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The Pitfalls of the Pentagon Taking the Lead on U.S. Security Assistance

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Burkina Faso, a small West African country that most Americans have never heard of and that saw a popular uprising in 2014 and attempted coup a year later, has received more than $4 million in the past 10 years to help professionalize its military. However, even with consistent U.S. security assistance, the State Department reports significant human rights concerns in Burkina Faso, including extrajudicial killings by security forces and excessive use of force, such as torture, against civilians.

Burkina Faso is not the only country receiving U.S. security assistance despite a questionable human rights record. Every year, the United States spends billions of dollars on military and security assistance to foreign governments through programs run by both the State Department and the Department of Defense. But in the past 15 years, the scope and magnitude of the Pentagon’s programs have expanded dramatically. Experts now estimate the Pentagon alone spends $8 billion to $10 billion a year on assistance to more than 180 countries—compared to approximately $8 billion a year by the State Department to 147 countries—which has led many to question the apparent militarization of U.S. security assistance and the impact that has on short- and long-term security and foreign policy objectives. 

Oversight and transparency over these myriad programs are often extremely difficult. Numerous government accounts provide this money, and depending on the program, different congressional committees maintain oversight. The stove-piped nature of U.S. military assistance and the steadfast secrecy that surrounds decisions made for reasons of “national security” often create an artificial division between national security interests and foreign policy ideals. They also make it nearly impossible to identify the exact amount of spending, to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of various programs, and to avoid duplicating resources and efforts across different offices and agencies.

This tension between the State Department and the Pentagon is not new. For decades, there have been contradictions between advancing U.S. security interest and foreign policy goals, such as the protection of human rights. Traditionally, the State Department was the primary decision-maker that determined who received security assistance and for what purpose. Yet all of that began to change after Sept. 11.

Before 9/11, Congress had already begun authorizing the Pentagon to support foreign militaries in roles that had long been filled by the State Department. Starting with anti-drug training in the Western Hemisphere, the number and size of these programs has steadily grown since. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the purpose of “train and equip” programs was altered to fill an expanding list of priorities to “build partner capacity,” known as BPC. A RAND Corporation study in 2013 found that of 184 unique authorities that underwrite 165 BPC programs, at least 70 are managed and can be utilized by the Pentagon to provide security cooperation. The mandates of these programs are vast, ranging from counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

After 9/11, the Defense Department created military assistance programs to supplement traditional State Department ones. But from the outset, the appropriated funds that support these programs were subject to fewer restrictions than their State Department counterparts. For example, the Pentagon’s Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program was originally created in 2002 with a mandate that critics claimed served the same purpose as the State Department’s International Military Education and Training program. The Pentagon program provided nonlethal counterterrorism training, but lethal training was made available two years later.

Similarly, in 2006, the Pentagon was authorized to use $200 million of its Operation and Maintenance funds to equip and train foreign militaries for counterterrorism operations. In creating these parallel training authorities and funding them through the defense budget, the Pentagon is, in effect, able to implement its security assistance without applying Foreign Assistance Act restrictions, which are intended to ensure that human rights and other foreign policy concerns are taken into consideration when determining the provision of security assistance.

Experts have counted a tripling of military assistance out of the Pentagon budget from 2008 to 2015. That money comes with greater influence. And although the State Department can veto some programs, others are outside its authority, and program planning is not always shared with State Department personnel. After 9/11, the Pentagon gained a larger role, not just because it had the money, but because it was believed that it had the experience and means to react more quickly to changing situations and needs in an expansive and fast growing war on terror.

While many of the countries receiving Pentagon military assistance are seen as national security priorities, their behavior often raises foreign policy concerns that make diplomatic engagement difficult. Providing arms to these countries also increases the risk that U.S.-origin weapons could be used against the United States, its soldiers, its allies and/or its interests. In many cases, military and security assistance is provided to achieve short-term security gains, which may undermine long-term U.S foreign policy interests.

These issues are compounded by the fact that the Pentagon simply has more money and resources to address these concerns, and it has become easier for it to simply foot the bill. Pentagon spending on military assistance has totaled at least $122 billion since 2001, compared to approximately $119 billion for the State Department. The Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy that tracks U.S. security assistance to countries around the world, has documented a tenfold increase in Pentagon security aid programs since 2001—from $1 billion in 2001 to $10.8 billion in 2015. State Department spending nearly doubled in that time from $4.6 billion to $8.3 billion. However, it is not the dollar figure that is worth comparing, but rather the meteoric rise of Pentagon spending, as opposed to a more gradual increase from the State Department.

This increased spending has made some observers apprehensive. A Congressional Research Service report last May raised serious concerns about the roles of the State Department and the Pentagon with regard to security assistance and reconciling foreign policy objectives with security goals. It highlighted the lack of reporting requirements for Pentagon programs compared to the State Department and the resulting lack of oversight and accounting. In addition, Pentagon programs are not subject to country-by-country public reporting, making understanding a recipient country’s priorities, activities and funding impossible. At least 66 Pentagon programs do not allow any specific country information to be made available at all.

Beyond this lack of transparency and oversight, a larger and more philosophical concern is that foreign policy has become militarized. Recipient countries and communities have the impression that help only comes from the U.S. military, which changes the context of assistance and the relationship with those receiving it. The mission and its perception differ depending on whether the help comes from the U.S. military, or instead from the U.S. Embassy, the United States Agency for International Development or other civil servants from various U.S. government agencies.

Today, American security assistance has become unnecessarily military in nature, simply because there are additional Pentagon funds and programs that can quickly move money. At a fundamental level, when speaking with members of the U.S. military involved in these types of missions, such as building schools or bridges in African countries, they have recognized that they are simply there to complete their work and to strengthen military-to-military relationships. They often don’t worry about diplomatic aspects or the types of relationships they are establishing. 

To be sure, developing any relationship, particularly in countries with questionable and at times poor records of democracy and human rights, is important, and military relationships may buy the security that is desired in the short term. But in the long term, without deeper diplomatic relationships and nonmilitary engagement, it will be impossible to achieve larger strategic objectives and foster an environment of trust.

This article originally appeared in World Politics Review on September 20, 2016.

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