For almost a decade, the Obama administration has championed security force assistance to a war-weary public tired of sending troops abroad. Posed as a nearly cost-free alternative to U.S. boots on the ground, U.S. security assistance spending has ballooned, despite the often dismal outcomes it produces. Now, observers of U.S. foreign policy are finally calling into question the wisdom and efficacy behind this supposed “small footprint” strategy. 

Still the administration and Congress are poised to spend even more on military assistance this year, with zero strings attached. Without more oversight and assessment, the U.S. government is doomed to repeat the widely reported failures of the past. 


Since General Lloyd Austin’s admission to Congress in September of the magnitude of the Syrian train and equip program’s failure, criticism of recent security assistance programs has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, andForeign Policy

Over the past decade, $25 billion was wasted on building up Iraq’s security sector. The corruption and sectarianism of the U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki consistently undermined whatever progress had been made, leaving Iraq’s defense capabilities a shambles and actually driving the grievances that led to the rise of ISIS.  

In Afghanistan, after $67 billion and more than a decade of training and equipment, the country’s national security forces were left scrambling in the face of the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the U.S. military has been partnering with Afghan security officials who have been sexually abusing young boys with impunity.  

Far from being cost-free, security assistance “risks further destabilizing already unstable situations and actually countering U.S. interests,” as Phil Carter rightly observed in The Washington Post. Supplying money, equipment, and training cannot make up for the absence of fair and accountable governance.

This shift in attitude appears to have come too late for this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which not only renews previously established military aid programs but also creates half a dozen new ones.  They include providing $100 million more in counterterrorism aid to allied African nations; $300 million in military aid for Ukraine; $50 million to build up the navies of countries on China’s perimeter; and $28 million in weapons aid to Eastern European allies to participate in multilateral trainings with the U.S. armed forces.  

Congress has used the massive defense spending bill to create a $10 billion foreign aid program that the Pentagon administers, adding to the nearly $10.5 billion in State Department aid that trains and arms foreign military and police forces.   

But unlike the State Department’s foreign aid budget, the Pentagon is not required to present a coherent picture of the assistance it provides. In fact, for the fullest picture of where the U.S. government is seeking to build a foreign military up to do our bidding, you must consult Security Assistance Monitor, an independent research project.  (Full disclosure: the Security Assistance Monitor is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.) 

Nor has Congress required regular assessment of the outcomes of this considerable expenditure, leaving the public to guess at what is being done with its money and whether it’s working.  

Without public transparency and evaluation, there are feeble safeguards against the misuse and waste of public funds. Only two laws try to prevent U.S. funds—whether from the State or Defense Department budgets—from directly underwriting malfeasance.  

The “Leahy Law,” named after its Senate sponsor, requires that every security force unit or individual receiving U.S. assistance first be vetted for past gross violations of human rights. There is no waiver to the law as it applies to the State Department-funded aid, which has caused considerable consternation among those who would relegate human rights concerns. But on a shoestring budget of $5 million, the State Department does not have the resources to handle a vetting caseload of more than 150,000 foreign military training events annually and growing. 

Signed into law in 2008, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) requires the State Department to identify countries that use child soldiers and impose sanctions on them by cutting off U.S. taxpayer funded military assistance. But the president has the authority to waive the sanctions if he deems it to be in the “national interest.” President Obama recently exercised this authority for Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. 

These laws are all that check the damage wrought by the U.S. instinct toward military action. And as it stands, the laws are not being adequately enforced. To avoid wasting billions of dollars on ineffective programming, better public oversight of DoD security assistance is needed.

Ravinsky is a program assistant at the Open Society Foundations, working on issues relating to Department of Defense spending and security assistance.