The U.S. sends billions to foreign militaries each year. What do we have to show for it?
Lora Lumpe and Jeremy Ravinsky
Last month, the Obama administration released its 2017 budget proposal, including thousands of pages on the nearly $600 billion request for the Pentagon. That money is earmarked for a wide array of projects—$1.8 billion in procurement of equipment for the Special Operations Command, for instance, and $1.2 billion for the chemical and biological weapons defense program. In each case, the administration carefully explains the rationale and purpose for the budget request.
But what isn’t included in that massive budget is a comprehensive country-level breakdown of the $10 billion or so in foreign military aid the Pentagon administers every year, euphemistically referred to as Building Partner Capacity. This makes it impossible to calculate the cost of individual aid programs, much less to determine whether the BPC programs are effective. That’s a concern, because BPC sometimes causes more problems than it solves.
On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing to examine these programs. This oversight is overdue. Congress needs to do a better job of holding the Pentagon publicly accountable for how it administers BPC programs—before they inadvertently cause more damage to U.S. interests around the globe.
Congress began authorizing the Defense Department to provide direct assistance to foreign militaries in the 1990s in response to heightened fears about drug use in America. The Pentagon started training and equipping western hemisphere militaries and police to take on drug cartels. This represented a significant new authority for DOD. Previously, the State Department budget accounted for nearly all U.S. military assistance.
Since 9/11, these programs have surged in both size and number. According to the RAND Corporation, the Pentagon now has at least 70 different authorities under which it provides BPC to confront myriad challenges around the world, including insurgency in the Philippines, gang violence in El Salvador, terrorism in the Niger Delta, Chinese dominance in the South China Sea, and drug trafficking in Tajikistan.
In total, the DOD has spent at least $122 billion arming and training foreign partners in the past 15 years.
What do we have to show for it? That’s unclear. The Pentagon is the only government agency providing foreign assistance that is not required to submit an annual budget justification to Congress, so the public does not how much the DOD is spending in a given country and why. Without this baseline data, it’s difficult to evaluate whether these programs are succeeding, much less whether they are an efficient use of resources.
This year, the Pentagon’s comptroller released more foreign aid budget materials than ever before, providing details on five aid programs—including the $1 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund. That’s an improvement over past practices. But there are 66 other DOD-administered aid programs for which no country-level budget details were furnished. Admittedly, many of these programs are small. But together they amount to billions of dollars in aid. Nowhere are all of these programs lined up side by side for a given country so that oversight staff—or interested taxpayers—can see how these investments fit together and what they are intended to achieve.
Internal oversight bodies are also left in the dark with the BPC programs. Last December, the Congressional Research Service—which has full access to Pentagon documents and files—assessed whether the Pentagon’s BPC programs were achieving their stated goals. CRS found little evidence suggesting that these programs help end wars, stop violence or manage regional instability. “Despite the increasing emphasis on, and centrality of, BPC in national security strategy and military operations,” CRS researchers wrote, “the assumption that building foreign security forces will have tangible U.S. national security benefits remains a relatively untested proposition.”
Moreover, CRS could not evaluate cost-effectiveness of BPC programming because of an absence of accounting within the Pentagon. “Identifying how much money DOD actually spends on BPC activities is nearly impossible at present,” it said.
The most comprehensive and specific public information on the Pentagon’s military aid spending currently available is from the Security Assistance Monitor, a shoestring operation that laboriously combs through Pentagon reports to the congressional oversight committees for information on military aid, country-by-country, and compiles the data online. (Disclosure: the Security Assistance Monitor is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.) Its data show a jump from $1 billion in Pentagon-funded assistance in 2002 to $10.8 billion in 2015.
In addition to questions about fiscal responsibility, BPC programming appears to undermine U.S. national security. Recent research from Saferworld, a London-based Open Society grantee, on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen suggests that U.S. military assistance programs have created substantial blowback by exacerbating the central forces fueling insurgency and violence, thereby strengthening the enemies they are intended to combat.
In Yemen, for example, the U.S. spent more than half a billion dollars from 2010 to 2014 to beef up the Yemeni government’s security forces. But by strengthening an already corrupt and repressive regime, the United States helped drive ordinary citizens into the arms of sectarian groups like the Houthi rebels and extremists like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State.
In Somalia, the United States has spent more than $1 billion since 2007 to support regional allies in efforts to fight Al Shabaab militants. But U.S. partners’ abusive or discriminatory practices have led many people in the region to support Shabaab extremists. Meanwhile, U.S. support has strengthened the hand of authoritarian leaders in Uganda and Burundi, where recent mass killings of protesters have led to accusations of genocide.
The Pentagon’s opaque foreign aid budget also undermines our partner governments’ capacity to govern. In many nascent or fragile democracies, governments struggle to provide civilian oversight of their militaries. Congress only weakens its counterparts by supplying local forces with undisclosed amounts of money, weapons and training. As Transparency International and Carnegie Endowment have pointed out, nontransparent aid is particularly susceptible to theft, as corrupt local officials pay “ghost soldiers” or otherwise siphon off U.S. funds.
Congressional action to correct this basic information deficit is long overdue. In this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress should require that the Pentagon provide an annual, detailed, country-by-country budget of all its foreign aid programming.
A budget will not fix everything, but it would better allow Congress and foreign parliaments to understand the overall impact of U.S funding of foreign security forces. Without it, taxpayers and citizens of partner nations will continue to be left in the dark.
Lora Lumpe is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations focusing on U.S. foreign military assistance and governance issues. Jeremy Ravinsky is a policy associate at the Open Society Foundations.