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February 10, 2016

Can (or Should) the U.S. Train More Countries to Handle Their Own Threats?

Army soldiers stand guard at a square in Bogota during the runoff presidential election on June 15. Colombians went to the polls  in an election that had become a referendum on peace talks with leftist guerrillas, and reelected president Juan Manuel Santos. (Diana Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images)

Army soldiers stand guard at a square in Bogota during the runoff presidential election on June 15. Colombians went to the polls in an election that had become a referendum on peace talks with leftist guerrillas, and reelected president Juan Manuel Santos. (Diana Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images)

War is expensive, and the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has a default disinclination against both foreign military intervention and government spending. So, on Monday, Cato hosted a panel that asked whether a better option in a time of declining defense budgets would be training more countries to deal with their own insurgencies.

The answer? It depends.

Something geared around the idea is represented by President Barack Obama’s proposal for a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund in his war-related budget request for the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is sure to get some attention on Capitol Hill this week.

The concept is called “foreign internal defense,” and all of the panelists pointed to successes, some of which they worked on themselves — among them Liberia, Colombia and the Philippines. But it doesn’t work everywhere, and it can really backfire.

James B. Story, director of the Office of Western Hemisphere programs in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, worked on the issue with Colombia in its battle with FARC rebels.

“We got a lot more accomplished than in Afghanistan,” he said, noting that he was speaking for himself and not the department. “Colombia was ready for it.” For the cost of about $9 billion, the United States helped Colombia avoid becoming a narco-state, and then it became a trade partner to the United States, a future source of oil and a country that could share the what it learned elsewhere.

To do it right, foreign internal defense “has to start at the beginning with a brutally critical and honest assessment” of what can be accomplished in a host country, said David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies & Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, outlined a number of steps that are crucial to helping countries develop security forces, among them sustained commitment — sometimes a decade or more — and realizing that it’s not just about training and equipping but also developing a professionalized force that abides by the rule of law.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the examples of models held up by Obama — Somalia, Yemen and Mali — are not good ones at all, based on how things are turning out there. Although the idea might be “cynical,” she said one of the keys is to set up a process whereby the United States can renege on the deal if it starts to go south, such as if there’s a risk of getting sucked into an extremely long-term conflict or if there’s a strong chance of the security forces “going rogue” and doing bad things with what they’ve learned.

Another risk is that the U.S. presence becomes a propaganda tool for the opposition. “it’s inevitable that the presence of U.S. forces in a host nation, it’s going to be a lightning rod,” Maxwell said. That can be mitigated. But not always. “Sometimes we need to recognize we just can’t make a difference,” Maxwell said.

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