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Proxy Proxies

Steve Saideman argues that focusing only on national armies in conflict-ridden states promotes bias against foreign troop training.

By: /
10 April, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

A wise old green man once said: “Do or do not…there is no try!”  Well, when it comes to foreign military training, the reality is very much the opposite: one must try, as engaging with the militaries of other countries is almost unavoidable.  The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” series on the issue while CIC and its partners have a paper on the topic.  Such efforts are fraught with peril, as Afghanistan and Mali have demonstrated quite clearly.  Engaging the militaries of less stable, less institutionalized countries raises a variety of challenges and risks, but we often forget that not engaging such countries merely passes the risks on to others.

The biggest risk, of course, is failing­­ – that heaps of resources can go to support the training and socialization of another military, but it may not work out.  The newly trained and outfitted military may direct its resources to overthrowing the national government or repressing the population.  These poor outcomes are costly not only to the trainee’s country but also to the trainers’ countries, which are inevitably assigned at least partial blame.  The second biggest problem is that real change takes a great deal of time.  Columbia is now seen as a success story, but how many decades has the U.S. been working to improve the Columbian military?  And what has happened during that time frame? 

The efficacy of military training is still in doubt, as two problems get in our way: selection bias and confirmation bias.  In this case, selection bias refers to the reality that much military training is aimed at the most difficult cases, so it is less clear that training in itself is a futile exercise. Military training in Afghanistan may end in failure, but that may say much more about the overall political and economic environment in Afghanistan than the quality of the training. Poor infrastructure, an illiterate population, a context of civil war, deep corruption, and more all make training a military very difficult indeed.  The other bias is that we notice the spectacular failures and not the quiet successes.  For instance, much effort was expended on mil-to-mil exchanges and training with Eastern European countries to stabilize the post-Cold War transition to democracy.  The militaries of these countries now deeply buy into civilian control of the military, and many of them have been significant assets in Afghanistan.  Not a bad outcome, but one we hardly notice.

Given how military training can be risky (green on blue attacks) and can produce embarrassing outcomes, why do it? There are several reasons: first, the biggest threat to any democracy is its military.  Civilian control of the military is the requirement for democracy that we tend to overlook the most.  So, if we want to support democratization, engaging with the militaries of less stable countries is a necessary part of the process.  Second, with the advanced democracies returning to their pre-9/11 stances of being reluctant to engage in wars around the world, they will want to rely on other countries to handle their own problems and those in their neighborhoods.  The U.S. is already turning to regional allies to engage in regional maintenance.  Building more competent militaries around the world might mean fewer failed states, and more countries equipped to fight terrorism nearby.  Indeed, the mantra of counter-insurgency is that the indigenous forces will always do it better.  Third, as the Canadian Forces returns from Afghanistan, they will possess a skill set that can be helpful to Canada as it still seeks to make a difference in the world short of engaging in combat. 

To be sure, military training is not easy, it is not a panacea, and one can be associated with some awful actors.  The government needs to examine those who are to be trained (the U.S. did much vetting of Bosnian actors to make sure it was not working with war criminals) to limit the risks, but inevitably those needing the most training will be militaries in the most dysfunctional of societies.  With great opportunities comes great responsibility.

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