Building Militaries in Fragile States

With a rich comparative case-study approach that spans Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Building Militaries in Fragile States unearths provocative findings that suggest the traditional way of working with foreign militaries needs to be rethought.

Building Militaries in Fragile States
Challenges for the United States

Mara E. Karlin

2017 | 296 pages | Cloth $75.00
Political Science | Military Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Understanding the Problem
Chapter 2. Greece: The "Will to Win" Was Fruitless Without U.S. Involvement
Chapter 3. South Vietnam: Building a Military "American Style"
Chapter 4. Lebanon I: "The United States Is Short of Breath" but Others Are Not
Chapter 5. Lebanon II: "The Side That Won Was Willing to Kill and Be Killed"
Chapter 6. Findings and Implications


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Chapter 1
Understanding the Problem

In 2015, much of the Iraqi Army dissolved as the Islamic State overran key Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Mosul. After more than a decade of U.S. training and more than $20 billion in assistance to strengthen the force, training was for naught as Iraqi soldiers fled battles and holed up in their homes, military leadership disappeared, and nearly three divisions worth of equipment were abandoned to the Islamic State. Yet another example of U.S. efforts to build militaries in fragile states had failed.

As a civilian policymaker in the U.S. Defense Department, I led a wide range of programs to build militaries in fragile states. Sandwiched between teams building Iraq and Afghanistan's militaries while I sought to strengthen the Lebanese, Pakistani, Palestinian Authority, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, and Jordanian security sectors, I began to appreciate how difficult it is to execute these programs in fragile states. The relevant literature seemed detached and unhelpful, and policymakers—including me—longed for a better approach that was both effective and implementable. Above all, I wondered what circumstances would make it more likely for these programs to succeed. This book seeks to answer that question.

When, why, and under what circumstances have U.S. programs to strengthen partner militaries for internal defense succeeded? Particularly since World War II, the United States has often responded to its allies' faltering internal security situations by training and equipping their militaries. It will continue to do so given U.S. sensitivity toward casualties, a constrained fiscal environment, the nature of modern nationalism, increasing transnational security threats, and the proliferation of fragile states. And yet the U.S. track record for building militaries in fragile states is uneven at best.

The United States generally conducts these programs with the expectation that the partner state will confront and contain a security challenge when U.S. national security is not immediately threatened. By strengthening a fragile state's core function—its ability to secure its populace—it should be better able to govern its territory and to monopolize force. And if successful, the threat posed by such a weak state to U.S. national security interests and international security diminishes.

An effective military institution is necessary for a state to function, according to Max Weber's threshold. He argued that a state is an entity that "(successfully) claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Although at some level there have always been states that could not meet this standard, Weber's concept is increasingly challenged. Indeed, it may be irrelevant. Simply put, commanding a monopoly on violence is no longer a foundation of many existing states. There exist now an increasing number of fragile nation-states that have the trappings of statehood yet cannot create internal security. Such states must strengthen their sovereignty throughout their national territory, which can be accomplished by training and equipping their military so that it can hold a monopoly on violence. But how can the United States effectively help them do so?

Synopsis of Argument

The commonly accepted narrative in Washington for fixing security assistance in fragile states can be summed up in one word: more. More equipment. More training. More help. More quickly. And, of course, more money. Too little emphasis, however, is put on the role of the partner military. And, too little emphasis is put on the role of unhelpful external actors; that is, other states that have a vested interest in undermining the success of programs to strengthen state militaries. Those that see benefit in fragility and seek to foment it—or at least maintain it—work contrary to U.S. interests.

This book disputes that more is the answer; instead, it focuses on how. To effectively strengthen partner militaries in fragile states, the U.S. military must transform its engagement with them. Simply training and equipping these militaries will not enable them to effectively exert the government's sovereignty throughout its territory. To be sure, it may have marginal effects by quantitatively influencing the military's capabilities. But at a strategic level, meaningful change is only possible due to the interaction of two key variables: the nature of U.S. involvement and the role of unhelpful external actors. I hypothesize that if the United States gets deeply involved in the partner state's sensitive military affairs, and if antagonistic external actors play a diminishing role, then the partner state military is more likely to establish internal defense. This outcome—establishing a capable security sector that can maintain internal defense—is therefore a function of the nature of the U.S. effort and the external threat environment.

This historic U.S. dilemma has grown acute. Building partner militaries in fragile states "is in many ways the ideological and security challenge of our time," argued former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. A wide range of events in recent years has further underscored that efforts to do so should not be dismissed as concerns of the last decade. Multiple crises around the globe, from the Islamic State's manipulation of Iraqi and Syrian fragility to instability across North Africa to the continuing instability in Mexico, illustrate the salience of this challenge. As policymakers in the American, European, and Asian national security communities increasingly focus on challenges posed by sophisticated great power competitors such as China and Russia, they will have both less time and less funding to deal with instability due to fragile states. Building partner militaries will likely be increasingly seen as an easier and cheaper way to minimize this instability, particularly as the U.S. Defense Department remains focused on conducting missions across the conflict spectrum amidst an increasingly complex security environment. Further illustrating its priority, in 2014 the Department of Defense's policy shop stood up a new office focused solely on security cooperation.

Short of a catastrophic event, the United States is unlikely to launch another invasion and large-scale military occupation like Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 in the near-term. Instead, it will "employ indirect approaches—primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces—to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention." The U.S. Defense Department's 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance reinforces these arguments: "Building partnership capacity . . . remains important. . . . Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives," a concept echoed in other major national security strategy documents issued in recent years.

The United States faces a long-term decline in defense spending going forward. Given the 2013 experience with sequestration, and despite requests by the Obama administration for a larger defense budget, congressional wrangling and the lack of bipartisan consensus on the necessary level of national security funding make it unlikely that the overall defense budget will markedly increase over the coming years (short of a catastrophic event). At the same time, American leaders still wish to prevent failing states, terrorist safe havens, and civil wars. If U.S. direct military intervention to achieve those goals is unacceptable politically, then increasingly indirect options will invariably be considered. Today, a large and growing part of the national debate on defense is how to pursue American security interests at a lower cost. Building partner militaries in fragile states is one key way of doing so. But for the United States to effectively build these militaries, it must understand how it has done so in the past.

The Puzzle

For decades, the U.S. military has spent substantial time and treasure trying to build partner militaries in fragile states. These programs pointedly focus on training and equipping, emphasizing hardware as the solution, and limiting the U.S. role. They take a hands-off approach to sensitive issues in these partner militaries, such as organizational structure and personnel appointments, and they largely discount the role played by other countries with vested interests, centering instead on the partner state and the United States.

Yet this approach has rarely succeeded. It ignores the attendant qualities of a fragile state. Specifically, such state militaries may be structurally unsound and therefore require substantial and disruptive reforms. But they may lack the coherence and the will to undertake such necessary reforms. And discounting the role of antagonistic external actors is both misguided and harmful. Weak states are vulnerable. They lack capable institutions that enable the government to exert its sovereignty effectively. And there are external actors who will benefit from this fragility. They will, therefore, undermine U.S. efforts to establish a capable and willing partner military because they desire continued weakness in the partner state and view U.S. policy as inimical to their regional interests.

Limiting the U.S. military's role and focusing on just the role it plays, in addition to the partner state, simply hasn't worked. And it is what the weak states, counterinsurgency, security sector reform, and security assistance literatures largely mandate, which calls into question the utility of this received wisdom. These literatures argue that a program to effectively strengthen a partner state military should be sustained and grounded in a shared agenda marked by local ownership in which the U.S. role is limited. They largely focus on tangible quantitative metrics such as the number of troops trained or the amount of equipment disbursed, and above all, they lack consensus on the most appropriate or useful ways to measure the progress and impact of a donor state's security sector reform program. Moreover, they generally assume that the United States and the partner state are the primary actors influencing the program to strengthen the military.

The Problem: Weak States

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia launched the era of sovereign states, and centuries later Max Weber asserted that the defining feature of statehood was the ability to exert sovereignty throughout a territory. "A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory," he argued. Despite efforts such as the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which sought to preserve state legitimacy even if a state was unable to effectively command its territory, Weber's terminology was maintained as a standard. "War makes the state and the state makes war," echoed Charles Tilly in his discussion of a state's core function.

Yet the problem of weak states is their very inability to fulfill this core duty of securing their territory due to a lack of capability, will, or legitimacy. These elements align with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's definition of weak states: "States are fragile when state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations."

Weak states suffer from a "security gap" that violent non-state and antagonistic external actors can exploit. This first category includes insurgents and terrorists, who undermine fragile states, and the second category includes other external actors who assist them by providing sanctuary, materiel, training, political support, or simply rhetorical support, enabling these violent non-state actors to fight longer and with great lethality. Such assistance, although always relevant, has become even easier given the contemporary globalized and networked environment. Moreover, since World War II, conflicts within states have proliferated and "'state death' as a result of external invasion . . . has almost disappeared." Therefore, weak states are less likely to be extinguished and instead will muddle through the international system as fragile entities ripe for manipulation.

The impact of this manipulation has spurred U.S. interest in fragile states at varying periods. Given the British and French colonial experience, their interest in and analyses of insurgency largely predated the United States', and save for a U.S. Marine Corps manual on small wars published during World War II, the U.S. military and U.S. scholars generally ignored insurgency. The American experience in Vietnam inspired an extensive exploration of insurgency-related assessments in the United States, including warnings about how difficult it is to counter, particularly given the U.S. bureaucratic system.

Although the U.S. military strived to build partner militaries following the Vietnam War, including in El Salvador and Lebanon, the September 11, 2001 attacks represented a watershed moment that reinvigorated U.S. interest in failing states. Over the previous decade, the United States—along with much of the international community—had grown apprehensive about weak states' inability to manage their internal challenges, given the potential spillover of this deficiency. In the wake of these attacks, a state's failure to police its territory now had more serious security implications given the connected nature of the modern world; as the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy asserted, "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." And U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan soon spurred a host of analyses about how this threat had changed, given the globalized security environment.

External Actors Try to Fix the Problem

External actors, including the United States, have sought to fix this problem wherein states are unable to secure their territory by "shor[ing] up or creat[ing] from whole cloth missing state capabilities and institutions." Programs to strengthen partner militaries can promote domestic and regional stability, empower allies, broaden power, and provide deterrence. All of these dynamics were particularly relevant given America's reliance on partners in the Cold War and post-September 11 environments. And foundational documents written soon after the Cold War began, such as the Greek-Turkish Aid Act of 1947, the first Mutual Security Act in 1951, and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, illustrate that the U.S. government supported partner militaries because of perceptions that doing so was in its national security interest.

The fragile states, counterinsurgency, security sector reform, and security assistance literatures offer advice for external actors on how to strengthen partner militaries for internal defense. The relevant recommendations primarily fall under two categories: (1) how the external actor should operate internally; and (2) what its relationship with the partner state should look like. Both suggest optimal ways for the external state's behavior, and each case study's assessment hinges on a close examination of these dynamics. However, as will grow clear in this exploration, they are also rather detached from the reality of policymaking.

In the first category, the partner state should take a broad view of state-building needs and strive to establish a capable, legitimate security sector. With this support, the state's provision of security should be both "effective and efficient . . . and in the framework of democratic civilian control." To do so, the external actor should possess substantial local knowledge about the partner state and consider the context in which it operates, particularly the existing political and military circumstances; doing so can prevent it from assuming "an institutional blank slate" exists, or "the fallacy of terra nullius," when embarking on an institution-building enterprise.

The external actor also should pursue a clear, formal decision-making process in formulating, launching, and coordinating its program to strengthen a partner's military; its approach should be unified and integrated based on objectives that are "specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (in terms of resources available), and time-bound." But the reality is often tangled given the complex issues surrounding fragile states and particularly regarding a donor state like the U.S. government, which has multiple branches and possesses a decision-making system designed to restrain action. In this vein, although the catchphrase "whole of government" has become popular in the U.S. government for stability operations and institution-building efforts, its execution has been far more aspirational than realistic. Moreover, such processes require time, an element that rarely exists in abundance in the case of weak states, when rapid and flexible responses are critical.

The external actor should make a long-term commitment to assist the partner state. Although the number of years depends on each situation, the external actor should be cautious of having "attention deficit disorder" and "promise not to abandon state rebuilding before the tough work is finished—before a failed state has functioned well for several years." Yet this recommendation is unrealistic. It fails to consider the internal dynamics of the donor state, particularly in terms of its decision-making and funding processes, to say nothing of its accountability mechanisms, election cycles, and fluctuating interest in a specific partner state. Given the nature of the U.S. political system, maintaining a durable policy over a number of years can be difficult, particularly given the inevitable setbacks that occur when wrestling with a thorny issue, such as strengthening a fragile state's military. Further, the longer that an external actor's military is present to facilitate security, the less that the partner state's population will welcome them, and the more likely that they will begin to resent the external actor; it is perhaps more helpful for the external actor to consider that strengthening a partner's military "is a process rather than an end-point."

In the second category, the external actor's relationship with the partner state should have certain characteristics, according to this literature. It should be grounded in shared values and shared interests; indeed, much of the contemporary literature assumes that the external actor and the partner state have aligned interests. Moreover, the external actor should play a limited role: the program to strengthen the state's military should be wholly grounded in local ownership by the partner state. Though the comparison is imperfect because he sought to build an insurgency, T. E. Lawrence's caution about the role of external actors in strengthening military forces reflects a commonly accepted contemporary understanding about the appropriate—and limited—role for the partner state. "Do not try and do too much with your own hands," he urged, "better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them." The U.S. Army urges its advisers to "be patient . . . subtle . . . [and] diplomatic" and, more broadly, the literature does not suggest that the external actor should delve into sensitive partner state military affairs such as personnel.

Yet differing interests and values between the two states are unsurprising. They very well may disagree over whom to fight and how best to do so, and limited involvement by the external actor invariably has a limited impact on the partner military. Numerous historical and contemporary cases illustrate the former. And in the case of the latter, the nature of external actor involvement no doubt influences the extent of the reform effort.

An asymmetrical power structure exists between the two states, particularly because the donor state is able to set the agenda. The donor state plays a very real, powerful, rarely articulated, and perhaps discomfiting role: it organizes and funds security sector reform efforts, and without its involvement, the partner state can find itself without a sponsor to facilitate these efforts. Yet this paradigm assumes the external actor will not—certainly, should not—set the agenda or become involved in sensitive internal military affairs in the partner state. For example, programs to strengthen a partner military—or any institution, for that matter—benefit from competent leadership, yet passivity and limited involvement on the part of the donor state would require it to avoid such a delicate topic. Even though capable counterinsurgent militaries possess "a high level of initiative . . . motivated soldiers . . . learning and creativity"—all of which are surely influenced by military leadership (as are other issues like resources, structural issues, and the use of force)—external actors do not delve into such a sensitive issue. Moreover, this paradigm emphasizes the partner state's strength—because it can "get, but need not give in return"—and is a glaring reminder of how hesitant the external actor can be, particularly given fears that its partner will simply turn elsewhere for support.

To be sure, the external actor should be humble about what is achievable, not simply desirable, when it seeks to strengthen a partner state military; simply put, building militaries—and by extension, building nations—is difficult. Foreign internal defense programs are particularly sensitive given that they involve a ruling regime's inability to exert its sovereignty. And, U.S. programs are doubly challenging because the United States, as a democracy, seeks to empower its partner state to extend internal defense appropriately. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that some scholars urge the United States to simply avoid internal conflicts or offer hyperbolic, unattainable thresholds for intervention.

But the United States will surely continue attempting to strengthen partner militaries. The increasingly decentralized international environment and America's weakening global economic position coupled with the proliferation of fragile states and transnational threats will further ensure its reliance on this approach. Although much of the advice about how the external actor should operate and what its relationship with the partner state should look like are unrealistic, the theory on strengthening partner militaries in weak states can best be described as an "undeveloped concept" whose history is less positive than its vision. Nevertheless, these literatures provided salient points of consideration that influenced this book's research and assessment.

Research Design

When, why, and under what circumstances have U.S. efforts to build partner militaries for internal defense succeeded? Taking a qualitative, comparative case study approach, I discovered a policy-relevant answer to this question that takes the literature to a different level and could be operationalized by the U.S. government, given both its paradigm for success and roadmap for achieving it.

The Framework

I conducted a structured, focused examination of all relevant aspects of each U.S. effort to strengthen a partner military in a fragile state. These included key decisions, program execution, and the nature of U.S. involvement with the partner state. Specifically, this assessment highlighted the details of each program, including the quantity, quality, and distribution of training and equipment; the U.S. decision to launch the program and subsequent notable decisions concerning it; and program-related interactions with the partner state. This latter aspect examined the extent to which the states agreed on and maintained terms for building and employing the partner state military. Looking at relevant aspects of these different programs and posing the same general questions during research and analysis helped to identify the sequencing of each effort.

To facilitate exploration, several parameters of control limited the differences among the cases. All cases involved the same external actor—the United States—launching a program to strengthen a small, fragile state's military as it faced an insurgency. Although a range of other external actors have led programs to build partner militaries, such as the United Kingdom and France, zeroing in on U.S. only-led programs enabled this study to explore key variables. All cases involved broader U.S. interest than just the partner state. For example, the United States became interested in these states due to their relevance vis-à-vis broader issues in the post-World War II environment, such as the Cold War or the Arab-Israeli conflict. For each case, U.S. involvement was characterized by a concerted, high-level effort to build the state's military for internal defense purposes. The nature of U.S. involvement was restricted in these programs to indirect or direct support of allies conducting Foreign Internal Defense (FID). All cases had weak security sectors; however, the primary focus of U.S. assistance remained strengthening the military rather than paramilitary or police forces because the U.S. Defense Department is nearly always restricted to working with and assisting partner military forces.

The Desired Outcome: Partner State Extends the Monopoly on Violence

This book measures the extent to which the U.S. program results in a more enforced and sustainable monopoly on violence extended by the partner state. Given the policy-relevant nature of this topic, this definition aims to incorporate key elements of successful internal defense while also providing a usable, coherent framework. Although it would be convenient to institute a set number of years for examining each program, I sought to avoid employing an arbitrary time horizon because the end of these programs is often hazier than the beginning.

The first part of this measure, enforcement, assesses the extent to which antagonistic external actors are able to use violence to disrupt and manipulate the partner state. Enforcement includes declining levels of violence and the partner military's willingness (or lack thereof) to actively confront its opponents. These markers are considered in tandem, to account for situations in which a fairly peaceful situation prevails where the state has ceded control of territory. Challenging opponents increases the level of violence in the short term, but it should not be mistaken for failure. Attempts to retake these areas aim to increase the partner state's presence throughout its territory and to diminish the maneuverability of non-state actors.

The second part of this measure, sustainability, accounts for the partner state's long-term ability to monopolize violence within its borders, even without U.S. support. Sustainability includes increasing partner state military control of national territory. From a long-term perspective, the partner state's military—not an external actor—must be responsible for protecting its populace. The more it controls its national territory—not simply increases its presence—the more likely that the state can maintain its long-term viability in tempering opportunities for insurgents to adequately challenge it in the future.

Achieving the Desired Outcome

There are two critical elements whose interaction makes it more likely that the partner state will exert a monopoly on violence: the nature of U.S. efforts to strengthen the partner state's military and the role of antagonistic external actors. If the United States gets deeply involved in the partner state's sensitive military affairs and if antagonistic external actors play a diminishing role, then the partner state military is more likely to establish internal defense . This outcome—establishing a capable security sector that can maintain internal defense—is therefore a function of the nature of the U.S. effort and the external threat environment.

The first element—the nature of U.S. involvement—discounts the notion that training and equipment will sufficiently build a military to take those actions desired by the United States. Instead, this element suggests that deep U.S. involvement in a partner state's sensitive military affairs is critical for transforming a military. Not only do the military's capabilities require enhancement—which is accomplished with training and equipment—so does its will. Influencing the military's most sensitive affairs, including personnel and organization, can enhance its will.

Therefore, deep U.S. involvement is characterized by selecting the personnel who constitute the institution's senior leadership, organizing the military around countering an internal threat, and avoiding becoming a co-combatant. By their very nature, militaries "are especially resistant to change," and a critical element for enabling them to change is "talented military personnel," particularly in unstable circumstances. At least some partner state military personnel will be reluctant to adopt reforms that might limit their power. These disincentives to change are one reason why a deep U.S. role in sensitive partner state military issues, such as personnel affairs, is so critical. The role, shape, and mission of the organization, as influenced by its personnel, will therefore have an impact on the military's actions. Organizations acquire "personalities of their own that are shaped by their experiences and that, in turn, shape their behavior." Although efforts by the United States to expand its role into combat operations may have some utility in assisting a partner state, commencement of combat operations dramatically changes the nature of American involvement, heavily influencing the program to strengthen the state military.

In that vein, I measure the nature of American involvement based on three components:

  1. Structure: Does the United States organize the partner state military around combating an internal threat and establishing internal defense? How clear is its internal defense mission?

  2. Personnel: Does the United States seek to effectively—influence the appointments process in the partner state military for key leadership positions? How effective and unified is the vision and initiative of the United States (in the field and in Washington)?

  3. Limits: Does the United States restrict its role to training, equipping, and advising the partner state military? Does it avoid becoming a cocombatant alongside it?

Taken together, this concept illustrates the extent to which the United States influences the partner state's military in key areas.

The second element—the external threat environment—suggests that when antagonistic external actors diminish their role in supporting insurgents, the partner state military is further enabled to establish internal defense. Antagonistic external actors influence the degree to which the partner state military's monopoly on violence is more enforceable and sustainable for a wide range of reasons, including their own national interests, their position vis-à-vis the United States, or their affinity for the group(s) destabilizing the partner state. Their support can influence the insurgency's capacity and capability, decision making, and activities. Such external support is a critical component of an insurgency's capabilities, longevity, and efficacy.

The external threat environment is measured by a component focused on support.

How do antagonistic external actors shift their support to the insurgents, including providing materiel and offering sanctuary, and more broadly undermine the state's stability? A military appropriately built for internal defense purposes with capable leadership that is not reliant on the United States as a cocombatant has the ability to effectively take advantage of changes in external support to the insurgency.

Case Selection

To effectively test this hypothesis and to facilitate a streamlined methodological structure, I selected four cases based on their variation along the previous outlined variables. These four U.S. programs involved efforts to strengthen militaries at historic junctures: Greece's military following World War II, South Vietnam's military throughout the 1950s, Lebanon's military in the early 1980s, and Lebanon's military again in the mid-2000s. Most important, the outcomes of the cases differ, which helped clarify under what circumstances U.S. programs to strengthen militaries were more likely to succeed. The Greece case was compelling to select because it was the United States' first post-World War II effort to strengthen a fragile state's military for internal defense. The two Lebanon cases signified a rare effort in which the United States twice organized a program to strengthen a partner state military. The longitudinal variation within the two Lebanon case studies supplemented the cross-section variation across the other cases, thereby overcoming some of the inexactitude present in cross-national comparisons and enabling a deep, focused examination. And the South Vietnam case not only offered temporal and geographic diversity, but for much of the previous century, it also represented the paramount example of a U.S. effort to strengthen a weak state's military. Although two of the cases—Greece and South Vietnam, respectively—are characterized by a substantial program to strengthen each military by a different country before the United States becomes involved in doing so, this book focuses primarily on the U.S. program. Moreover, in the South Vietnam case, France's involvement presents a dramatically different dynamic than that of the United States, given its role as a colonial power. Finally, each case is largely constrained to the same U.S. administration in Washington, DC in an effort to limit variation when possible. Examining each case for several years enabled me to hold many background parameters constant. Taken together, these cases enabled a structured, focused investigation and thick, bounded assessment of this question.

Table 1 provides an overview of the categories illustrated by the four selected cases. They are based on two parameters: the nature of U.S. involvement in building the partner state's military and the role of antagonistic external actors, which is a proxy for the external threat environment. The symbols "+" and "-" refer to the extent to which the United States was deeply involved in the partner state's sensitive military affairs. This includes organizing the partner state military around combating an internal threat and establishing internal defense based on a clear mission, seeking to influence appointments in the partner state military, having an effective and unified representative in the field, and avoiding becoming a cocombatant. "Diminishing" and "strengthening" refer to the extent to which antagonistic external actors shifted their support to the insurgents and undermined stability.

In the "Capable Security Sector" category, the partner state military actively countered its opponents and could capably maintain internal security within two years of the U.S. program's inauguration. The United States organized the military for internal defense, was deeply involved in its personnel affairs, and did not extend the monopoly on violence on behalf of the partner state. Antagonistic external actors receded or largely diminished their involvement. Broadly, there was less violence, the state controlled more territory, and the insurgents were much weaker than before the U.S. program began. This category is illustrated by the U.S. effort to strengthen Greece's military following World War II. During this period, the United States organized an unprecedented effort to build Greece's military as it fought guerrillas supported by various communist states.

In the "Spoiler" category, the partner state took some steps to maintain internal security during the U.S. program to strengthen its military. The United States organized the military for internal defense and was somewhat involved in its personnel affairs; however, the internal defense mission was severely flawed. Antagonistic external actors increased their efforts to weaken the state and, to an extent, the United States extended the monopoly on violence on behalf of the state. Broadly, violence continued and the state's control of its territory remained extremely limited after the U.S. program ended. This category is illustrated by the U.S. effort to build Lebanon's military in the early 1980s as it countered numerous state and non-state actors.

In the "Insufficient Progress" category, the partner state took some steps to maintain internal security during the U.S. program to strengthen its military. The United States did not extend the monopoly on violence on behalf of the partner state; however, it also was not involved in sensitive Lebanese military affairs, such as personnel assignments. Antagonistic external actors somewhat diminished their meddling and efforts to undermine the state. Broadly, the state had a greater presence throughout its territory, but its control remained limited throughout the U.S. program to strengthen its military. This category is illustrated by the U.S. effort to strengthen Lebanon's military from 2005 to 2009, in an effort to extend Lebanese sovereignty over violent non-state actors that received external support from Iran and Syria.

In the "Overreaction" category, the partner state was largely unable to maintain internal security during the U.S. program to strengthen its military. The United States organized the military for external—rather than internal—defense due to its nearly singular focus on the role of antagonistic external actors. Such actors substantially increased their efforts to undermine the partner state. The United States did not become involved in delicate military affairs, such as personnel, and it also extended the monopoly on violence on behalf of the state. Broadly, violence had worsened and the state's control over its territory was increasingly tenuous five years into the U.S. program to strengthen its military. This category is illustrated by the U.S. effort to strengthen the South Vietnamese military throughout the 1950s, a relatively understudied period of this relationship. This program involved the United States attempting to build the nascent South Vietnamese military as it faced guerrillas supported by various communist states.

Excluded Cases

Although post-1945 history provided many examples in which the United States attempted to build a partner state's military, certain types of cases were excluded as they were beyond the scope of this book. These include programs where the United States became involved in combat operations and launched costly occupations, such as Vietnam after 1961, Afghanistan after 2001, and Iraq after 2003. Not only are such engagements rare, but more important, the nature of U.S. programs to strengthen militaries during a massive occupation is harder to disentangle given the numerous other variables that exist. Although this could be an area for future research, it nevertheless presents circumstances that are both more rare and too different than the ones explored here. Programs focused on external defense, such as Turkey after World War II and Iran under the Shah, were ruled out because they are inherently different from those seeking to exert a central government's sovereignty. In particular, external defense programs do not primarily involve sensitive affairs regarding a ruling regime's domestic opponents. Those involving a non-state security sector, such as the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s and 2000s, were rejected given their uniqueness, as were those that emphasized paramilitary assistance, such as the Philippines post-World War II, because they are now generally conducted outside of Ministries/Departments of Defense. Those overwhelmingly characterized by the narcotics trade, such as Colombia over the last three decades or Mexico after 2008, were excluded given the markedly different set of issues raised by the considerable funds flowing to the nonstate actors. Finally, other relevant programs that meet the criteria—including El Salvador in the 1980s, Pakistan after 2001, and Yemen since 2006—were not selected because their elements were already accounted for in Table 1, or because conducting research in them was too risky.


Each case study benefits from the most appropriate sources available, including interviews, field research, primary and secondary sources, and archival materials. For example, given the historical nature of the Greece and South Vietnam case studies, U.S., Greek, and Vietnamese archival materials provided information and analysis of the greatest utility, including official—often declassified—documents like policy memos, meeting reports, intelligence analyses, and personal papers. Similar archival material was beneficial for the first Lebanon case study, but its limited existence necessitated fieldwork, interviews, and a heavy emphasis on news sources. There are virtually no declassified or official documents available for the contemporary Lebanon case study, so I also relied on fieldwork, interviews, and news sources. To effectively conduct these interviews, I employed the "snowballing" method in which interviewees suggest other potentially worthwhile individuals to consult. Snowballing was particularly helpful in enabling me to locate many relevant policymakers, given their elite status. In total, I interviewed nearly forty senior Lebanese and American political and military officials throughout Lebanon and Washington, DC. Many of the interviewees had not previously spoken about their involvement in these programs, bringing meaningful evidence to light for the first time. Each case study's richness is due to the diversity of resources used in an effort to triangulate my research.


The U.S. military has spent decades building partner militaries in fragile states; it will continue to do so given the nature of the security environment, state fragility, domestic fiscal constraints, and limits on U.S. public support for military interventions. Nevertheless, it is hard to do well. This issue has been understudied in both the academic and policy spheres. As a professor and as a policymaker, I have seen firsthand the ramifications. Therefore, this book seeks to contribute useful insights to the literature and to bridge this critical knowledge gap.

Although most analyses of these programs converge around training and equipping, this book argues that is a misguided approach. Instead, given the nature of a fragile state, this book hones in on the outsized roles played by two key actors: the U.S. military and unhelpful external actors. For the former, the nature of U.S. involvement in sensitive military affairs, particularly efforts to reform organizational structure, influence key personnel appointments, and refrain from becoming a cocombatant is crucial. For the latter, diminished involvement by antagonistic external actors is essential to diminish instability. Taken together, these two elements facilitate a more enforced and sustainable monopoly on violence, with increased military territorial control, declining levels of violence, and a partner military willing to confront its opponents.

These key themes emerge from a rigorous examination of four case studies spanning Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In Greece after World War II, deep U.S. involvement in a range of sensitive Greek military affairs coupled with weakened antagonistic external actors enabled an increasingly capable security sector. Conversely, South Vietnam throughout the 1950s was characterized by a U.S. program with misguided involvement in military affairs—limited in delicate arenas and increasingly cocombatant in others—while the guerrillas received increased external support. And in Lebanon, two cases use longitudinal variation to pull apart elements of success and failure. During the first U.S. program in Lebanon, in the early 1980s, the U.S. military took some important steps to delve into sensitive military affairs; however, it also slipped into a cocombatant role, and a wide range of violent actors redoubled their efforts to weaken the Lebanese state. In the second iteration of this program, during the mid- to late 2000s, the U.S. role was overly constrained—limiting progress—and the threat environment evolved in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Taken together, this results-based exploration suggests new and meaningful findings for building partner militaries in fragile states.