As the president and presidential candidates struggle to articulate their plans for keeping America safe — or at least for making Americans feel safe — one article of faith unites them: The United States must build the capacity of partner countries to fight terrorism in their own lands.
Traditionally, the U.S. government has sought to build such capacity by providing equipment and training to foreign security forces. In recent years, such military and police aid has totaled between $15 billion and $22 billion per year, about half included in annual foreign aid budgets and half covered in defense spending.
Granted, security assistance is not all, or even primarily, directed at counterterrorism operations. Much of it is justified as a way of creating greater stability so that democracy and prosperity can flourish. Some is designed to halt the spread of narcotics and weapons of mass destruction. A few programs seek to strengthen relationships between U.S. military officers and their foreign counterparts.
But whether this aid is targeted narrowly at disrupting terrorist activity or aimed more broadly at improving the professionalism, effectiveness, interoperability and accountability of foreign security forces, we must be clear-minded about our goals and clear-eyed about whether we are achieving them. Without knowing what would constitute success and carefully measuring and analyzing results, we would be shooting in the dark.
And to a large extent, we are. The United States has no formal system or standards for learning what works and what doesn't in security cooperation. There are regular and special inspectors general who undertake audits to determine whether money was spent as intended and whether programs comply with legal and regulatory requirements. When they uncover evidence of waste, fraud and abuse, they investigate specific allegations of wrongdoing. The Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in particular, has issued a slew of critical reports, which are helpfully collected by ProPublica in a catalog of waste covering both military and civilian programs.
What is missing is a comprehensive approach to the monitoring and evaluation of security assistance that assesses outcomes (intended and unintended), informs decision-making and enables real-time course correction. The Government Accountability Office has specifically recommended the establishment of mechanisms to monitor and evaluate our efforts to strengthen foreign militaries. As Special Inspector General John Sopko explains with regard to Afghanistan, "U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy, or output from outcome, and operate in a world where personal accountability is nearly nonexistent."
While the key civilian foreign policy agencies, including the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, have established rigorous policies for conducting and publishing independent evaluations, the Defense Department lags far behind. Defense officials who seek to advance the evaluation agenda are met with stonewalling, apathy and outright resistance. It is unclear whether this is because insiders believe the current policies and methods are working just fine, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, or because they fear having to fix them and have no idea how to do so.
One bright spot is the adoption, in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, of a provision requiring monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian aid programs conducted by the Pentagon. While this is an important step forward, it leaves out the vast majority of security cooperation programs. Meanwhile, a separate effort to institutionalize foreign assistance transparency and accountability measures, now making its way through Congress, specifically exempts security programs, thanks to behind-the-scenes lobbying from Pentagon operatives.
America's approach to security should rest on more than a wing and a prayer. For the safety of our own population as much as for the protection of innocents abroad, it's time to demand an evidence-driven approach to military aid.