Expert Commentary

The U.S. and Africa: A Misalignment of Security Interests

Stephen Biddle
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University

A large portion of what U.S. special operations forces do in Africa is security force assistance – training, advising and equipping partner militaries – rather than putting large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground. What are America’s aims with this strategy, and is it effective? The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder talked about this and America’s national security interests in Africa with Stephen Biddle, a professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, who recently co-authored a paper on U.S. security force assistanceSmall footprint, small payoff: The military effectiveness of security force assistance.”

The Cipher Brief: In your recent Journal of Strategic Studies paper you talk about the limits of security force assistance (SFA), especially due to small deployments. You have also said much of what U.S. special operations forces do in Africa is such assistance. What does “most” mean – is there a certain percentage of U.S. special operations forces that does this sort of work in Africa? And what are its specific limitations in Africa?

Stephen Biddle: I don’t have an exact percentage breakdown of security force assistance, but it’s an extremely common mission.

As far as the shortcomings of SFA, an interest misalignment that you can routinely expect between the United States provider and the host recipient tends to make the aid inefficient in its stated purpose of improving the military effectiveness of the recipient state.

TCB: Is that, compared to other countries and other continents, particular to Africa?

Biddle: It’s endemic to the mission. Pretty much wherever we do it, it has this property. The scale of the problem varies from recipient to recipient as a function of how serious the interest misalignment is, and it’s also a function of variations in the way we do it. But it’s almost always an issue. For example, when we do this in Afghanistan, it’s subject to at least as severe a problem with inefficiency as it is anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s a reason for that. The states who need the assistance typically need the assistance because they’re weakly institutionalized governments, they’re having a hard time producing an effective military. The same condition that creates a demand for security force assistance also tends to reduce SFA’s effectiveness because weak institutionalization on the part of the receiving state means that by and large they have to be more worried about the internal balance of power among rival armed elites than about the external threats that Americans care about; and that’s the interest misalignment that creates the problem.

If the recipient state wanted what we wanted and didn’t have a problem of weak institutionalization, they usually wouldn’t be receiving the aid in the first place.

TCB: John Siko, the other expert contributor in this feature and the head for business intelligence for Africa at Risk Advisory Group, mentioned the United States could use embedded private contractors who wouldn’t engage militarily in conflicts, instead of special operations forces. Should this be done, and specifically for something like SFA?

Biddle: I don’t think it makes much difference; it might even be worse. The problem is much less who’s providing the assistance or even how it’s provided, but the political makeup of the recipient. If the recipient is a weakly institutionalized state with multiple armed power centers, then they are typically going to misuse aid and use it to reinforce clientelism and the internal balance of power – and that’ll be true whether the aid is provided by a private company or the U.S. government or the French government or the British government.

There are things at the margin that the provider can do to make this problem smaller. The central thing you can do is conditionality. There’s no particular reason to assume that a private firm would be better at conditionality than the U.S. government. On the contrary, they’d probably be much worse.

If the U.S. government says we are going to cut off the aid unless you fire the following political cronies from senior command positions and replace them with military technocrats – a typical conditionality demand the U.S. might make – we have to be willing, then, to pull out special forces advisors if they don’t fire the guy we want fired. The U.S. government can do that. But a private contractor would risk the loss of their contract if they had to leave. The U.S. government is better situated to make that kind of threat and carry through on it than a private contractor would be.

TCB: Do you think that the Trump Administration recognizes some of the limitations of SFA, and that’s why in March, U.S. President Donald Trump approved removing certain constraints that former President Barack Obama had in place for airstrikes and raids conducted by U.S. special operations forces in Somalia against the al Shabaab terrorist group? Or were the motivations there different?

Biddle: The motivations there were very different, as far as one can tell. Of course, all sorts of contradictory statements come out of this Administration, so saying the Trump Administration believes x and not y is already a problem; different people in this Administration think and mean different things, and the president apparently means different things on Tuesday than he means on Wednesday, so one has to be wary when making the following claim. But the Administration appears to believe that U.S. interests would be better served in these places by taking the gloves off and being more forceful and constraining the U.S. military less. They seem to think it was political correctness for the Obama Administration to have worried so much about civilian casualties, and unlike Obama they’re not politically correct; therefore, they’re not going to be as constrained. My guess is that’s what’s going on with the reduction in constraints on airstrikes. I happen to think they’re wrong about that assessment of U.S. interests. Loosening collateral damage constraints will inevitably increase collateral damage, and to worry about this isn’t just liberal hand-wringing – there are good national security reasons to think that increased civilian fatalities at U.S. hands can increase local resistance to U.S. forces.

TCB: U.S. special operations forces in Africa have nearly doubled since 2014, now conducting around 96 activities in 20 countries with 1,700 personnel at any given time, according to an October 2016 strategic planning guidance report from Special Operations Command in Africa. Given that and what you just outlined as the Trump Administration’s possible view, if it holds consistent, do you think we’re going to see an increase of active U.S. special operations forces in Africa over the coming years?

Biddle: That’s a trend that predates this Administration. I don’t see any particular reason why this Administration would change that trend.

The whole problem here is the United States has real but limited interests in a lot of places around the world, and especially in a lot of parts of sub-Saharan Africa. We don’t want countries in sub-Saharan Africa to be terrorist havens. That’s a real interest, but it’s not a big enough interest that we’re willing to send 100,000 troops to any of these countries to stabilize their real estate. We want to do something, but we don’t want to do a lot.

The appeal of security force assistance by special forces in these kinds of settings is it looks like a way to do something without spending a lot of money and committing a lot of troops. But, again, the trouble is it actually buys a lot less improvement in the host’s military capability than people sometimes hope or expect.

TCB: Are there alternatives to this in these areas of the world where we have real but limited interests?

Biddle: There are plenty of alternatives, but they often don’t look very attractive. One alternative is to commit a lot more resources so that our conditionality threats have a lot more persuasive power. If you think that a fundamental barrier to the improvement of military performance in these kinds of countries is cronyism and corruption, which it almost always is, and you want to reduce the amount of cronyism and corruption by more conditional U.S. policy – fire the cronies and reduce the corruption, or else we don’t provide the aid – that kind of threat is much more likely to succeed when the aid offer is big than when the aid is small. If what we’re talking about is sending six American commandos, then it’s impossible to imagine a rational autocrat in that kind of state saying, yes I’m willing to fire my brother-in-law from corps command in order to get these six Americans into the country. That’s crazy. They’re never going to do that. If you’re offering a lot more, then maybe that kind of threat has more persuasive power.

Alternatively, you could send American soldiers to fight the terrorists and insurgents outright, instead of relying on the host nation and a security force assistance relationship to do it. But similarly, the whole problem is that these interests are real but limited, and most Americans don’t think it’s worth it to send thousands of American soldiers to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, its leader Joseph Kony, or some other malign actor in sub-Saharan Africa.

TCB: Is terrorism the driving factor behind the increase in U.S. special operations forces in Africa since 2014?

Biddle: It varies a bit from recipient country to recipient country, but terrorism tends to be a pretty common theme. You often see it described as stability – what we want is stability in the region, or stability in the country we’re assisting. But why do we care about stability? There are various reasons, but the most important of them is we’re worried an unstable place will become a terrorist haven. It’s not the only incentive, but it’s an important one.

TCB: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Biddle: The U.S. Special Operations Command believes that a big benefit of doing this is to build relationships, not necessarily to improve military effectiveness per se, but to make people more inclined to work with the United States. But there’s very little evidence that it actually works that way. At the end of the day, on issues of national security and internal balancing that are important to the recipient country, having a friendly relationship with a group of 20- to 40-year-old American soldiers is a lot less important than what they think their own national interests are.

Other things being equal, it’s always better to have some pre-existing relationship with any other human being. Human connections are a good thing. But if the issue is that we would like country x to crack down on a terrorist movement within its borders, and country x doesn’t want to because they think it’ll cause internal violence in their country, and so they’d rather tolerate the threat – will they crack down because they have a good relationship with the 12 American special forces commandos who were there last year, whereas they otherwise wouldn’t? Of course I’m presenting a complicated issue in a telegraphic way, but on balance I think that’s a lot less likely than some may hope.

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