The Case for Security Cooperation Abroad

"International-security dynamics and declining budgets make security cooperation more necessary than ever."

When legions of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants poured across eastern Syria into western Iraq last summer, the Iraqi army evaporated, despite over $20 billion in U.S. training and equipment spent to build it over eleven years. Doubts have been raised about whether the U.S.-trained Afghan National Security Forces will effectively provide stability following the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. With such a questionable track record, why should the United States continue to invest in security cooperation with foreign militaries?

The United States pursues security cooperation in 148 countries around the world to develop partner nations’ capabilities, build relationships and interoperability and secure peacetime and contingency access to critical air, land and sea nodes to protect U.S. national-security interests. Security cooperation can take the form of delivering training and equipment, conducting joint exercises and exchanges and advising ministries of defense. In terms of scale, it can range from building a military from scratch to providing niche capabilities to advising partners engaged in a war fight.

Even on the low end of the spectrum, security cooperation can be difficult and imperfect; the complexity only grows with the greater scale of engagement—the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were the largest security cooperation undertakings of the last seventy years. Frank dialogue between the United States and its security partners helps balance asymmetries of information and expectations, but gaps will remain and should be acknowledged. Some partners express frustrations with the pace of U.S. equipment deliveries. Some political leaders fear the risk of empowering their militaries beyond elite units that they can personally control. Moreover, institutional corruption and lack of prioritization of training and sustainment within partner nations can slow their development of capable forces through security-cooperation programs.

The United States and its partners often have difficulty synchronizing security-cooperation activities with political objectives, relying on security cooperation as a panacea or as a quick solution at the onset of a crisis, rather than addressing institutional or political problems that underlie the crisis. Whereas the United States views security cooperation as a tool to achieve broader U.S. objectives, a partner may view security cooperation as an entitlement. The United States may invest considerably in a partner military, but it may not yield leverage to influence partner behavior to achieve broader U.S. foreign-policy objectives. For example, $1.3 billion in annual security assistance and cash flow–financing to Egypt has not enabled Washington to prevent Cairo from doubling down on authoritarianism in the last four years.

U.S. security cooperation works best when there is shared recognition of the problem and the partner owns the solution, and the partner is able to absorb and retain the material and training provided. While challenges certainly remain, the United States largely achieved its security objectives in “Plan Colombia,” a program specifically designed to combat narco-trafficking through training, advising and equipping Colombian security forces, in large part because the Colombian government took ownership and drove the initiative to improve the security situation. U.S. security cooperation enabled the Colombian security forces to grow, modernize and professionalize, combat armed insurgents and expand the government’s territorial control.

The United States has a particularly mixed record of using security cooperation to attempt to stabilize fragile states. It makes these investments based on the premise that it will not have to fight as many wars if it builds the capabilities and capacity of indigenous security forces.