges posed by great-power competitors such as China and Russia, less time and fewer resources are available to address the challenges of fragile states.

Karlin rightly identifies that building partner militaries in fragile states remains an important and necessary topic. As policymakers are increasingly focused on the challenges posed by great-power competitors such as China and Russia, less time and fewer resources are available to address the challenges of fragile states. As a result, taking the time to properly plan and execute building partner military strategies is more urgent now than ever before to address the challenges of fragile states and avoid unnecessary U.S. military intervention.

One of the major arguments advanced in this work is the belief that more is not the answer; instead the United States must focus on the how. For example, the three-year effort to rebuild Greece’s military during the Greek civil war cost the United States just over $350 million which is estimated at $3.5 billion in current dollars.[1] Conversely, a recent estimate by the Costs of War Project claims the United States spent some $5.9 trillion on post-9/11 wars between 2001 and 2018.[2] Of the four case studies, Karlin believes the effort to build the capacity of the Greek military was the only success. In this case, the U.S. had an intimate relationship with the senior leaders of the Greek military and government, which enabled the U.S. to influence personnel assignments and the cooperation of the Greeks to restructure the military as needed through various training and equipping programs.

In each case, Karlin argues the overall success of U.S. efforts was also directly tied to the role of external actors who challenged U.S. efforts to build partner military capacity. One need not be a historian to know that the U.S. efforts to build the capacity of the South Vietnamese Army in the 1950s did not turn out as planned. According to Karlin, the war could have evolved differently had the U.S. emphasized establishing a force focused on internal defense rather than external threats and been more involved in the sensitive military affairs of South Vietnam.

While she is correct in identifying what is needed to build partner capacity, Karlin downplays the complexity of involvement in the sensitive military affairs of a partner nation. At the end of the book, she emphasizes the importance of influencing military structures and personnel. She leaves the reader wanting more in understanding how to go about it, though, a subject on which she can offer more insights than many based on her years of experience. Mandated by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), every military assistance program requires some form of institutional capacity building, along with human rights training. These requirements are meant to ensure U.S. government-provided resources are part of a sustainable capability, and not just a one-off act of security cooperation. Without a doubt, being involved in the sensitive military affairs of a foreign state is the most challenging, and often the most necessary, aspect of building partner militaries.

Although well-intentioned, partners often prefer to receive training and equipping at the tactical or operational levels, but will dismiss or outright resist attempts focused on defense institution building or other institutional reforms. Partner nations often resist such efforts, because reforming defense institutions could jeopardize existing power structures. Moreover, partners are cautious of foreign involvement, which in Karlin’s view are rife with colonial undertones.[3]  Unfortunately, being involved in the sensitive military affairs of partner countries will be increasingly challenging as nations are often open to other partners for support, such as Russia and China, who often focus on the economic nature of military support rather than reforming institutions for efficiency.

The Texas National Security Review recently held a roundtable discussion of Dr. Karlin’s book, with panelists Walter Ladwig III, Loren DeJonge Schulman, and Tommy Ross, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation.[4] Although their views generally glossed over the challenges of involvement in the sensitive military affairs of a partner nation, the panel found Karlin’s work an important contribution to an underappreciated subject. The gathering of such experts, thanks to Karlin’s study, shows increased attention to the importance of building partner militaries, and the fact that such activities are not going away as a policy tool.

This book largely focuses on insurgencies and internal defense within a partner nation, and more research on how building partner militaries is conducted in the shadow of great power competition, or even a more detailed look at efforts during the Cold War, could help provide better insight and lessons on how to effectively build partner militaries and alliances. Although this book is focused on U.S. efforts, Karlin notes that examining how partner nations or competing powers build partner militaries, or even how to build violent non-state actors, such as Iran's efforts in building Hezbollah and Hamas, could provide useful insight and perspective that could be applied to future U.S. efforts.

A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5 Sahel in February 2018. (Wikimedia)

Recent French experience countering extremist groups throughout Africa, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is one example of a military partnering with the security forces of developing countries to counter threats to internal stability. In this case, the French have partnered with the security forces of Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania—referred to as the G5 Sahel—but the effort also involves support from British and German forces.[5] From the competitor’s side, Russian involvement in Syria not only forced the international community to deal with Russia in spite of increased economic sanctions levied against the country, but necessitated Russian involvement in any form of negotiated settlement. It will take time until more details of the extent of Russian involvement are known, but understanding their actions helps one understand their playbook and potentially future actions. 

Outside of think tank and government publications, there are not many sources for understanding the challenges of building partner militaries. While products from these think tanks and the various military doctrine and policies are useful resources, there remains a dearth of academic research on building partner militaries, in spite of the fact that such efforts have been a cornerstone of U.S. and ally efforts for general purpose forces across the Middle East and elsewhere since 2001.[6] Due to the inherently secretive nature of military operations, particularly activities conducted in foreign nations, few nations are openly transparent with their efforts, making research challenging and leaving one to rely on open source reporting rather than government-provided statistics. While the U.S. makes every effort to be transparent with efforts to build partner militaries, few other countries do.[7] As the U.S. continues to conduct various partner capacity building missions, whether as a knee-jerk response to a crisis and the resulting desire to do something or a deliberate effort such as restructuring organizations like the U.S. Army’s establishment of Security Force Assistance Brigades, Karlin’s work lays the groundwork for novice and expert alike to understand the complexities of building partner militaries.

A critical question she highlights is this: What if completely transforming a military is not an option? The U.S. may not have the resources to commit to such a resource-intensive effort, or the partner may be unwilling to allow the U.S. to become involved in their sensitive military affairs based on culture, trust, or interests. There are a handful of other reasons why transforming a military may not be viable, but that does not mean the U.S. should completely walk away. In what Karlin terms light security sector reform, there is still utility in engaging in areas of mutual cooperation, enabling access, and potentially professionalizing partner forces. In these situations, it is essential that the U.S. temper expected outcomes, knowing the end result may not be a partner force that has become a mirror-image of the U.S. military.

There is no silver bullet that guides efforts to build partner militaries. It remains a multi-dimensional problem that requires dedicated time for professionals to properly plan, and it must be an inter-agency effort. Policymakers and practitioners alike need to understand the long-term costs and implications of such efforts and carefully scrutinize programs to build partner militaries. Finally, one must consider why building a partner military is worth the careful consideration that Dr. Karlin proposes. If executed poorly, the results can be costly in terms of blood, treasure, and influence. Or, consider the case study of Greece in which a deliberate and synchronized effort created lasting effects and partnerships, regional stability, the capacity to send ground and air forces to the Korean War, and Greece’s eventual membership in NATO. Such success stories emphasize the goal and potential benefit of building partner capacity programs, which is to create stability and develop the partners of today into the allies of tomorrow.

Matthew J. Kuhlman is a U.S. Army Sub-Saharan Africa Foreign Area Officer who served assignments in Uganda, Botswana, and Washington D.C. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Williamson, Samuel H, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, April 2019.

[2] Crawford, Neta C. United States Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019:

$5.9 Trillion Spent and Obligated. (November 2018)

[3] Karlin, p. 199

[4] Texas National Security Review’s Book Review Roundtable: Building Militaries in Fragile States,

[5] G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance,

[6] A few of the oft-cited resources for understanding security assistance are the Stockholm International

Peace Research Institute (SIPRI); the U.S. Congress’ own think tank – the Congressional Research Service (CRS); and, the Security Assistance Monitor, Relevant policies include, but are not limited to, Department of Defense Directive 5205.82, “Defense Institution Building”; DoD Directive 5132.03, “DoD Policy and Responsibilities Relating to Security Cooperation”; DODI 5132.14, “Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation Policy for the Security Cooperation Enterprise”; Joint Publication 3-20, and service-specific publications in support of Security Cooperation.

[7] The U.S. makes every effort to be openly transparent with foreign assistance to include publishing annual budget requests and justifications. Publicly available information is available from numerous government organizations to include the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, as well as non-profit organizations that monitor the activities of the U.S. government, industry, or other organizations.

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