On November 9, 2021, a panel of scholars and practitioners brought together by the Irregular Warfare Initiative and the West Point Department of Social Sciences International Affairs Forum sought to identify lessons learned from the past twenty years of security force assistance and assess its future role in great power competition. You can watch the video of the conversation here.

The United States has invested heavily in building the military capacity of partner forces in the two decades since 9/11. But these security force assistance (SFA) efforts have had mixed results.

Done well, SFA offers the putative promise of bolstering deterrence in great power competition, improving access to and influence over foreign partners, and enhancing the effectiveness of partner militaries. If successful, SFA can provide options for policymakers in irregular warfare contexts at a fraction of the cost of large-scale military operations. By strengthening the militaries of allies and partners, SFA can be a source of stability and reduce the probability of major conflict around the world.

But the most significant SFA ventures of the past twenty years—the US-led efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq—have sowed doubts about its utility. The United States spent billions of dollars building partner security forces in both countries, plus the additional human cost of two decades of deployments to support external training and advising. The sobering result? Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s 2013–14 offensive, and the 300,000-strong Afghan national defense and security forces fared no better during the Taliban’s swift reconquest of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

It would be a mistake to look at these high-profile failures and conclude that SFA should play no future role in US foreign policy. SFA will almost certainly be here to stay. But understanding when, where, and how it can be most effective requires a deeper understanding of its limitations.

Enduring SFA Challenges for Practitioners and Academics

Organizing for SFA

Despite the vast resources that the United States has poured into SFA, organizing for the mission remains a challenge. Many different US government entities participate in SFA (or SFA-like activities) yet coordination between them remains elusive. This problem is captured in the damning critiques of US efforts in Afghanistan as “one-year wars fought 20 times.” Short organizational time horizons often hindered long-term planning and coordination, which are vital for addressing complex political problems like how to cultivate legitimate institutions in war-torn countries.

The security force assistance brigades (SFABs) represent a positive evolution in the US Army’s approach to combat advising. SFAB teams rotate in and out of partner countries, providing an important step toward persistent engagement. They also signal an effort to foster military advising as an important skill for US soldiers and to line up individuals who have the right skills with advising missions. Yet the SFABs are just one of multiple SFA mechanisms. Even within the Army, other units like Special Forces groups continue SFA-like missions, while the US government maintains programs both inside the Department of Defense and outside (like the State Department’s Global Defense Reform Program). Coordination remains an important challenge. The continuity, skills, and resources that SFABs provide may be necessary for gaining leverage with partners, but they are not sufficient—and they could backfire if US efforts are poorly organized, redundant, or directed toward unclear goals.

In theory, SFA is coordinated so that advisors conduct tactical and operational activities that support strategic objectives. In practice, the process is often messy and ambiguous: theater, country, and operational plans don’t align with each other perfectly, and advisors may arrive in country without clear goals or find themselves negotiating with partner and US entities to identify shared goals. Where, then, should this coordination happen? Some experts have called for a functional combatant command to unify SFA efforts. But this proposal doesn’t address the SFA-like efforts and authorities that reside outside of the Department of Defense, and raises questions about the suitability of giving the US military primary responsibility for solving what are often fundamentally problems of political legitimacy in foreign countries. Finally, policymakers should reevaluate the authorities for SFA to ensure that they are flexible, responsive, and appropriate for new roles. The United States must find ways to make SFA agile and responsive to conditions on the ground without sacrificing oversight and accountability.

Integrating SFA into Competition and Grand Strategy

There will likely be growing demand for SFA as the United States reorients itself for an era of strategic competition. First, to the extent that SFA helps the United States maintain a presence in contested environments, it may enhance deterrence and provide better options to prevent conflicts from escalating in crises. Second, so-called gray zone or proxy conflicts are likely to increase as nuclear-armed major powers seek to compete while avoiding direct military conflict, leading in turn to a role for SFA to support partners facing subversive tactics from Russian or Chinese proxies. And if all else fails and conflict breaks out, the United States does not want to fight alone. SFA can help strengthen alliances and improve interoperability. Moreover, the dynamics of competition are unfolding against a backdrop of increasingly constrained resources. As money gets tighter, SFA will look even more attractive because of its relatively low costs.

But all of these purported benefits rest on untested causal assumptions. Can the presence of military advisors create a credible statement of American interests in the region? Does SFA work best by increasing American influence, or partner operational effectiveness? Researchers should test these assumptions and evaluate whether SFA will work differently when its primary purpose is to mitigate threats from powerful state actors rather than nonstate actors or domestic insurgents.

A related question is whether liberal values are a strength of American SFA or a liability. Washington’s rivals have demonstrated their willingness to violate norms and bend rules in pursuit of power—and may seek to weaponize corruption in their dealings with partner forces. During the Cold War, competition with the Soviet Union often led the United States to support decidedly illiberal partners. A new era of competition brings back an old dilemma: Should the United States arm, train, and advise partners who don’t share US values but who do share interests in countering common rivals?

This dilemma may be inescapable—or it may create a false dichotomy. US efforts to use SFA to impart norms such as respect for human rights and civilian control of the military date to the 1970s and have become more prominent since the end of the Cold War, as the United States has increasingly seen liberal values as part of a grand strategy for preserving an international order that recognizes the importance of sustained US leadership. But norm diffusion can be slow and hard to measure and evaluate. We need more research to understand the conditions under which the United States can socialize partner forces to its preferred values and norms.

Importantly, SFA is neither a silver bullet nor a grand strategy on its own. In the absence of a clear strategy that integrates political, economic, and military instruments, policymakers risk becoming overly reliant on SFA. Policymakers need to view SFA through the lens of persistent presence rather than as a discrete, bounded mission. Reorganizing SFA as a long-term activity can help build partner relationships and extend US influence, but it comes with risks and trade-offs: it could draw the United States into unnecessary domestic political conflict in other countries or risk antagonizing other states. SFA will not always be the best course of action, and its utility can only be evaluated relative to that of other policy tools.

Navigating the Politics of SFA

Whether SFA achieves its desired effects typically hinges on the provider’s ability to influence and shape the partner’s actions. Because partners have their own interests, this is the hardest part of the SFA equation for the United States to control. Partners rarely want the same things as the United States and often have domestic political incentives that can distort how they use SFA. The good news is that after poor SFA outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military recognizes that politics matter. Unless the answer is not to provide SFA at all, the challenge is to navigate those politics. How can the United States successfully influence partners to ensure that SFA achieves its desired ends?

There is no easy way to get people to do things they are not already inclined to do—but there may be ways to improve the odds. First, the quality of advisors can make a difference. Advisors who fail to understand their environment or connect with their counterparts will lack the visibility and access needed to diagnose and address problems on the ground. But good military-to-military relationships do not necessarily translate into political influence. Many political problems originate outside of the military and reside with leaders who have their own reasons for resisting an independent, professional military.

This means that the United States should, when possible, choose better partners to begin with. Common values and interests will not guarantee cooperation, but they increase the likelihood that a country will be a reliable partner. The less aligned the country’s values and interests are with those of the United States, the more likely that SFA will be misdirected or misused. The United States cannot always choose its partners—and partners beset by insurgencies are generally not good partners to begin with. But where possible, effective SFA may start with more selective engagement, especially where the goal is access or enhancing deterrence (as opposed to counterinsurgency or statebuilding).

Finally, the United States might reconsider how it cultivates relationships, putting more emphasis on championing specific partners within the state or the military. The United States has SFA levers at its disposal—such as educational opportunities in US military institutions—that can enhance careers and help to cultivate strategic allies within partner institutions.

Paving the Way for Effective SFA

Security force assistance has emerged as an attractive, if limited, tool over the last twenty years. While the American track record with SFA as a tool of counterinsurgency is mixed, the US military should not let its SFA competencies atrophy in an age of great power competition. On the contrary, SFA may become increasingly useful as a tool for managing relationships and deterring conflict—but only if policymakers learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Renanah M. Joyce is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an incoming assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University. She holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University.

Dr. Max Margulies is an assistant professor and the director of research at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He previously served as executive director of the Rupert H. Johnson Grand Strategy Program in West Point’s Department of Social Sciences. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Tucker Chase is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and a research assistant with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

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, or Department of Defense.

Panel Discussion on Security Force Assistance

You can view the full discussion here.

Three panelists took part in the conversation.

Major General Scott A. Jackson currently serves as the commander of Security Forces Assistance Command. He has served over thirty years in the United States Army including a cumulative fifty-one months of combat experience.

Dr. Renanah M. Joyce is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an incoming assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University. She holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University.

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “Franky” Matisek is an active-duty officer in the US Air Force and currently serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy. He is also a senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute and director of fellows for the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

The moderator for this discussion is Dr. Max Margulies, an assistant professor and the director of research at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He previously served as executive director of the Rupert H. Johnson Grand Strategy Program in West Point’s Department of Social Sciences. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is a collaboration between the Modern War Institute at West Point and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project dedicated to bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners to support the community of irregular warfare professionals.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Dyer, US Air Force

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mislocated a hyperlink to an article. The editorial error has been corrected and the link to the article now appears in a place that better reflects its content.