The Pentagon Spends Indiscriminately to, Ahem, ‘Fight Terrorism’

Uncategorized May 25, 2016 0

Malian and Senegalese troops undergo training overseen by U.S. forces. U.S. Defense Department photo Washington isn’t being very careful with billions of dollars in...
Malian and Senegalese troops undergo training overseen by U.S. forces. U.S. Defense Department photo

Washington isn’t being very careful with billions of dollars in military aidUnexamined Risks


Since 9/11, the U.S. government has overseen a massive expansion in Pentagon-funded aid to foreign security forces — from $800 million in 2001 to more than $10.8 billion in 2015.

The bulk of this funding to arm and train partner security forces focuses on counterterrorism efforts around the world, and for many national security experts the expansion of this aid has remained relatively unquestioned.

But a string of reports and articles over the past year have highlighted serious concerns with the U.S. Defense Department’s aid efforts — including a surprising sloppiness when it comes to evaluating the risks associated with all these giveaways.

While U.S. security assistance used to be led almost exclusively by the State Department, the Defense Department is increasingly taking the lead. In 2015, the Pentagon led the design and implementation of more than 50 different military and police assistance programs in more than 180 countries.

By contrast, the State Department leads just five or six efforts. A large proportion of the Pentagon’s military aid goes to some of the most fragile and repressive governments — Afghanistan, Iraq, Mauritania, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uganda, among others.

As the think tank RAND reported in 2015, U.S. security assistance to fragile countries in Africa poses several serious risks. These risks include undermining legitimate governance, exacerbating the balance of power within the state, giving weapons to non-state actors instead of legitimate sources and abetting human rights violations.

African security experts have also highlighted a moral hazard risk. Since transnational terrorism is seldom high on foreign country’s security concerns, they’ve said there is an incentive for some countries to deliberately slow their efforts against terrorism — in order to keep the aid flowing.

Despite these elevated risks, the RAND report indicated that “[t]he systematic and documented identification and monitoring of risk is almost completely absent” from decision-making in the security assistance process.”

The report mentioned that the Defense Department frequently defers such assessments to the State Department. However, the State Department often goes about the assessments in an informal or, worse, intuitive way.

Equally concerning, a Center for New America Security report indicated that “the U.S. has never done any systematic evaluation of whether security assistance is being used effectively.”

Part of the problem appears to be that the U.S. Congress doesn’t require the Pentagon to regularly assess and evaluate its military and police aid. While elements within the Defense Department are pushing for more comprehensive evaluations of U.S. security cooperation efforts, some experts have indicated that a change in Pentagon culture may be needed.

U.S. Army troops train Afghan security forces. U.S. Defense Department photo

In the past, U.S. security assistance was often seen to be more about building relationships and gaining access to territory instead of building effective foreign fighting forces, and as a result, more detailed evaluations weren’t needed.

In some cases, Congress doesn’t even require the Pentagon to report on how much aid it’s giving to a region or country through some of the lesser-known Defense Department security cooperation programs. The Congressional Research Service, after attempting to assess whether specific programs were meeting their objectives, stated that “identifying how much money DoD actually spends on [building partner capability] activities is nearly impossible at present.”

So what are some of the potential effects of this lack of risk-assessment? One concern is a lack of effective coordination between the State and Defense Departments. According to Politico, the State Department discovered from media reports that the Pentagon had provided aid to a controversial Cambodian army general.

In some cases, the Defense Department isn’t even coordinating with itself. In Liberia, one Pentagon program started an effort to assist the Liberians in creating a national security strategy, only to learn that another Pentagon program had been working on the same project for several years.

Wasteful spending is a key concern. In 2015, The New York Times published a detailed story calling into question tens of billions of dollars the Pentagon spent to build effective security forces to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria and Yemen.

After the Defense Department provided more than $20 billion in military aid to build a fighting force in Iraq, for instance, the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of a much smaller number of ISIS fighters in 2014.

While there are many factors that played a role in failures in the above countries, it’s likely that more detailed risk-assessments could have steered the Pentagon away from some ineffective approaches, such as ignoring efforts to build accountable security institutions.

African security specialists have also raised concerns about other U.S. security assistance efforts to combat terrorism. In Kenya, they’ve indicated that U.S. aid and pressure to fight terrorism has led to an increase in human rights abuses by Kenyan security forces targeting the country’s Muslim minority.

There have been concerns that U.S. military aid to Mauritania’s security regime provided an important crutch that permitted a previous regime to take “undemocratic actions.” In Niger, the U.S.-trained Niger Rapid Intervention Company reportedly defected to Tuareg insurgents.

To help address the transparency and coordination issues, Congress could require the Defense Department to submit an annual, public budget justification similar to the one the State Department provides to lawmakers each year. Within the State Department report is a summary of the main goals of security aid for each country and the various security aid authorities the State Department plans to use support these goals.

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Since the Defense Department already provides budget justifications for many of its sensitive security cooperation efforts such as through the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, these reports can be completed without compromising security.

Congress could also support the Defense and State Departments’ efforts to improve their risk assessments. The Defense Department has already funded evaluations of some programs, but there needs to be a much more systematic effort. This could be accomplished by stipulating that two or three percent of the overall budget for a U.S. security assistance authority should be used to conduct these assessments and evaluations.

RAND has published several useful reports that lay a strong foundation for identifying and monitoring risk and potential negative impacts. The Pentagon could also learn from USAID’s evaluation efforts.

While these efforts would certainly not prevent the problems mentioned above from ever happening again, they could help the Pentagon learn from its mistakes faster — and correct problems before they become major failures.

They could help the United States eliminate duplicative security assistance efforts, improve coordination within the U.S. government and other foreign governments and ensure that U.S. government funds are focused on the right priorities within the country.

The Pentagon would also broaden the groups of people able to review U.S. security assistance efforts and provide Pentagon evaluators useful information.

Without such efforts, much of the money the Pentagon spends to fight terrorism may be wasted — and in some cases counterproductive.

This story originally appeared at Security Assistance Monitor.

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