Small Wars Journal

Building Enduring Partnerships in Africa: How the IMET Program Helps the United States Counter China in Africa

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 8:20am


How the IMET Program Helps the United States Counter China in Africa

By Thomas Dyrenforth

At a time when the U.S. government is considering a widely-publicized drawdown of its military presence in sub-Saharan Africa, China is accelerating their influence across the region. China’s increased presence in sub-Saharan Africa is part of an overall strategy that aims to restore its status as a great power. From opening their first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 to significantly increasing their participation in UN peacekeeping missions, China’s growing military influence in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be ignored.

As China expands its influence in the region, U.S. military officials believe the United States can best respond by building enduring relationships with African partners and becoming their partner of choice. However, building such relationships involves prioritized investment, which is in short supply in today’s economy of force environment under which the U.S. military operates in Africa.

The United States needs to find low-cost alternatives to effectively compete with China in Africa. If the United States wants to help counter China’s growing military ties and develop preferred partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa, it can start by increasing its investment in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

Why IMET Works

IMET is a low-cost, highly effective program that trains, educates, and professionalizes foreign officers in the United States while introducing them to American values and democratic elements like the judicial system, free speech, equality, and human rights. Through IMET, foreign military officers, alongside American military counterparts, attend professional military education (PME) schools, such as U.S. service academies, staff college, or war college. In the years following 9/11, providing military education and training for U.S. partners was deemed so strategically important that Congress increased overall funding for the IMET program by 70 percent. By 2018, the United States was investing approximately $111 million annually in IMET to train over 5,100 foreign military students from 153 partner nations.

The IMET program works. Studies find that IMET achieves better results compared to other costlier security assistance programs, such as equipment transfers or foreign military financing. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency boasts that IMET graduates account for nearly 4,000 current and former Heads of State, Ministers of Defense, Chiefs of Defense, and other General Officers. Thanks to IMET, these well-placed graduates speak English fluently, understand the U.S. military and American values, and support mutual security objectives that strengthen strategic ties between nations.

However, when it comes to the IMET investment in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States is coming up short. Of IMET’s $115 million appropriated budget for 2020, only $17.7 million was dedicated to 42 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, or approximately $400,000 per country. By comparison, this average is three times less than that for a European country and a whopping five times less than for a country in the Middle East. Even the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago receives more annual IMET funding than the unstable, but strategically-important Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Of all regions for the United States to invest in PME, the U.S. has the most to lose by ignoring sub-Saharan Africa. The threats in Africa are numerous: Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and an emerging Islamic State network. If left unchecked, these non-state actors have the potential to threaten U.S. security both at home and abroad. Most African militaries are simply not equipped to address these threats. The lack of professional militaries in sub-Saharan Africa is well documented as is their minimal capacity to deliver real security for their citizens. The United States stands to gain the most from strengthened partnerships in this region. If the United States does not commit to these partnerships, other countries will. 

Why Increasing IMET Will Benefit Security Relations in sub-Saharan Africa

With U.S. security objectives across sub-Saharan Africa being implemented through economy of force, the IMET program offers a cost-effective means to build enduring partnerships while advancing U.S. security interests. Expanding the participation of sub-Saharan African military officers in U.S. PME courses will produce strategic results. However, there are consequences if the United States chooses not to bolster this investment. Other countries who may not share U.S. values or interests, most notably China, are already filling this void by increasing their influence in Africa through their own versions of IMET. According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, China already trains hundreds of African officers annually at its military institutions in China and “intends to double its training of African military personnel over the next three years”.

By increasing IMET opportunities for sub-Saharan African partners, the U.S. will counter Chinese influence by building interoperability with African militaries, strengthening strategic relationships, developing English language capacities, and promoting American values across Africa.


Mid and senior-level PME courses in the United States, such as each service’s Staff College and War College, provide superb opportunities for African military officers to receive training alongside their U.S. counterparts. These demanding year-long PME courses prepare graduates to serve in operational and strategic roles in their respective militaries. IMET graduates return to their country with a deep understanding of how the U.S. military plans, operates, and sustains itself. By developing better military strategists, planners, and logisticians through PME, the IMET program directly strengthens much-needed capacities in sub-Saharan African militaries. This capacity building contributes to more secure and prosperous African societies while improving interoperability with the U.S. military, directly supporting American strategic and defense priorities in Africa.

Strategic Relationships

The IMET program builds personal relationships between American officers and their African colleagues. According to Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, these personal relationships formed during year-long PME courses “serve as the building blocks for long-term strategic and defense relationships”. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) understands that partnerships are best developed through building partner capacities. These relationships create strategic alliances that prove especially important in an era of global power competition. The majority of African officers conducting IMET in the United States - especially those attending U.S. Staff Colleges and War Colleges - have already been identified as rising stars in their respective militaries who are destined for senior-level positions. Building close personal relationships during IMET creates possibilities for strategic access and partnerships between militaries and stronger bilateral relations. By increasing the pool of IMET-trained officers in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States increases strategic-level diplomatic access and security contact points for years to come. If effectively maintained, these relationships can lead to significant return on investment and will represent a visible symbol of America’s commitment to its partners.

English Language Capacity

IMET further bolsters strategic relationships through developing strong English language proficiency, a key byproduct of PME in the United States. The importance of English fluency cannot be overstated and produces return on investment even decades after training. Learning a country’s language increases cultural understanding which supports future partnerships and potential investment. Thanks to English fluency, well-placed IMET graduates - who often go on to successful careers in government or business following the military - will have a proclivity to work with American businesses for years to come, which advances U.S. economic interests and directly supports the National Security Strategy. China is already taking decisive steps to promote Chinese language and culture across Africa by opening more than 60 Confucius Institutes across the continent since 2004.

American Values

Building professionalism begins first by building strong values. A major benefit of training sub-Saharan African officers in the United States is their exposure to the values and norms that the United States wishes to uphold. Recent studies support a correlation between foreign education that exposes individuals to democratic systems and their positive actions upon returning home. One study found that after spending significant time in a democratic society, returnees bring back new norms of democratic participation and serve as catalysts for positive change. A separate study by economist Antonio Spilimbergo finds that students trained abroad are not only more influential later in life, but thanks to new ideas and easier access to external media, these “foreign-educated individuals make it more difficult for dictatorial regimes to maintain repression”.

While the United States considers scaling back their security presence in Africa, the IMET program is needed now more than ever. This investment can offset the consequences of any potential U.S. drawdown by promoting enduring security partnerships and improving stability across the continent. Even with the resource-constrained environment in Africa, increasing investment in IMET is in America’s best interest. IMET graduates return home bringing democratic ideals and tend to be influential within their home country for years to come. There are no better ambassadors for American values than these IMET graduates themselves.

This is a straightforward decision. IMET is a low-cost security assistance tool that builds stronger security partnerships, promotes stability across Africa, and increases interoperability with partner militaries. Furthermore, this increased engagement will strengthen U.S. access and influence during a time of global power competition. If the United States is not prepared to increase its investment in strong partnerships in Africa, other countries will gladly fill this void.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any other organization or part of the U.S. government.

About the Author(s)

Major Thomas Dyrenforth is a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer currently serving as the Assistant Army Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and holds a Masters in International Policy and Practice from the Elliott School at George Washington University. Major Dyrenforth has deployed twice to Iraq, served as an instructor of military science at West Point, and was previously assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.



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