The Two Most Dangerous Self-Deceptions in Security Sector Reform

Watson 2023 stabilization 9 11 legacies
Source: Bundeswehr/​Jana Neumann
11 Sep 2023, 
published in
9/11 Legacies

Policy discussions around counter-terrorism efforts now state a difficult lesson learned of international intervention so common that it has become a trope: tactical fixes don’t fix political problems. You cannot train a few officials to be less corrupt when they exist in a system which is little more than a patronage network serving a few elites. It is not enough to train a few soldiers to protect civilians – leaving systematic racism, sexism and impunity untouched. Worse, you cannot arm an ethnically one-sided army and then be surprised when they continue to commit atrocities.

In the 20 years since 9/​11, policies in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel have acknowledged the limits of tactical fixes, yet relied on them all the same. To examine how this has happened and what the impact has been, this article examines the way in which security sector reform (SSR) throughout this period has been implicitly based on two self-deceptions. The first is that training (in military or police tactics, human rights, or gender sensitivity) can achieve anything when better trained officials go back to unreformed institutions. The second is that there exists a monopoly of the use of force in countries deeply fragmented by conflict and civil war. Despite mounting evidence that these assumptions were ill-founded, policies by the US, the UK, France and other countries continue to rely on them. This has had profound implications for the security sectors of these countries, as well as the safety of people and the long-term prospects of peace.

Training Away Violence

In support of counterterrorism objectives, the international community is providing high volumes of security sector training and assistance to many conflict affected countries, but our programs are largely disconnected from a political strategy writ large, and do not address the civilian military aspects required for transitional public and citizen security.”

(2018 U.S. Stabilization Assistance Review)

Such an admission regarding US security sector assistance highlights the challenges and pitfalls of providing military training to weak and fragile countries in the absence of addressing structural issues.

Security training was often framed as stop-gaps until domestic political will” enabled change, but in reality had a profound political impact and often made the chances of peace significantly worse. Training was often provided to militaries with a record of abuses, but was accompanied by little effort to address these larger systematic issues. In the short term, military training further undermined human security when populations were trapped between increased violence of abusive security forces and the terror of non-state armed groups.” longer term, building the capacity of predatory armed forces fed a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and conflict. Nigeria scholar Jean Herskovits noted that while approximately 25 percent of Nigeria’s budget for 2012 [was] allocated for security (…) the military and police routinely respond to attacks with indiscriminate force and killing.”

Interviews with UK soldiers delivering training in Somalia, Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria reveal major concerns around providing greater military capacities to those countries’ armies as doing so was a huge recruitment tool” for violent non-state armed groups. For example, in a study on young Fulani people in the regions of Mopti (Mali), Sahel (Burkina Faso) and Tillabéri (Niger), International Alert found that real or perceived state abuse is the number one factor behind young people’s decision to join violent extremist groups.” According to Herskovits, for many Nigerians from the northeast of the country the army is more feared than Boko Haram.” In response, as one British soldier undertaking training in the country aptly put it, international efforts were treating the symptoms not the causes of the problem [when] the whole defence structure here needs institutional reform.”

False Monopolies

Policies often mistakenly assume that recipient countries maintain a united security force, despite being deeply fragmented by conflict and civil war. International interventions often operate under this assumption. In Mali, the EU trained large numbers of local troops in basic soldiering without exerting much pressure on the government in Bamako to introduce structural reforms despite accusations of ethnic bias. In Nigeria, John Campbell – former US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007noted that training did little to grapple with the fact that the military and police are made up of various ethnic, religious, and regional groups, few (…) native to the areas in which they serve.” UK soldiers in Somalia claimed the Somalia National Army was just another militia, albeit an apparently legitimate militia.” By 2014, many Iraqis bemoaned that the Iraqi Army would be lucky if it can be considered the fourth strongest army in Iraq — behind, Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, largely Shia paramilitaries) and Iraqi tribal fighters.”

Accelerating the growth of an unrepresentative force in the context of ongoing conflicts between different ethnicities is extremely detrimental to long-term security. In many cases, civilians paid the price as international firepower was manipulated to settle local disputes. For example, in Somalia, on 25th August 2017 near Bariire, there were claims that the US had once again been drawn into local clan dynamics – and had killed civilians based on the belief they were al-Shahab fighters. While the rivalries in the region had been going on for the last two decades, US counter-terrorism operations had presented the clans with new opportunities to make gains against each other. In an investigation led by Christina Goldbaum for Daily Beast a number of interviewees claimed that the group the US had worked with in the lead-up to the raid had links to one of the clans.

In other cases, providing support to military units has risked long-term peace and security when military support to an unrepresentative force has undermined political efforts to build a united, legitimate force. For instance, in Libya in 2016, training to militias (such as those from Misrata) seemed to undermine the international community’s backing of the Government of National Accord (GNA). These militias were aligned with the GNA but, as leader of the Presidency Council (which headed the GNA), Fayez al-Sarra, lamented in November 2016: They do as they please (…) Whenever they want to go out and fight, they don’t ask us and we end up firefighting these battles.” By directly supporting these groups rather than going through the GNA, Western forces have shown how little [the GNA] was actually able to deliver to the forces on the ground in terms of weapons, money or political support” and contributed to their declining legitimacy. This has been shown even more dramatically in the military coups by Western trained militaries. There have been at least eight coups led by soldiers who trained with Americans forces in Africa in recent years, the latest occurring in Niger, where a military junta took power from President Mohamed Bazoum, who was democratically elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power.

More of the Same?

Western strategy has long since acknowledged that every international intervention has a political effect and either consciously or inadvertently engage in political processes. In recognition of this reality, the US (in Global Fragility Act), the UN (in New Agenda for Peace), the UK (in the Elite Bargains report), and Germany (in its Shaping Stabilisation white paper) have noted the need to be explicitly involved in political processes in order to shape the political environment, aimed at influencing key actors, curbing violence and promoting political and societal negotiation processes.” Yet, to look at counter-terrorism policy in places like Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Niger, the Philippines, or Nigeria one could be forgiven for thinking no lesson has been learned at all. 

As international attention focuses on the war in Ukraine, it becomes increasingly common to hear politicians in the West say that we don’t do counter-terrorism anymore,” there is a danger that these global interventions creep on with no political will to end them or change them for the better. The enduring impact of failed policies based on lessons learned the hard way have become too clichéd to highlight. But this should be warning enough to implement strategies in security sector assistance, lest they be repeated again. 

This article was originally published as part of the 9/​11 Legacies series on September 82023