Is America Training Too Many Foreign Armies?

Events in Mali show why it’s time to take a fresh look at the Pentagon’s military assistance programs.

Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), made an unusually blunt admission last week regarding the failure of U.S. military training to instill respect for human rights in a Malian army now accused of massacring Arabs and Tuaregs as it fights its way north into rebel-held territory. "We didn't spend probably the requisite time focusing on values, ethics, and a military ethos," Ham acknowledged, saying that most U.S. training for the Malians focused on tactics, strategy, and "technical matters."

Since 1985, the United States has sponsored approximately 156 Malian military officers and non-commissioned officers at U.S. professional military schools and given them training focused on professionalizing the military forces. Over the past three years, this funding has reached at least roughly $400,000 annually, and it is possible U.S. intelligence agencies have also funneled in support as well. Sadly, Mali is hardly an isolated case of U.S. military assistance programs operating with dangerously little oversight and lacking a compelling central rationale. There are many examples of successful U.S. military training programs, but lots of headline cases that have gone badly wrong over the years -- from training Indonesian troops that carried out atrocities in East Timor to the billions poured into the Egyptian military to the scores of tainted graduates from the School of the Americas that ran riot in Central America during the 1980s.

In looking at the patterns of U.S. military assistance the question is not who gets American military aid, but who doesn't. In 2012 the United States delivered bilateral security assistance to 134 countries -- meaning that every country on Earth had about a 75 percent chance of receiving U.S. military aid. Once you weed out places like North Korea and Vatican City, you are pretty much assured of receiving military aid no matter how large or small your country, no matter how democratic or despotic your regime, no matter how lofty or minimal your GDP.

At a time when not a day goes by without Beltway handwringing about the impact of a potential sequester, there has been almost zero discussion of how to better focus U.S. military assistance around clear objectives and direct it to countries where it can make a lasting difference. And these aren't insignificant sums when taken together. The administration requested $9.8 billion in security assistance funding for fiscal year 2013.

Much of this military assistance -- through programs like Foreign Military Financing; International Military Education and Training; Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs; International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement; Peacekeeping Operations; and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund -- is supposed to be overseen by the State Department with the Defense Department doing the heavy lifting of actually delivering aid and training.

The rationale on paper for such assistance is straightforward and usually receives uncritical congressional support. U.S. military aid helps train security forces, finance the purchase of military equipment, bolster the ability of law enforcement to tackle the illegal narcotics trade, and shape cooperation on nonproliferation issues. But more than anything, the Pentagon has always insisted that spreading military assistance so broadly is all about building relationships with fellow militaries -- a cost effective way of establishing contacts who will pick up the phone in a ministry of defense when needed. For those who say U.S. dollars propped up an autocratic military in Egypt, other argue that it was the senior flag relationships between the Pentagon and Cairo that kept the military from opening fire on democratic protesters during the Arab Spring.

But U.S. military aid looks much better on paper than in practice, in large part because it is often delivered as if on autopilot without a reasoned discussion of its merits. The State Department largely offers rubber-stamp approvals, and the Foreign Service currently lacks personnel with the expertise needed to engage in a rigorous debate with the Pentagon about who deserves aid and why. As Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center has argued, the State Department's "internal capacity to plan, budget, and manage these programs needs to be seriously strengthened." This, combined with the general tendency of Congress to treat military spending requests as something just short of a papal writ, has meant that U.S. security assistance programs receive very little oversight.

Equally troubling, military and economic assistance are treated as quite different creatures. For economic assistance, the United States has increasingly insisted that aid recipients at least demonstrate some marginal commitment to democracy and open markets. Not so on the military side, where concerns about corruption, the rule of law, and human rights are treated as something we are too polite to ask about. Indeed, we probably would offer military training to everyone if it were not for the minor restrictions imposed by Senate Democrats like the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military assistance to known thugs and war criminals that violate human rights with impunity. Yes, having military-to-military contacts through U.S. military training and aid is often useful and can build important relations and lasting trust. But it is equally true that the list of U.S.-trained officers that have led coups against their sitting governments is a lengthy one in countries ranging from Honduras to Haiti to the Gambia. Contrary to what Ham's remark suggested, a few months spent studying tactics and logistics in Kansas or Georgia rarely seems to slow down a power-hungry colonel when he is hell bent on toppling the elected government that just threatened to cut his budget.

Underwriting security assistance to countries with autocratic leadership or nations that are of little strategic significance doesn't make much sense. U.S. military aid and training should be concentrated in a far fewer countries rather than being sprinkled all around the globe like fairy dust in hopes that good relations result. Nations should be chosen to receive such military aid and training based on their commitment to reform -- both within the military and within the broader structures of democratic governance, free markets, and respect for human rights. Such aid should be a reward for high-performing countries, not a party favor dispensed at the door.

General Ham sounded genuinely surprised that American-trained officers were up to nefarious deeds. But the accusations of indcriminate killing should not come as much of a surprise. A U.S. trained captain led a coup against the government of Mali just last March -- the first incident that led Ham to think that we might need to take a second look at training.

Take the fun quiz: which of the nations below were slated to receive U.S. military assistance in 2012:

Czech Republic
The Bahamas
Costa Rica
Cape Verde
The Gambia
Sao Tome and Principe
Trinidad and Tobago

Well, all of them, of course.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the full context of General Ham's remarks.

The U.S. Army/Flickr

National Security

Final Draft

Forty years after the end of conscription, can we fix the all-volunteer force?

Forty years ago Sunday -- on January 27, 1973, the same day the United States signed the Paris Accords ending its involvement in the Vietnam War -- then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced that "the Armed Forces henceforth will depend exclusively on volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines." This communiqué ended the draft, and ushered in the era of America's all-volunteer military.

Four decades later, the costs of that decision have come into greater relief. Even with the all-volunteer force, issues of equity and burden-sharing persist. Without the forced march of each generation through military service, the civil-military divide has grown, shaped by self-selection and labor market dynamics. Arguably, the all-volunteer force has made us more likely to use force abroad, by eliminating conscription as a major source of dissent and decoupling the military from most people. And, although it pays the current force well, the United States pays too little attention to signs of stress like military suicides, recruiting and retention woes, and post-discharge employment struggles. If we want to continue to rely on an all-volunteer military, we must do better to serve our troops as well as they serve us.

Both conscription and today's large volunteer force are historical anomalies. For most of the nation's history, we have relied upon a relatively small military, manned (it was almost all men until only recently) almost exclusively by volunteers, as Jim Wright explains in his excellent history of the nation's veterans. Conscription was used sparingly during the Revolutionary War, and then again for the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War period ending in 1973. This model of a small volunteer force, interrupted by conscription during major wars, changed at the end of World War II, with the United States for the first time developing a large permanent military filled with a mix of conscripts and volunteers.

However, this manpower machine broke down during Vietnam. Conscription fanned dissent against the war, and discipline and effectiveness crumbled throughout the force. The desire to end the draft for political reasons, and the military's concerns about efficacy, found a receptive audience in the Nixon administration, including among senior advisors like economist Milton Friedman, who believed an all-volunteer force would be more compatible with the nation's market economy than a conscript one. The Nixon administration convened a high-powered commission on the subject, and used the end of the war to end the draft and create the military we know today.

The all-volunteer force (or what some experts call the "recruited force," because of the role enlistment incentives play in attracting volunteers) solved some of the problems associated with conscription, but not all of them. The question of "who serves when not all serve" remains a pressing one, particularly during time of war, when less than 1 percent of Americans serve on active duty or in the reserves. And it remains unclear whether our nation can make sound strategic decisions unless there is a more direct and personal connection between the Army, the people, and the state -- and particularly between the military and  civilian elites.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have also tested the viability of the all-volunteer force. At the height of the Iraq war, the Army struggled to fill its ranks, with some (including me) suggesting that it was ahistorical and hugely inefficient to generate military manpower for protracted war without conscription. Most of the military's current personnel and readiness problems -- including suicides, combat stress, and financial difficulties for servicemembers -- relate in some way to the decision to use a small volunteer force and cycle it through multiple deployments, rather than raise a large conscription-based army to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, many issues relating to the use (or overuse) of the reserves, and reliance on private contractors, trace back to decisions to fight the last 12 years of war with a small active force.

Some of these stresses will subside after the wars end, but larger questions about the force's sustainability will remain. Manpower costs -- including pay, benefits, healthcare, and housing -- represent the fastest growing part of the Pentagon budget. Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general who chairs the Reserve Forces Policy Board, has famously quipped that the Defense Department is on track to become a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist. The current pay and benefits structure has grown over the past 40 years, and today reflects the need for generous compensation to recruit and retain a force in wartime, as well as the political value of financially supporting the troops. However, its sustainability, like many other parts of the Pentagon budget, has been called into question. The nation can probably afford a smaller force with the current package, or it can afford the current force with lesser compensation (and fewer deployments, too), but it likely can't afford both. The Pentagon must wrestle with these questions during its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and develop better options than the status quo for the president and Congress to consider, such as rebalancing the mixture of active and reserve forces, and addressing the mixture of service members, civilians, and contractors the force relies upon.

As the military evolves, so too will the veteran population. Over the next 30 years, the large conscription-based cohorts of the Cold War and Vietnam War will fade away, giving way to a population that is smaller, more dispersed, and more diverse in terms of age, race, and sex than previous generations of veterans. Based on current utilization and claims rates among post-9/11 veterans, the future veteran population will also place much higher demands on the Department of Veterans Affairs. This will extend the cost of military service for decades to come, and add trillions of dollars to the ultimate bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA has begun planning for this reality, but it must do more, adapting its benefits models, healthcare models, and physical infrastructure to serve the veterans of the future.

The federal government should not do this alone. Thousands of veterans organizations have sprung up over the past 12 years of war. However, these agencies and groups too often duplicate each other's efforts, act ineffectively, or worse, take funds that would be better spent elsewhere. We need a new business model for the broader community that serves veterans -- one that measures performance and rewards those who produce tangible, measurable results.

With the Iraq war over, the Afghanistan war ending, and the nation entering an age of fiscal austerity, the United States will face an array of hard choices about how to best support and sustain the all-volunteer force and its veterans. To begin with, America needs a national strategy to address the needs of the veterans and military community -- to set goals and priorities, and assign agencies, budgets, and personnel to meet those objectives. This strategy must balance our commitments to those who serve with our national resources and means to pay for those commitments. We must also use the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review process, and others like it, to make hard choices about military manpower and force structure. We can no longer rely on wartime excess to conceal the very real tradeoffs between people, hardware, operations, and other parts of our national security enterprise. And if we are to maintain the all-volunteer force model, one which asks so little of our nation but so much of our volunteers, we must find a better model for making decisions about where, when, and why to send our nation's sons and daughters to war.

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