When the Cold War ended in 1991, the United States emerged with hegemonic primacy. Over the succeeding three decades, US foreign policy programs tended to reflect the aspirational priorities of a generally good-willed superpower with the luxury of being essentially unchallenged. The proliferating list of these priorities included increasingly precise elements of democratic promotion and support for “global” norms (i.e., those promulgated by the United States and its allies) like free markets and human rights. During this time, there were no existential consequences for American strategic hubris and failures with interventions (e.g., Somalia). However, with China and Russia growing more assertive, parts of Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Europe are now contested through indirect approaches (e.g., providing military aid, advisors, information warfare). This indirect approach to competition is a strategic reality, given the imperative for nuclear armed powers to avoid direct conflict with one another and attendant risks of uncontrolled escalation. Moreover, the baroque complexity of the US framework for security force assistance (SFA)—as it emerged during the post–Cold War years when a lack of meaningful strategic pressure allowed it to do so and was based on the idea that flaws can be addressed with new layers of rules and procedures (e.g., the Leahy Law)—provides ample opportunities for adversaries to exploit these weaknesses.

Now the strategic vacation is over.

The previous administration of Donald Trump elevated great power competition to the center of US national interests and President Joe Biden’s administration is furthering this agenda of strategic competition against China and Russia. In this context, unlike during America’s unipolar moment, there are real US strategic consequences of poor choices regarding intervention and engagement with partners. Reckless state-building endeavors, directionless counterinsurgency operations, expansive and ill-defined counterterrorism missions, and elaborate SFA programs—all aimed at shaping the world in the United States’ image—are becoming a strategic liability. This reckoning is what retired General H.R. McMaster described as “strategic narcissism,” which he defined as “the tendency to define challenges to national security as we would like them to be and to pay too little attention to the agency that others have over the future.” Still, although we muddled through years of security force assistance in places like Iraq and Afghanistan with remarkably little to show for it, effective competition will hinge heavily on SFA going forward. This means trying to make allied, partner, and proxy security forces more effective but, critically, doing so in new ways that borrow from Cold War–era models that are better suited to the return of strategic competition.

As debates grow about the future of SFA, if the United States should continue spending almost $20 billion a year on it, and where to engage for maximum influence, policymakers and strategists face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Growing international competition to provide SFA means tough decisions regarding how to spread US SFA resources globally. Should efforts be weighted toward partners like Ukraine and Taiwan to signal to adversaries that America is committed to strengthening their relatively capable armed forces? Or should regions like Africa and the Middle East be prioritized, places where partners may not share US strategic aims and where regimes might be fearful that increased military capacity will be turned against them? Among this latter category, there is also now an option for countries to turn to China, Russia, and other SFA providers (e.g., Turkey in Somalia, the United Arab Emirates in Libya), who often prove more adept than the United states at working in these political contexts. Whether to signal commitment or to avoid simply ceding ground to rivals, today’s competitive environment means that the United States will have little choice but to continue (and grow) some SFA missions, regardless of the US military leadership’s apparent desire to pivot back to general-purpose forces for high-end conventional warfare.

The Context of Growing SFA Competition

The importance of continuing SFA missions, despite its catastrophic (and costly) failure in Afghanistan, comes as the United States relearns lessons of Cold War competition between nuclear-armed powers in which the exercise of violence is confined to limited wars in the strategic periphery. Direct confrontation in areas of core strategic concern to adversaries—as Ukraine is from a Russian perspective—presents too great a risk of escalation to nuclear war. The main arena for the pursuit of influence through force of arms is in the periphery and through allies, partners, and proxies. That was true during the Cold War, and it included SFA involvement in a number of developing countries’ civil wars—directly in Vietnam, for example, and indirectly in Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. This resembles the twenty-first-century terrain for SFA, and its outsized strategic role in relation to actual expenditures and force commitments means the United States needs to get it right. This is a departure from US SFA in Afghanistan in recent years, principally because, absent the Cold War context, that mission largely lacked clear strategic purpose once the Taliban regime was destroyed and al-Qaeda scattered.

It is understandable that US policymakers and military leaders want to forget Afghanistan, like many earlier wanted to forget Vietnam, but also wholly irresponsible. Instead, US leaders should learn the lessons from the failure of Afghanistan, of which three are already evident. First, SFA should not be undertaken unless the potential strategic gains outweigh this risk. Having strategic clarity means not intervening every time China or Russia intervenes in some insignificant area. It may be better for the United States to sit out the Central African Republic civil war (2012–present) and let Russia make its own self-inflicted mistakes there as the Wagner Group embroils Moscow in that country’s conflict. This means US political leaders must be able to articulate how and why a particular SFA mission serves US national interests and look to make small, achievable gains.

Second, SFA must be adapted to the realities of increasing numbers of partners that lack the political will to sustain high-capability forces and that do not fully share US political interests. This means not giving partners a bunch of expensive equipment that they cannot afford or maintain, which eventually leads to the Fabergé egg army problem, eventually being cracked by politically committed and motivated insurgents when Americans are not around to babysit host-nation forces. Some “good” partners can appear in otherwise difficult environments, such as the US-led SFA mission to Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State. But that congruence of political will and capabilities will not be the norm.

Finally, gains from SFA must be understood in nuanced, comparative terms. Even amid the overall failure of Afghanistan, there were both things that were done right and things that were done wrong. There is also value in allies and partners providing SFA alongside US forces in certain regions as a way of signaling commitment, improving interoperability, and increasing costs to competitors. All of this suggests that future SFA missions will be much smaller than in Afghanistan and will jettison most state-building agendas. Such SFA will be limited in terms of expectations that recipients will mimic US standards of behavior.

SFA is the Future

Indirect approaches matter, especially since US rivals have learned—not least by watching what befell Saddam Hussain in 1991 and, more fatally, in 2003—not to engage in actions that provoke a conventional US military response. Along with acquiring, or trying to acquire, their own nuclear weapons as an insurance policy, adversaries have turned to indirectly engaging in places like Yemen and Syria, across the Indo-Pacific region, and in Africa to achieve gains without facing a harsh American military response.

To compete, the United States must be able to more effectively wield its SFA capabilities. Doing so means understanding four ways of improving its delivery from the strategic to the tactical level.

First, there need to be key influencers involved in any large-scale efforts to work with partner and proxy forces in making them more militarily effective. This might mean creating a regionally focused joint task force, getting Congress to authorize a named SFA mission, or appointing a general officer or senior civilian equivalent as a “czar” to oversee long-term efforts in a certain country or region. These steps would increase accountability while reducing the likelihood of rapid turnover, including departures of those who developed a deep understanding of the local political context.

Second, the US military most overcome risk aversion when it comes to working with host-nation governments and their security forces. The deaths of four US Army Special Forces soldiers in a 2017 ambush while on patrol with Nigerien security forces caused so much congressional blowback that the Pentagon significantly scaled back its military presence in Africa in 2018. Then in 2020 almost all in-person advising with Afghan forces ceased because of COVID-19. Moreover, as a number of US and European advisors have described to us in interviews, many of their advisory missions to Africa and the Middle East were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. The shift to “virtual military advising” did not work, as many Western advisors lamented in interviews that partner forces would evasively engage in “performative behaviors” during video calls because advisors could not verify the reality being sold to them. However, Iranian and Russian military advisors continued working alongside pro-Assad military forces in Syria regardless of COVID-19 dangers.

Third, expertise matters, and must be paired with achievable objectives. Efforts in Sierra Leone after its civil war ended in 2002 are instructive. The deep involvement by two US ambassadors, John Hirsch and Joseph Melrose, was critical. Building a robust peace process through strong negotiations was effective because of these two career diplomats’ knowledge and experience. Each brought strong analytical skills and extensive on-the-ground understanding to help rebuild the government and security forces of Sierra Leone in a rare example of a relatively low-cost, high-return undertaking with clearly articulated US goals.

Finally, while plenty of research demonstrates that gender equality and diversity reduce the likelihood of civil war, the narcissistic belief that this can be quickly imposed in more traditional, conservative societies creates backlash even if it generates progress in some quarters. For example, interviews with current and former Ukrainian military personnel revealed laments about how a US focus on such issues was a distraction. Moreover, they described how Russia exploited such narratives through information operations to create the perception that US advisors were feminizing (and weakening) the Ukrainian military. LGBTQ+ rights are a good thing in their own right, but an emphasis on this issue in a strategic partnership with a host nation can clash with the broader advance of US national interests. These tradeoffs raise hard questions that the United States did not have to address during its post–Cold War period of largely unchallenged hegemony, such as whether SFA should engage extensively with known human-rights abusers (e.g., the Rapid Intervention Battalion in Cameroon). Ideas and values do matter in defining national interests, but for SFA, that means weighing the risks and benefits when assessing whether the United States should engage with a potential partner.

Competition and the Stark Fist of Reality

One certainty is a future characterized by a plurality of strategic competitors. The past thirty years of US global dominance are extraordinarily unusual in world history, but that was the context in which the current elaborate and baroque SFA process was designed. That context was more tolerant. Tactical and operational failures had little strategic consequence. SFA will only become harder in a newly competitive environment, while it is destined to become a central feature of the indirect approaches to warfare that are a hallmark of that competition between nuclear-armed powers.

The bottom line is that SFA needs to be changed and improved. On a practical level, this means several things. First, oversight of SFA should continue, as it is reflective of the values of a democratic society that privileges civilian control of its armed forces. Some of these values, however—particularly various dimensions of human rights—will be challenged, especially if competing with a committed adversary. Next, SFA missions will need to accept greater risk. Moreover, delivering SFA should not take two to three years, as it currently does. Additionally, important SFA programs will benefit from the sustained application of expertise and contextual knowledge, rather than rotating these people out of the mission. And most fundamentally, SFA should often not be embedded in missions such as stability operations, reconstruction, or broad state-building, nor should it try to implant replicas of Western norms in places that lack a social base or popular demand for them.

These are lessons the United States’ strategic competitors know by virtue of their positions as challengers and the imperative of indirect approaches in a nuclear world. They are lessons that the United States needs to relearn. Doing this is more than an intellectual challenge; it means confronting a gigantic bureaucracy and changing a culture rooted in the way things have been done in a very different strategic environment.

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is the fellowship director for the Irregular Warfare Initiative and his forthcoming book, Old and New Battlespaces, describes how adversaries employ sociopolitical-information warfare to weaponize everything in society. He is a senior pilot serving as associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the US Air Force Academy, where he is also a senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute, and is a US Department of Defense Minerva-funded researcher studying foreign military training.

Dr. William Reno is professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. He has conducted fieldwork and interviews in conflict zones across Africa and the Middle East for over thirty years, having authored three books: Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone, Warlord Politics and African States, and Warfare in Independent Africa. Dr. Reno has published over one hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals, policy-relevant periodicals, and edited volumes on civil wars, rebels, and military assistance. Finally, he is the principal investigator for a US Department of Defense Minerva-funded program studying foreign military training.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

Image credit: Sgt. Heather Doppke, US Army