1. Background
  2. Peacebuilding

The Failures of Security Assistance

April 25, 2015


U.S. security assistance, as it is currently conceived, does not work and is doing more harm than good. But often when confronted with the terrible reality of violent extremism, the desire of our political leaders to do “something” means that security assistance is the tool they reach for.

Last June, Mexican security forces allegedly executed 15 suspected gang members in Tlatlaya, then tortured and sexually assaulted two witnesses. A few months later, Mexican police attacked 43 students in Iguala and turned them over to a gang called Guerros Unidos, who allegedly murdered them.

The security forces and police that carried out these abuses were, in part, funded by U.S. taxpayers. Ultimately, the U.S. was forced to cut off funding for the military units involved.

Since 2007, the U.S. has provided Mexico with $2 billion in security assistance. Some has gone to justice and police reform efforts, with positive results. But some has effectively allied our country with security units that routinely commit human rights abuses.

What Is Security Assistance?

This story is all too familiar: the U.S. provides money, called security assistance, to help supply and train foreign police and military units. According to FCNL’s partners at the Security Assistance Monitor, the U.S. has given out about $90 billion in security assistance in the last 5 years to recipients in more than 130 countries.

Some security assistance programs do help communities. But the majority of this money funds the militarized approach to problem-solving that has long been a more comfortable tool for the U.S. than other types of foreign aid. Particularly to people wary of long-term international entanglements, money for guns and training is a politically palatable way of exerting U.S. influence.

The aid is given with little or no consideration of local political dynamics and no public evaluation of the impact of the assistance. While the U.S. legally cannot fund security force units with a record of human rights abuses, enforcement is uneven. And the use of this assistance has expanded in the last 14 years.

Security Assistance and the "War on Terror"

In response to 9/11 and now to the threat of violent extremist groups — from Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia to ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaida in Yemen — the U.S. has increased not only security assistance but other forms of military aid. The stated objective for this aid is to promote democracy and stability and, ultimately, make the world safer from violent extremism.

By and large, security assistance has not had that effect. Instead, the aid often allies the U.S. with groups or even governments at odds with their own people.

Militarized U.S. security assistance can make violent extremism worse, as the world is seeing in Iraq and Somalia. Furthermore, the groups receiving U.S. training can exacerbate divided politics. In Mali, a U.S.-trained general led a 2012 coup that ended two decades of democratic rule. Violence still continues in parts of the country. In South Sudan, the U.S. provided millions of dollars in security assistance and training for the country’s armed forces. But South Sudan’s new army split into opposing factions that are engaged in a bitter civil war.

Security assistance can even take away with one hand what the U.S. is supporting with the other. As our lobbyist Theo Sitther observes, in Kenya the U.S. is supporting job training for Muslim youth. Our country is also funding and training the Kenyan counterterrorism police that contribute to tensions with the Muslim community. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report implicated these units for carrying out extrajudicial killings; nonetheless, the U.S. is looking to expand security assistance to Kenya.

A Way Forward

U.S. security assistance, as it is currently conceived, does not work and is doing more harm than good. But often when confronted with the terrible reality of violent extremism, the desire of our political leaders to do “something” means that security assistance is the tool they reach for.

There are better ways to build peace. FCNL’s advocacy focuses on orienting U.S. policy towards our shared security.

Congress and the administration need to change their approaches to security assistance. Here are three ways they can start:

  1. Increase accountability and oversight. Information about U.S. assistance to individual countries, security forces and militias should be publicly available. The U.S. should be required to explain the goals and the strategic framework of this assistance and regularly evaluate its impact.
  2. Restrict U.S. alliances with human rights abusers. Congress should have strong, well-enforced restrictions on assistance to police and military units implicated in or suspected of human rights abuses. The U.S. should proactively support human rights defenders and efforts to hold security forces accountable for abuse.
  3. Emphasize shared security. U.S. support, training and supplies should focus on reforming security forces and their institutions and on supporting local peacebuilding groups. The balance of assistance should shift from military aid and training to supporting conflict resolution, job creation, addressing economic injustice and promoting democratic and open societies.