Framing Next Steps for Security Sector Assistance Reform
September 26, 2017
In an increasingly competitive security environment, working together with allies and partners to achieve common security goals has become the preferred approach for the United States. Yet, growing public and U.S. leaders’ skepticism of the return on investment for providing security sector assistance to partners has compelled both the Congress and the Obama and now Trump administrations to examine how the United States conducts its security sector assistance activities.
As the U.S. Department of State (DoS) considers ways to restructure, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) continues to implement the reforms of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bill, including historic changes to the DoD security cooperation enterprise, the time is ripe to consider how to frame the next round of security sector assistance reforms.
On September 22, 2017, we convened a private, off-the-record roundtable with experts from the U.S. executive and legislative branches, congressional staff, private sector, and civil society to discuss key considerations for framing the next round of U.S. security sector assistance reform. The findings below reflect our takeaways from the discussion.
Defining Security Sector Assistance
The U.S. policy community lacks consensus about what truly defines security sector assistance. Ranging from military training, advising, and sales to community justice and reconciliation programs, security assistance spans a wide spectrum of activities. Cataloguing authorities and funding by assistance type can help sort the myriad of tools in the security sector assistance kit, but fundamental questions remain about the purpose of security sector assistance and its connection to foreign policy objectives. Some members of the U.S. policy community believe that foreign military sales should be considered defense trade, distinct from other forms of security sector assistance. Other members recognize that any assistance or equipment provided to a foreign partner is an act of foreign policy.
Often, requirements that are not directly related to a partner state’s security sector, such as building judicial institutions, can have significant second- and third-order effects on it (as well as vice versa). These requirements therefore should also be included—or at least considered—in security sector assistance planning.
In addition, although legal documents such as the 40-year-old Foreign Assistance Act define the parameters of security sector assistance activities, they do not reflect the reality of what agencies and practitioners across the U.S. government consider security assistance, nor are they modernized to the requirements of twenty-first-century partnerships. This mismatch is exemplified, for instance, by the prohibition of assistance to foreign police forces in Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act, a law that has been sidestepped time and time again by the granting of waivers, due to the U.S. government’s need to build police capacity in partner nations to achieve governance policy objectives.
DoS had the lead role for security sector assistance, as an extension of U.S. foreign policy, and manages some security assistance programming. DoD is the primary vehicle for executing security assistance programming for military forces and has had an increasing share of its own authorities for security sector assistance since 9/11. Agencies such as the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of the Treasury play collaborative roles from time to time, yet only recently have they been better integrated into security assistance interagency planning efforts. However, these other agencies do not have their own security assistance budgets to carry out their security assistance activities.
Until recently, security assistance efforts within both DoD and DoS were led by several different subagencies and authorities, varying in levels of authority and capability. The FY2017 NDAA consolidated DoD’s security assistance authorities, but that variation and disparity still exists within DoS.
Defining Objectives and Outcomes
In theory, U.S. security assistance objectives can fit in three overarching categories:
- Operational: DoD primarily focuses its security assistance efforts on more effective and professional security forces within partner nations for operationally valuable partnerships.
- Transactional: Many DoS and some DoD security assistance activities are transactional in nature, seeking to achieve access, influence, and build relationships with partner states, often to facilitate broader foreign policy objectives.
- Governance: Increasingly, there is recognition at both DoD and DoS that more focus should be placed on designing their security assistance programming on issues of societal governance and rule of law within partner countries, which lay the foundation for better operational and transactional relationships.
In reality, security assistance objectives are not distinct and cohesive, and security sector assistance activities may fall within one or more of these categories. The various agencies that participate in security sector assistance have varying missions, which impedes cohesion of outcomes and objectives. Additionally, emergent political and strategic considerations lead to trade-offs between long-term strategic goals and short-term tactical objectives responding to a specific issue. Often, the emergent nature of these issues overshadows broader security assistance considerations—such as building good governance—which can result in inter- and intra-agency debate and disagreement.
Interagency Planning and Coordination
The abundance of agencies and variance of authorities in the security sector assistance arena complicate interagency planning and coordination. The lack of common definitions, mission, and “theory of change”—understanding how to achieve a desired outcome in the partner country—makes interagency planning difficult. Some agencies’ services can be overlooked in the planning stages either because they do not see themselves as relevant to security sector assistance, or because planners may not be aware of the types of assistance they could provide or are already involved with on the ground.
Coordination is also heavily dependent on the personalities leading the security assistance effort. Leaders’ previous experiences with interagency synchronization and relationships across the interagency leadership can go a long way toward streamlining and prioritizing efforts. The relationship of the planners with U.S. embassy and military staff on the ground in the partner country is also very important to interagency coordination, which in turn is dependent on the human capital quality and quantity of civilian, military, and contractor personnel at embassies and in the field.
The U.S. government does not have clear guidelines for how to evaluate its own performance in the security assistance field, and each agency is left to its own methodologies and criteria in doing so. There is a tendency to focus on numbers and inputs or outputs while measuring the success of a program—number of weapons systems sold or number of officers given human rights training, for instance—instead of focusing on the quality of the program or its consequent effects on the desired outcome for the partnership.
It is similarly difficult to evaluate partner performance as recipients of security assistance. A lack of uniformity in security sector data collection by both the United States and partner authorities results in inconsistent metrics that complicate analysis. This is true particularly as it relates to recording human rights violations committed by partner forces and the future of programming in such cases.
Just as DoD has undergone a consolidation and reformation of its security assistance authorities and programming in the 2017 NDAA, so should DoS. Congressional interest in reforming state-side security assistance should be targeted toward creating more clarity, streamlining the planning processes in place, and incentivizing greater interagency collaboration. Updates to the Foreign Assistance Act should be seriously considered, particularly where certain stipulations are outdated or periodically overruled by waivers.
Special attention should be paid to enhancing the security sector assistance workforce, both in resourcing and in quality, across the various agencies involved. Many times, DoD and DoS authorities are spread thin or not properly trained to handle security assistance tasking. Empowering a specialist security assistance workforce across the interagency with the numbers to support the various missions would greatly improve security assistance programs, as well their oversight and evaluation. Moreover, a single “conductor” for security sector assistance planning and coordination should be empowered to drive these activities at DoS and bring together interagency actors to develop a common plan for a partner country.
Finally, as other states compete with—and in some cases, outbid—the United States as providers of security sector assistance, the U.S. government must seriously evaluate its security assistance priorities, opportunities, and trade-offs. New security sector programming should focus on building partner capabilities that will be important for competing with high-end adversaries, such as in cyber, electronic warfare, space, hybrid warfare, and maritime domains, while also building synchronized counterterrorism, stabilization, and good governance capabilities in partners where states are weak. At the same time, the U.S. government should not be afraid to cut off programming where the risks and opportunity costs are low and revamp programming where the priorities and stakes are high. This may require stronger accountability measures in how the U.S. government conducts security sector assistance but also more acceptance of risk, experimentation, and failure on a pathway to success.
Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Hijab Shah is a research associate, and Rebecca Hughes a research intern, with the CSIS International Security Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
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