The stunning collapse of Iraqi security forces in Mosul and the rest of northern Iraq calls into question a key pillar of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism strategy: building the capacity of friendly governments to fight terrorist groups on their own. During the commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point just a few weeks ago, the president called on Congress to create a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to support efforts “to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner capacity on the front lines.” While a laudable attempt to shift away from both the Bush administration’s regime-change strategy and the current White House strategy of air strikes and special operations raids, the United States’ post-9/11 record on training, equipping, and building foreign security forces casts serious doubt on the prospects for a counterterrorism strategy centered on security-force capacity building.
Afghanistan and Iraq represent the two largest and most comprehensive American efforts at security-force assistance since 9/11. In Afghanistan, the United States has appropriated $57.33 billion for the Afghan Security Forces Fund to fund the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. It remains to be seen how these domestic forces will perform as the United States and NATO draw down their forces in Afghanistan and how sustainable the Afghan security forces will be with fewer external funds available.
In Iraq, the United States spent $24.33 billion to rebuild the country’s security forces. As the fall of Mosul demonstrates, however, this effort did not produce a capable Iraqi security force. Indeed, Iraqi military forces fled in the face of what, by all accounts, was a militarily inferior force. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own efforts to consolidate personal control over Iraq’s security forces have contributed both to the general instability in Iraq and the collapse that overtook the Iraqi military in Mosul. As early as 2007, Maliki began dismissing army and national police officers whose only apparent fault was attempting to fight Shia militias in Baghdad. Furthermore, he has made military command appointments on the apparent basis of loyalty to his government, rather than on merit. Moreover, Maliki took these actions while U.S. forces were on the ground in Iraq conducting security training.
Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has attempted to build security capacity in regions facing terrorist threats from the Sahel—the trans-Saharan region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea—to the Philippines. The United States spent $2.35 billion from 2009 to 2013 to improve Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capabilities. Other train-and-equip efforts have been smaller in scope, such as the U.S. Defense Department’s Section 1206 fund for counterterrorism aid. This program has provided $2.2 billion in counterterrorism assistance since 2005 to nations in the Sahel, East and North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Southeast Asia that are confronting terrorist threats such as al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Yemen is a case in point for the limitations of the Section 1206 approach. Since the program’s inception, Yemen has received roughly $400 million in Section 1206 aid, with nearly $150 million in the past three fiscal years—2012 to 2014—alone, primarily directed at improving Yemen’s special operations and maritime security forces. These forces have been active in raiding AQAP bases in cooperation with U.S. special operations forces. But as a whole, Yemen’s security forces remain beset by factionalism: Current President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi recently removed heavy artillery units surrounding the capital out of fear they would be used by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stage a coup.
The results of these train-and-equip efforts—and others, such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism—have been mixed at best. For instance, Mali’s U.S.-trained army fell apart while fighting Islamist extremists in 2012 and 2013, but conversely, a U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit in Chad participated in French-led operations to push extremists out of the country. Meanwhile, the train-and-equip mission headed by U.S. special operations forces in the Philippines appears to be fairly successful. The manifest shortcomings of this mixed record—clearly on display in Iraq since mid-June—do not indicate that security-force assistance should not be a major component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. They do, however, show that security-force assistance is not a counterterrorism panacea.
A more thorough and systematic attempt to assess the successes, failures, and lessons learned of America’s post-9/11 security assistance efforts is needed, especially before Congress signs off on President Obama’s proposed $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund. However, a brief overview of prominent cases makes one message clear: In nations that are building security forces with help from the United States, domestic politics will play a decisive role in determining how effective those forces can and will be in the end. Again, Iraq is an instructive case. Despite more than $24 billion in aid and years of training with U.S. forces, Iraqi forces crumbled when put to the test in large part due to dysfunctional politics in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Maliki. Similarly, the political situation in Yemen remains unsettled, leaving Yemeni security forces factionalized and less able to fight AQAP.
Keeping the determinative role of internal politics in mind when assessing the effectiveness of U.S. security-force assistance does not entail a shift in focus to nation-building policies, as advocated by some experts, for example, in Yemen. It simply means that policymakers should temper their expectations for what security assistance can achieve in light of the extent of dysfunction in a target country’s domestic politics. American diplomats can work to ameliorate this problem, but doing so does not necessarily require addressing the perceived root causes of a local conflict through nation-building programs.
President Obama’s instinct to help other nations take responsibility for their own security in the worldwide fight against terrorism is right. But moving from this instinct to concrete policy that achieves American counterterrorism objectives will require greater examination of the successes and failures of the massive post-9/11 efforts to build capable security forces across the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he specializes in the Middle East, military affairs, and U.S. national security policy.