Security Assistance and Reform: Bringing the Politics Back In

20 July 2018   ·   Philipp Rotmann

Whether the goal is “just” to professionalize or “even” to reform security institutions, security assistance and security sector reform are both about the allocation of power over the instruments of violence. External supporters can only succeed if they can integrate their projects into a broader strategy for political engagement with partner countries.

International support for security forces in countries in conflict is rising: In 2017, Germany alone spent more than 300 million euros on equipping, training and advising security forces (as well as on the salaries of Afghan security forces), compared to just 170 million euros in 2016. Comparatively, investment into democratic or civilian control over those security forces has been negligible: in 2017, the German government could name only five ongoing projects in four countries, with a combined budget of 3.7 million euros.

At the moment, a new German strategy for security sector reform is in the works. The federal ministries in charge explicitly consider their training, equipment and advisory programs – particularly  the “enable and enhance initiative” – as part of the Federal Government’s “current effort to reform our partner countries’ security sectors”, as the Directors-General Rüdiger König (Federal Foreign Office), Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development), Géza von Geyr (Federal Ministry of Defense) and Jörg Bentmann (Federal Ministry of the Interior) pointed out on the PeaceLab blog. The new strategy is supposed to help identify “common inter-ministerial benchmarks” and decide “where and how [SSR] support can be sensibly undertaken.”

It’s about time. In developing a new SSR strategy, the government has an opportunity to address three critical weaknesses in its current programming.

First, the comfortable illusions of “local ownership” and “capacity building”, as currently understood by the enable and enhance initiative, have little to do with reality. Local partners are neither as incapable as it seems, nor is the kind of equipment, training and advice that the German “enablers” are providing the decisive missing piece toward achieving the kind of capability that the German government seeks (for partner countries “to take responsibility  for themselves,” as the 2016 defense white paper put it quite patronizingly). On the contrary, the “local owners” are usually doing quite well on their own. It’s just that their interests are not fully aligned with those of the German government. There are overlapping interests, of course. But to leverage those, it is not enough to train, equip and advise – it takes the will and ability to exert political influence, far beyond “enabling” or “enhancing” local capacity.

Second, the new strategy should outline workable concepts, reflecting the state of the art, on how to achieve the desired improvements to capacity and the development of a “politically legitimized and accountable security sector which meets professional standards and which enjoys public trust” in practice. Providing equipment, training and demand-driven advice alone is not enough to achieve these goals. The decisive political capacities for analysis, dialogue and influencing have failed to keep pace with the rapidly growing project budgets. If the abundant project funds are to have a real impact, this is where the strategy needs to kick-start real investment. 

Third, the strategy could add a greater emphasis on civil society instruments for security sector reform, which have so far barely been used. Depending on the local political context, success in either professionalizing and/or reforming security forces requires different combinations of official political instruments and equipment, training and advising on the one hand, and support to civil society initiatives on the other. Many of these challenges are not specific to Germany as a supporting partner, and are relevant to other actors in international security assistance and reform –  not least other European governments.

To be trained, advised and equipped is not enough

Two new and comprehensive academic studies show that equipment and training have negligible impact on the success of international support for foreign security forces in enforcing a state’s monopoly on the use of force. Rather, political factors are the key to success or failure: Is the partner regime willing and able to convince the people of its legitimacy and to take the necessary steps forward? Do local ruling elites and their international supporters share a common understanding of this political goal?

Only when these preconditions are met should external supporters think about the specifics of their support. In the past, equipment and training aid were successful only in those rare cases in which donors were able to improve the partner country’s quality of military or police leadership by directly influencing personnel decisions, while avoiding the fall into dependence on said partners. The US pulled this off during the Greek civil war 1946-49, in South Korea 1949-53 and more recently in the case of certain special units of the Iraqi and Afghan armies. However, failure is far more common: Vietnam, El Salvador, Pakistan, and the majority of Afghan and Iraqi security forces are cases in point.

The fact that training alone does not build institutional capacity holds true in many areas far beyond core military or police skills. Trainings on the rule of law and human rights can convey knowledge or even help trainees question their roles in society, but in so doing, they do not make a relevant contribution to changing organizations as a whole. Numerous studies on development cooperation have shown as much, and political science has known it for at least 25 years.

In the case of Germany, its equipment, training and advisory support is expected to contribute to the “development, strengthening and reform of the security sector” because, as the latest policy statement in the government’s 2017 guidelines Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace puts it, “the rule of law and the protection of human rights, and more generally, the protection of civilians in violent conflicts are part of the police and military training syllabi.” This would all be well and good, if the German government worked solely with countries whose willingness to reform was evident or whose institutions were already human-rights compliant, as many of the German contributors to this debate would prefer. However, the reality is quite a different one: the government’s most important security assistance partners are Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Tunisia and Jordan. These are the countries for which it needs workable ideas in the new strategy.

Toward realistic strategies

Working with foreign security forces is decisive for European security interests, but it is also risky. The more our interests and values are affected, the higher the risks we must be willing to take. These risks must be taken with open eyes – with the government communicating those risks openly and developing plans to mitigate them.

Working with security forces is so deeply political because it is the power over the instruments of violence that is at stake. “Just” trying to professionalize security forces already requires redistributing power: we expect the individual mid-level commander to stop maneuvering between multiple loyalties to his army, his family and his ethnic group and exert his authority exclusively by the book.

Things get even more political when entire institutions are expected to shift from ensuring the security of the regime to serving the security of the population. Promoting such deep-seated reforms is not a task that governments can delegate to military advisory groups, defense attachés, liaison officers, implementers, or NGOs, despite the fact that these actors can play an important role. Instead, SSR is security policy, which is at the core of political engagement – it is the responsibility of the Ambassador and the Foreign Service as much as that of the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Development Cooperation. All too often, there is simply a lack of personnel, resources and political ambition. Here, Germany could learn a lot from the Dutch.

Three models

There are broadly three types of contexts to distinguish that necessitate different approaches and instruments. In each case the starting point must be a political-analytical look behind the appearance of state structures. Uniforms, ranks and organizational charts alone neither make an army nor a bureaucracy. Based on this, external supporters must capture both opportunities and risks of short-, medium-, and long-term goals systematically, keep track of them and create a targeted security cooperation agenda for each country – together with international partners.

Type 1: Moments of change

In cases where (part of) the partner government is open to professionalization or reforms, Germany should identify change agents and blockers, and support the change agents in a sensitive manner. Who are the ministers, generals and civil servants who think long-term and want to durably professionalize their organizations and who think beyond their own immediate political survival and the protection of their networks or social groups? Who are their allies in civil society? Which risks are posed by those whose power and source of income is threatened through change? How do we contain these risks?

When such opportunities arise in a country of political importance to Europe, those with access to and influence over presidents, ministers and generals in that country need to act: the ambassador’s role is crucial here, and she will need the backing of high-ranking civil servants and generals, visits by ministers from Berlin, maybe even the personal involvement of the Chancellor.

Advisory, training and equipment projects can accompany this. All too often, donors start with these and mistake the side- for the core issue. Look at Iraq: In 2014/15, the key objective was to avoid state collapse as the security forces disintegrated in the face of the Islamic State. In the medium-term, equipment and training support serves the re-establishment of Iraqi security forces that are accepted by all parts of society. Europe’s security interests in Iraq, however, go beyond the immediate reconstitution of the Iraqi army and police – our strategic interest is in ensuring the long-term professionalism and social acceptance of the Iraqi state, including its security forces. 

Structural reforms are therefore essential. An external government with some leverage can push for these directly, through high-ranking political involvement, but also indirectly through the promotion of initiatives from civil society that lead to public discussions on the defense budget, corruption, or the human rights record of the security forces.

Type 2: Bottom-up opportunities

In cases where progress at the highest political level is negligible, but where there is some freedom for civil society, there is an opportunity for long-term support to a new generation of reformers from within the country and “SSR from below”.

These contexts are the most common, and they offer much untapped potential for constructive, promising involvement below the level at which international cooperation typically takes place. This is where experts see room for constructive cooperation between civil society activists and mid-level members of the security forces in promoting human security without threatening the regime. Existing projects of the German political foundations and the Civil Peace Service illustrate how to approach this.

Type 3: Brittle authoritarian regimes

In cases where local rulers neither show interest in positive change for their own purposes nor allow the space for critical civil society engagement, any external actor must be realistic. Is it justified to convey tactical military or police skills when it is impossible to control their use? The US has repeatedly found itself in cases of reversed dependency as a result of its military aid: Does the US continue to support the Egyptian or Lebanese army solely to avoid ceding the field to Russia or Iran?

There are currently no “enable and enhance” programs in partnership with such regimes – and rightly so. At the same time, European governments such as Germany can and should invest in (small) arms control, in low-level exchange, and in international civilian initiatives to maintain points of access in these security sectors in the long run. For instance, it is worthwhile to promote networking projects which enable potential reformers to meet and exchange ideas abroad so as to better prepare them for potential instances of sudden political change.

Politics is not everything, but without politics everything is nothing

Ultimately, security sector assistance or reform must be a core part of German, French, Dutch, or European strategic political engagement with a partner country. It must not be another sectoral or technical “strategy” to be implemented by technical specialists without access to the real political decision-makers while ministers and ambassadors deal with easier, less sensitive issues. Therefore, any SSR strategy to be drawn up in Berlin, Paris or The Hague should make sure that it does not spark a proliferation of technical SSR country programs with only tenuous links to the political relationship with that country. It needs to achieve the opposite: to refocus our strategic political engagement with a partner country towards understanding and engaging with its security institutions. Whatever we do to “enable and enhance” capacity, or to support reform efforts, must serve the political strategy for the country.