The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Africa Command or the Department of Defense.
Implementing Security Cooperation Reforms: Challenges and Practical Approaches for USAFRICOM
The complexity and necessity of quality security cooperation have been accepted by senior US leadership, underlined by recent and extensive reforms of US law and the security cooperation enterprise in general. However, the implementation of these reforms at the operational level is lagging behind, with Combatant Command leadership and action officers continuing to underestimate what it takes to successfully build military capability with partner nations.
Global pandemic-related restrictions on travel have drastically reduced security cooperation-related travel and direct engagements since February 2020, and it is uncertain when they will return to pre-COVID levels. Now is the perfect time for Combatant Commands, in particular U.S. Africa Command, to turn inward, and take advantage of this ‘tactical pause’ to lead substantive reform of security cooperation at the operational level.
First, Know Thy Self
As Robert Gates observed in 2010, “the US military was designed to defeat other armies, navies, and air forces, not to advise, train and equip them.” Although meaning to achieve major operational effects using a complex whole-of-government process, Component Commands are operating with a generally undertrained and inexperienced security cooperation workforce and an ever-evolving national decision process. These issues complicate U.S. cooperation with even the most capable and willing state partners.
Since the Foreign Assistance Act passed in 1961, the US Department of State has traditionally led US security assistance to train, equip, and assist foreign partners, in cooperation with agencies, to include the Department of Defense (DoD). In practice, however, the US military is the largest implementer of international security assistance and cooperation, usually charged with improving Partner Nation capability in the security sector so as to “create space” for diplomacy and development efforts. Echoing the sentiments of Mr. Gates, the DoD was not designed to collaborate easily with US development and diplomacy efforts in countries facing complex security environments. Historically, military leadership has been hesitant to draw focus away from traditional military operations to invest in advancing its foreign capacity-building expertise and processes. This hesitancy has resulted in a disproportionally large pool of well-meaning, forward-leaning novices bent on doing, compared to few experienced security cooperation professionals guiding the process.
The imbalance between military generalists and security cooperation specialists means that foreign area officers, as the usual DoD representatives working with foreign nations, often encounter a familiar pattern. A common example, particularly for smaller coastal states, is the US donation of a small boat for maritime and littoral patrols, a critical tool used for border security and counter-illicit trafficking operations. Because the capability is usually requested by a partner nation, US military planners often assume the partner already possesses the “relatively basic” infrastructure, funding, and personnel to receive and operate said boat. The reality, however, is more nuanced. US program implementers typically (re)discover some combination of the following issues: there are no easily transferred processes, no training facility for maintenance personnel, no regular or predictable budgets, no routine way to acquire parts, and no human resources apparatus to attract, train, and retain top talent. US military planners typically assume the partner nation has these capacities, or can quickly generate them. Lauren Witlin, author of “Mirror-Imaging and Its Dangers,” would assert this tendency of reverting to US norms is due to a lack of data and training, making planners “look within his or her own experiences to fill in any information gaps.”
The gulf between the world’s largest military and a typical partner state’s more modest security sector makes US planners especially susceptible to proscribing untenable capability building programs. The assumption that other nations can easily adapt a “US-lite” model stands in stark contrast to the actual difficulty the US has in building a capability that is also sustainable by a said nation. Mirror Imaging Bias, limited training and lack of experienced security cooperation professionals have taxed decades of military cooperation provided to partners, resulting in, at best, a mixed record of lasting success.,
These issues have been recognized by Congress and reforms mobilized. In 2016, the Congressional Research Service issued a report detailing US Security Cooperation challenges, one of many such papers from various think tanks and journals lamenting poor results from the security cooperation enterprise. In response, Congress launched significant, but slow-moving reforms codified in the 2017 and 2018 National Defense Authorization Acts.  In 2016, Congress mandated the DoD to “develop and issue… a strategic framework… to guide prioritization of resources and activities.” In 2017, Congress reduced multiple authorities into a streamlined band of activities described in Chapter 16 of the U.S. Code. It established new requirements for human rights vetting, institutional capacity building, and assessment, monitoring and evaluation (AM&E). DoD consolidated several security cooperation related agencies and organizations into the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). In 2019, the Defense Security Cooperation University (DSCU) opened, establishing a certification and career development path for security cooperation professionals. In 2020, Congress funded small DSCA teams to conduct Assessment, Monitoring and Evaluation (AM&E), both at the Pentagon and at the Combatant Commands.
Despite these substantive reforms, the formidable task of implementing processes at the operational level remains and represents a significant opportunity for Combatant Commands to shape the future of security cooperation. Sun Tzu’s classic insight, to “Know thy self,” is the first step in any military endeavor. To achieve success in security cooperation, it’s critical the US expand this exercise to include its state partners.
US Africa Command: Trends in Security Cooperation Challenges with African States
Security cooperation is a cornerstone of the US National Security Strategy. Such cooperation is designed to improve national and regional stability, create closer ties to the US, and build resilience against malign influence from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, or extremist groups of all stripes. In times of crisis, such as we are experiencing collectively due to COVID-19, it provides channels of bilateral and multilateral communication and cooperation. Failed security cooperation wastes tax dollars, frustrates partners, and lets the US fall short of its regional objectives.
At the top of the list is the challenge of mirror imaging bias. According to a 2014 RAND study, the more similar a state is to the size, economy and political organization of the United States, the easier it is for the two systems to interact. Broadly speaking, security cooperation has been more successful in democratic states with stronger state institutions, good governance and greater state capacity, such as Latin America or Europe, than in states with more authoritarian regimes, or “low state reach,” such as states in the Middle East or Africa. The majority of African nations in particular, occupying the spectrum between developed and developing countries, tend to be among the US’s most challenging security cooperation partners.
Not unique to Africa, states leveraging US security cooperation tend to have more fragile economies with greater dependence on strategic imports (food, energy, industrial supplies), a shortlist of exports (cocoa, oil, etc.) and international aid. States with developing economies must manage a limited tax base to balance health, education, infrastructure, and security. Multiple factors may pull state resources into one sector or another. A state facing a presidential election tends to fund a flurry of infrastructure projects to sway voters, as seen during the Senegal elections in 2019. The COVID pandemic today, and the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa, both swung the pendulum for both domestic and international funds to the health sector. Terrorist activity in the Sahel has pulled funding toward the security sector, and had the undesirable effect of draining resources away from efforts more focused on addressing root causes (disenfranchisement, poverty) than the symptoms (violent extremism, crime). Alternatively, the revenue fueling government for a state may be heavily subsidized by foreign donors, thereby freeing funds for security or other sectors but warping the state’s ability to plan and execute its own budget.
Additionally, developing state partners must generally operate without the human capital necessary to quickly develop its security sector, an effort made sometimes more complicated by the agendas of competing foreign powers. Research and analysis are required to understand the immediate and long-term feasibility of new equipment and training, which can be overwhelmed by politics, prospects of immediate and tangible gains, corruption, and other factors. Partner states often overtax their strongest talent with multiple roles and overwhelmed calendars, leading to frustration from partner nations who feel they are not getting full participation from the host country. It can be hard for the country providing assistance to determine if they are dealing with an overwhelmed but committed partner or an indifferent partner. The issue of a country’s ability to absorb security cooperation projects has been clearly recognized, as it is now a required field in US security cooperation funding proposals. However, the country’s ability to absorb projects can be generally glossed over by program designers who want their program to be approved and funded. Meanwhile program oversight is not yet robust enough to fully account for the weight of engagements coming from multiple US offices and multiple nations focused on one country.
It’s also important to recognize developing states may be cautious in changing their military to reflect a US model. The militaries of African states often include a shadow of the structure and tradition imposed by bygone colonial powers and the potential to upset civilian governance. Simply put, US security cooperation personnel should not be shocked if partner leadership doesn’t readily accept American advice to streamline (and empower) security forces. For the US, working with countries that follow the Francophone model of the military, gendarmerie, and law enforcement, is difficult because it doesn’t cleanly match the structure and legal framework guiding the US military, Coast Guard, and law enforcement. Unable or unwilling to invest in significant reorganization for more reasons than they articulate to US officers, partner states may opt to keep existing force structures and purposely restrict joint coordinated action to the highest levels of the Ministry of Defense or the Executive Branch. In some cases, partner leadership may be purposely using limited pay, poor training and equipping, to maintain control over the military. In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, President Boigny, known as the “Sage of Africa,” kept the army weak throughout the difficult process of gaining independence from France and thereby successfully ushered in a 20-year period of economic prosperity. Regardless of the reason, without civilian and political support for a more capable military, no amount of US training and equipping will be sufficient to measurably or sustainably improve military capability.
Additionally, a developing country’s talent pool may be constricted by its lower literacy and education rate, widening the gulf between the few educated and empowered officers and many junior, enlisted members. Adding the legacy of colonial power structure, African militaries often push even minor decisions further up the chain of command than what would be normal for the US military, who tends to have a smaller power-distance between ranks and a more empowered junior and non-commissioned officer corps. For smaller states especially, implementing a truly new capability, like an aircraft or new specialization, often requires significant shifting of resources, reorganization, or other major administrative efforts, and will require frequent review and approval from leadership. The process is rarely fast, no matter the size of the country or military involved. At the same time, a developing state often has a shorter window of opportunity to take advantage of resources for a particular issue and is frustrated by the two or three years it takes for the US Defense Acquisition system to deliver equipment, training or other support. The US faces repeated criticism from partners who, out of frustration or desperation, turn to Russian or Chinese companies because they can provide equipment faster and cheaper than the DoD.
Developing states often mitigate some of these challenges by joining regional or sub-regional organizations, such as Africa’s Regional Economic Centers (RECs), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the South African Development Community (SADC), presenting themselves as multinational blocks to global powers or organizations such as the United Nations. Regional multinational organizations provide a barrier against “might makes right” justification of larger states, and provide, in conjunction with international law, an arena to mitigate interstate conflict. This is a useful forum as developing states navigate the demands of international powers, historic ties to Europe, and demands of their own state and peoples.
Lastly, developing states tend, for political and practical reasons, to develop and emphasize “Special Forces” or “Presidential Guards” structures that enable them to concentrate training and resources into smaller, more elite organizations reporting directly to the President and/or senior staff rather than the Ministry of Defense. In the US, military command flows from the President to the Secretary of Defense down to the most junior recruit. The default for US senior military engagements is to identify the Chief of Defense, as the highest-ranked officer in a nation’s armed forces, and assume that individual has a similar range of authorities and control as their US counterparts, neglecting significant but parallel security or paramilitary power structures. Divergent organizational structures create confusion and frustration, as the US may not be communicating with the appropriate powerbroker. The consequences of communicating with the wrong individual and failing to understand the partner’s organizational dynamics can result in wasted time and money, and lead to negative feelings about US assistance.
Case Study: Lake Chad Region
The US provided C-208 fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft and Command and Control (C2) equipment to Niger, Chad, and Cameroon to support counter-Boko Haram operations from 2016-2019. The security cooperation programs related to these capabilities included two small aircraft, a building, communications gear, computers and training, and was designed based on US doctrinal-norms. This regional program provided a natural experiment, with the same basic security cooperation packages and trainers implementing the same set of capabilities with three small francophone states. For all three, US planners did not fully account for the partner states’ lack of a joint culture and failed to consider to what degree these partners would need to reorganize and find national resources to successfully use this equipment through its full lifecycle (fielding, sustainment, and disposal). During the delivery and fielding phase, the US realized these partners did not have a way to generate operators independently; one or two “train the trainer” courses would not suffice. Therefore, the US launched a second significant capability build using a combination of workshops, advisors and episodic training, to enable Chad, Cameroon and Niger to independently operate.
The most significant delays in equipment fielding were due in large part to the imposed requirement by the US for these countries to adopt a US-like framework for joint operations, something completely foreign and requiring deep changes in existing C2 processes. Each of the three countries addressed this problem a different way. In Chad, the government created a miniature joint force for C-208 operations that pulled members from the Army and Air Force, reporting directly to the President. In Cameroon, integration efforts were derailed after Amnesty International published an expose accusing its special forces of human rights violations. In response, the US canceled some security cooperation activities and shifted the bulk of capacity building towards the less trained, less well provisioned conventional forces, making implementation exponentially more challenging. The ongoing debate over administrative and operational control between Cameroonian security services has slowed integration. Niger proactively decentralized control of the C208s to the Sector Command level, most closely matching the spirit, if not the original plan, for integrating this capability in support of counter-Boko Haram operations.
Despite the challenges, all three countries managed to successfully collect and share C-208-derived intelligence on enemy forces in support of ground operations, but they also highlighted the types of challenges exacerbated by poor program design. The original US security cooperation proposal could have been built to more easily and quickly integrate with Chad, Niger and Cameron forces at less cost had the proposal considered some of the factors particular to working with Francophone African states. In hindsight, the security cooperation proposal was likely rushed by personnel with limited experience in either large acquisition projects or a deep understanding of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon military organization and culture. The C-208 and C2 node programs required extensive remedial capability-building efforts to make it successful. Going forward, the programs are extremely fragile, with uncertain resourcing (exacerbated by a COVID-damaged economy), still-evolving command and control, and no regional training institution in place to build the next generation of operators.
Conducting security cooperation is no place for well-meaning but untrained and inexperienced generalists working in silos. It is the manifestation of US policy into concrete action and requires the same professionalism and teamwork the US military nurtures for more kinetic manifestations of US policy. Successful security cooperation requires understanding of both US and African intent, military and government structures and cultures, and a high degree of collaboration between the embassies, Combatant Command, and DC-based institutions.
A practical approach for USAFRICOM.
USAFRICOM has an opportunity to lead substantive security cooperation reform at the operational level, to more effectively build teams that can contribute at critical points in security cooperation lifecycle; assessment, design, execution, close out. To move forward, AFRICOM needs to understand itself and the dynamics of African state partners. The reforms can be achieved through a change in what AFRICOM measures as success, types of advising, workforce continuing-education, and the establishment of reference materials aimed at the operational and tactical levels. Due to the world-wide slowdown of all activity due to COVID, for the remainder of 2020, AFRICOM has an unusual degree of freedom to focus on reworking its approach to security cooperation with developing states.
Recommendation #1. Encourage development of Africa and Security Cooperation expertise
Most personnel assigned to USAFRICOM are not Africa or security cooperation experts. Reforming security cooperation at the operational level presents a common challenge for every regional command because they are staffed with military members that are rightly focused on developing skills within their particular career field, except for the few region-focused foreign area officers. The lack of Africa or security cooperation expertise, however, can lead to the sense that the AFRICOM Headquarters is disengaged from Africa itself, turning the cogs of military bureaucracy without being all that invested or interested in the result. The current workforce should be balanced by recruiting more Africa and security cooperation experts into key staff positions, and by encouraging continuing education to develop expertise even if only for the benefit of a single tour. Encourage those flagged to be in security cooperation positions to take advantage of the Defense Security Cooperation Certification program. The current pause in security cooperation-related engagements and personnel working from home provide time and space for these personnel to complete this critical training.
To build interest and engagement for Africa, AFRICOM should hold seminars, cultural events, and encourage morale and welfare travel to the African continent. A broad understanding of Africa in the workforce would translate to stronger USAFRICOM engagements in the security sector.
Recommendation #2. Update the terms of Security Cooperation ‘success’
It is practically written into a military member’s DNA to do, to act. They are graded and promoted based on what they have accomplished, typically against a short timeline (2 years). This US military system tends to encourage security cooperation plans with aggressive timelines and outsized end-states. Time and energy in the planning stage has been, until recently, deemphasized due to the lack of training, robust oversight and a tendency to showcase activity over substantive results. Follow-on personnel, trying to execute plans with unrealistic objectives, or referencing weak plans, can spend considerable time on “backfilling” efforts, or end by curtailing the project, to the frustration of partner and the US. Worst case, left unchecked, there is also the risk of growing a partner’s security sector beyond a sustainable or desirable level, or ‘over strengthening’ military leadership to the detriment of civilian leadership, or through mission creep, unmooring the military from its core mission of national defense.
To better avoid the trap of just doing, it is important to seek a deeper understanding of purpose and appropriateness of building partner capacity and capability. AFRICOM leadership should value quality assessment of partners’ capability gaps, and subsequent development, management and evaluation of security cooperation programs toward realistic end-states, over the volume or frequency of training and equipment sales.
Recommendation #3. Establish Playbooks for most common Capability Gaps
No one security cooperation office (SCO), housed within the US Embassy, contains expertise in all aspects of military operations, but is relied upon by the Combatant Command as the US lead in assessing gaps and conceptualizing possible US support. AFRICOM could sponsor a series of play books with guidelines organized by desired capabilities, outlining possible options to the host’s military size and budget, with example platform types, minimal manning requirements, direct, implied tasks and training requirements, similar to the United Nations’ online “Peacekeeper Resource Hub.” It would enable the SCO to hold an informed preliminary discussion with a partner country on a wide range of topics that may fall outside their particular career experience. Common requests include support in developing a Military Intelligence Corps, developing a Counter-Improvised Explosive Devise (C-IED) capability, acquiring new transportation or reconnaissance aircraft, or expanding the size of security forces for border security or to contribute to peacekeeping efforts. A primer on the most common requests could propagate best practices, encourage interoperability, and/or gently nudge partners toward more sustainable versions of the capability they are trying to achieve.
Recommendation #4. Establish roving advisors for the SCOs.
In order to strengthen US security cooperation in the near term, AFRICOM should send small advisory teams to help personnel located at both the headquarters and in embassies navigate critical analysis and program development design phases. It is not easy to identify the actual critical gaps in a partner’s security sector, as it usually uncovers a systems-of-systems problem. Even if gaps are identified correctly, it takes significant diplomacy and program design skills to work with a partner and other stakeholders to find a sustainable way to close said gaps. Practically speaking, AFRICOM should expand the scope of standard Inspector-General advise-and-assist visits to the SCO embedded with Embassies, to include a deeper review of all aspects of their bilateral portfolios. This should also include members from the newly established AM&E assessment personnel assigned to the AFRICOM Headquarters. The aim would not be to find fault, but rather, accelerate the evolution of the US security cooperation enterprise at the operational and tactical level.
Recommendation #5. Develop sub-regional engagement strategies.
Military personnel working within embassies tend to focus narrowly on their assigned country, without much time or opportunity to consider how their efforts fit into regional efforts and complement or conflict with organizations like ECOWAS and the African Union. Command leadership develops the campaign plan and defines significant lines of effort. AFRICOM uses cross-functional working groups to synchronize activity on specific high-priority regions. There is room, however, to develop strategies for other regions and sub-regions that don’t rise to the level of a full-blown line of effort. Providing a broader regional perspective would make it easier for SCOs and HQ staff officers to frame and address challenges common to multiple partners.
Strategically, Congress has established clear guidance, consolidated authorities, and restructured US institutions to strengthen security cooperation as a tool serving diplomacy, development, and defense globally. Although US military leadership has historically underestimated the expertise and time required to successfully support partner states’ efforts to improve their security sector, there is broad support for new, more holistic, approaches. USAFRICOM, in particular, is well positioned to dismantle misconceptions concerning developing state partners and better realize its mission to act by, with, and through African partners to resolve issues of mutual concern: violent extremists, maritime security, and general insecurity. The Combatant Commands, in the midst of strategic and structural reform efforts, possess the opportunity to press for operational and tactical level reforms that save taxpayers money and improve the effectiveness of security cooperation. The current COVID pandemic has forced Combatant Commands to idle many of its direct engagements with partners in the short term as all, understandably, focus on the pandemic crisis at hand. There may never be a better time to develop US capability and capacity at the operational level to understand and engage our state partners. To do so, the Combatant Commands will have to divest of practices that have seldom worked and commit to new approaches to training, actualizing, assessing, and measuring success.
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