Building Capacity or Undermining Stability? Reconsidering US Security Sector Assistance in Fragile States (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Keenan Ashbrook, Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

In the post-9/11 era, U.S. foreign policy has placed an increasingly high level of emphasis on Department of Defense (DoD)-led security sector assistance (SSA) in fragile states. This strategic shift has been motivated by the theory that “power vacuums” and instability serve as breeding grounds for hostile nonstate actors that could threaten U.S. national security. “Building partner capacity” or “security force assistance,” as these efforts have come to be called, are now a major aspect of American military engagement abroad. However, SSA has been marred by a record of failure. U.S. support to fragile state militaries has often been associated with human rights abuses, coups, large-scale corruption, and failure to perform effectively on the battlefield. In recognition of these failings, both Congress and the DoD have recently been placing an increased emphasis on pairing SSA with “institutional capacity building” (ICB) activities, which are intended to help partner states develop modern, high-functioning military institutions capable of effectively utilizing U.S. assistance while respecting the rule of law.

However, ICB is unlikely to increase the success rate of SSA because fragile states inherently lack the enabling sociological factors to enable sophisticated collective action through modern institutions. For the foreseeable future, ICB efforts are unlikely to have a meaningful effect on partner states’ underlying sociologically determined capacity for creating effective militaries that respect human rights and civilian control.

Consequently, the United States should abandon the current SSA-centric strategic approach to regional stability and counterterrorism that assumes capable security forces can be created in fragile states through concerted U.S. efforts. SSA should be reserved as a tool for bolstering key regional partners with effective pre-existing institutions and reasonably strong capacity to utilize U.S. assistance effectively. Where American national security is genuinely threatened by non-state actors in fragile states, the U.S. should rely on over-the-horizon strike capabilities instead of persisting in futile efforts to create effective local security forces.