Trump and Security Assistance

by Seth Binder

U.S. security assistance has become one of the major foreign policy tools of the U.S. government since 9/11 to combat terrorism abroad, but this assistance is increasingly criticized for failing to achieve its objectives and in some cases exacerbating problems. At a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) event last Wednesday, authors and commentators of a new report called “Remodeling Partner Capacity: Making U.S. Counterterrorism Security Assistance More Effective” laid out several important reasons why this assistance has often been ineffective.

According to the authors and government representatives at the event, the U.S. government’s failure to consistently assess, monitor, and evaluate (AM&E) U.S. security assistance has been a critical problem. Thomas W. Ross, deputy assistant secretary of defense for security cooperation, mentioned that in the past evaluations have been sporadic and focused on the number of students trained or pieces of equipment provided (outputs) rather than the skills learned and objectives achieved (outcomes).

Without a picture of how foreign security forces are using or misusing U.S. aid, it is much harder to know what works and what doesn’t. Ross announced that the Department of Defense will soon be rolling out its new policy requiring all security assistance to implement AM&E. But this pronouncement comes over three-and-a-half years after the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Directive 23 on U.S. security sector assistance, which included an effort to establish structures for more effective AM&E.

Ross and other panelists indicated that the lack of focus on AM&E was in part a result of a U.S. government understanding that U.S. security assistance was aimed more at building relationships with foreign countries than about increasingly military capabilities. In an assessment of U.S. counterterrorism aid to Jordan, the report authors describe how ensuring that the country remains a strong and reliable U.S. partner was the primary focus of all security aid, and this focus led to very little scrutiny of actual counterterrorism aid. This lack of scrutiny also resulted in the United States under-focusing on needed aid to improve internal stability and reduce the chances of terrorist recruitment in the country.

Daniel Silverberg, national security advisor to Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-D), was critical of his own branch of government in pushing the State and Defense Department to improve its security assistance practices. He urged Congress to have a more strategic view of U.S. security assistance and hold the U.S. government more accountable for producing better AM&E. Fortunately, Silverberg indicated that there was growing support in Congress for supporting AM&E for security assistance activities as well the need to establish clear goals and objectives of the aid.

Two authors of the report, Stephen Tankel and Alice Hunt Friend, also emphasized that U.S. security aid is overly focused on the military at the expense of aid to build more accountable and effective law enforcement. In Kenya, for example, efforts to improve Kenya’s law enforcement are critical to addressing the counterterrorism threat and to reducing the chances that marginalized communities will support terrorists. However, U.S. aid to law enforcement in the country has received much less focus. And “money sends the signal” of what the United States thinks is important.

Before the election results last Tuesday, the event had the makings of a future Clinton administration outline for U.S. security assistance policy. CEO of CNAS Michèle Flournoy was the presumed future secretary of defense for a Clinton presidency, and although she was not on the panel she did provide the opening remarks for the event.

With a new Trump administration though, ongoing efforts to reform U.S. security assistance may be in jeopardy. The panelists were cautiously optimistic, though, that security assistance is low enough on the president-elect’s agenda and technocratic enough that the new administration may not take up the issue, allowing it to remain staff and bureaucrat driven.

But the future secretaries of state and defense have not yet been announced, and during the campaign Trump was vague and contradictory on the topic of security assistance. The president-elect has shown contempt for U.S. assistance, even saying in reference to assistance to Syria and Iraq: “the enemy has most of the new ones [U.S. arms] we sent over that they captured.” Since the election, he has reiterated this position, further indicating that he is likely to cut assistance to Syrian rebels. However, he has also expressed a desire to “knock the hell out of” the Islamic State but is hesitant to reinstitute an Iraq-style invasion.

The event’s discussion was nuanced and reflective, and included forward-thinking recommendations for U.S. security assistance. But like other important issues for foreign policy, what the president-elect will do once he takes office remains a mystery.

Seth Binder is the program manager and research associate at the Center for International Policy for the Security Assistance Monitor program and covers the Middle East and North Africa. He is the co-author of “The Moroccan Spring and King Mohammed VI’s Economic Policy Agenda: Evaluating the First Dozen Years,” a chapter in The Birth of the Arab Citizen and the Changing of the Middle East.

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