Partner Capacity Building Needs a Serious Re-Examination

By Michael Miklaucic
October 21, 2021

The shocking and precipitate dissolution of the Afghan National Defense Forces in August signaled not just the death knell of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government but revealed a profound flaw in U.S. defense planning. The idea that foreign defense forces trained, equipped, and coached by American forces can hold their own against determined adversaries must be rigorously re-examined.

One of the principal concepts shaping the Coalition’s anti-Taliban war was that we were preparing the Afghan national security forces to defeat the common enemy and secure the country. Over $88 billion were spent in this effort, and many thousands of Western forces took part in this multi-national effort. Lives were lost, but in the end, it was all in vain.

Nevertheless, current U.S. thinking assumes that unless the homeland itself is attacked, partner forces will bear much of the common defense burden abroad so that the U.S. will be spared the costs in blood and treasure alone. The concept is embedded in legislation as well as planning and strategic documents and has been a bedrock of American military thinking dating back to U.S. military advisors training South Korean troops before the Korean War broke out.

The concept has many aspects and goes by many names, including building partner capacity, defense institution building, and security force assistance. The principle is the same; helping our partner nations' ability to autonomously maintain their security and stability. Other purposes for providing security force assistance to partner nations are to gain access, influence, and operability, increase military sales, or keep vital production lines open. But these are diplomatic or economic concerns primarily.

An entire institutional architecture has emerged to support this concept, complete with six security force assistance brigades and a DoD Security Cooperation University, setting aside the traditional global network of defense attaches and security cooperation officers in U.S. embassies.

This concept gained momentum in the crucible of the global war on terror when the battlespace was the jagged mountains of Afghanistan, the sun-blasted deserts of Iraq, or the barren, under-governed spaces of the Sahel. Afghanistan has revealed the flaws in this concept.

The failure of the Afghan national security forces was the result of many factors, several of which are not unique to Afghanistan but are indeed common in less stable states. We should be concerned, though, that if the concept of building autonomous security capacity cannot hold up against the savage but impoverished and technologically disadvantaged insurgent forces in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or the Sahel, we cannot expect it to hold up better in the context of strategic competition with China or Russia.

What is clearly needed is a rigorous and no-punches-pulled re-examination of the basic principles guiding this effort, beginning with how we select partner recipients of security force assistance. We cannot implement effective programs in every country. Therefore, we must undertake an unsentimental process of strategic prioritization and assign flag officers or high-ranking civilians to oversee security assistance programs in specific countries or regions, ensuring unity of effort and accountability. Some argue that any country we neglect will soon be home to a Chinese base. Perhaps that means we must sometimes make difficult decisions about which countries are vital to our national security but can accept a Chinese base. Perhaps we can accept Malawi is becoming a Chinese client state: we cannot allow Jordan to become one. Choices are hard but inevitable.

The next step should be to carefully determine what a priority partner's armed forces need to achieve what we—and critically important, what they—want it to achieve (recognizing these may not always be identical). Then, what resources, both human and material, are needed to bridge that gap. Before showtime, the last step is sourcing the effort; what allies, agencies, funding, skill sets, and equipment are needed, and for how long. Even the most straightforward security force assistance programs are vastly more complicated, but the basic sequence is strategic prioritization, diagnostic analysis, program design, sourcing, and then finally implementation. All this, bearing in mind the implementation may take many years.

At this historical inflection point, the last thing the U.S should do is give up on security force assistance because of the failures in Afghanistan or Iraq. Helping our partners to become autonomously secure is strategically sound. But the historical experience—including not just the failure in Afghanistan, but the successful cases such as the Philippines and Colombia—must be studied, and undertake a rigorous analysis of the practice. From such a study, we may learn if there are prerequisite attributes in a country without which success is not possible or with which success is impossible. If so, we will have to settle on the even narrower set of countries of vital national security importance and where a successful outcome is possible.

Michael Miklaucic is a Senior Fellow at National Defense University and the Editor-in-Chief of PRISM, NDU’s journal of national and international security affairs.

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