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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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"The spirits that I summoned I now cannot rid myself of again." - Goethe's "Der Zauberlehrling," 1797 Few images better reflect America’s response to the attacks of 9/11 as well as Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Charged with mopping the floor, and eager to diminish the pains of his own labor, the title character conjures a solution in the form of a magical broom that makes the original task a much bigger problem. Almost immediately after 9/11, the United States began to “internationalize” the War on Terror, mobilizing a collective effort among nations to counter global terrorism and exporting its brand of solution far and wide. Among the most problematic, and the most difficult to counteract, was the rapid proliferation and growth of international security assistance and cooperation programs, which, like the sorcerer’s magical mop, has created more problems than it has solved. Since 9/11, the American budget for providing support to foreign security partners has nearly doubled twice since 2002 (from $5 billion in 2001 to $10 in 2003 and then to nearly $20 billion in 2021). The number of countries receiving some form of U.S. security assistance or support to contend with internal security problems has proliferated to the point that many more countries receive assistance than do not. Unlike some of the more infamous programs and activities (think drone strikes, renditions, and torture), security assistance does little to stimulate popular or political resistance. Cloaked in the benign language of “international cooperation” and “local ownership,” and entrenched within a massive   bureaucracy of programs, which includes a sprawling network of government offices and contractors, security assistance has a strong, bipartisan basis of support. And while intense scrutiny has rightfully followed the use of more direct forms of counterterrorism, security assistance has spread its blight in other, less obvious, ways that we would be well served not to forget if we wish to truly move past America’s endless wars. First, American counterterrorism assistance to autocratic regimes has grown over the same period that the leaders of those regimes have increasingly cracked down on civil society and human rights defenders. Under the new legitimacy bestowed by a spirit of collective action to counter al-Qaeda, and a new language that could be used to obscure intent, 140   governments around the world passed counterterrorism legislation between 2001 and 2018. Much   of   it   was   intended   to   stifle   political   dissent and restrict the conduct of human rights groups, suppressing the one meaningful   form   of   oversight of security institutions globally. Rather than support civil society in the face of restrictions to enhance the legitimacy of accountable democracy, the United States shored up security support to countries like Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Egypt, and the Philippines where corrupt , rent-seeking elites in government have long used security institutions and state- sponsored violence to maintain control. Second, analysts and academics not to mention practitioners had long ago identified the problem that, like   any   form   of   aid , many if not most forms of security assistance will   always   fail   to achieve the objective of enhancing partner capacity (or improving bilateral cooperation toward shared goals) in the absence of certain prerequisite conditions. But as a political strategy for reducing the cost in American lives by removing the need for “boots on the ground,” America’s political leaders doubled down on building partner capacity through security assistance in many places, like Iraq, where they simply needed   it   to   work , swearing to outcomes   that   were   simply   not   possible   to   achieve . Not only did the overstatement of effectiveness lead to massive amounts of waste and corruption, it also introduced significant moral hazard in places like Mali and Afghanistan , where the local public, told to trust in the magical effects of security assistance, have too often paid the price for American perfidy with their lives as local security forces gave way to the so-called Islamic State or the Taliban. Meanwhile, in other places, like Nigeria, where the West made an early bet on security assistance and cooperation rather than on good governance and human rights the challenge to national government from armed groups has only metastasized (to use President Biden’s own language ) and grown. The expansion of the security assistance bureaucracy from the War on Terror will do as all bureaucracies do: it will shape-shift   and   find   a   new   cause   in   this   new   era . With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate in June 2021 proposed adding an additional $645 million to the foreign military financing account with the intent of supporting local partners in the Asia Pacific region as a means of competing with China. Meanwhile, secretive counterterrorism, security assistance, and irregular warfare programs continue to expand. The 127e”   and   1202   programs , for example, both received extensions and increases of $5 million in funding in the last   Defense   bill , along with a vague and troubling new authority to expend funds “for clandestine activities that support operational preparation of the environment.” And so even as the United States ends the War on Terror in some ways, its poisonous tendrils will continue to spread and grow in others. Once summoned, magical solutions from Washington’s spell book can be difficult to put back.
September 8, 2021 The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: U.S. Security Assistance after 9/11
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"The spirits that I summoned I now cannot rid myself of again." - Goethe's "Der Zauberlehrling," 1797 Few images better reflect America’s response to the attacks of 9/11 as well as Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Charged with mopping the floor, and eager to diminish the pains of his own labor, the title character conjures a solution in the form of a magical broom that makes the original task a much bigger problem. Almost immediately after 9/11, the United States began to “internationalize” the War on Terror, mobilizing a collective effort among nations to counter global terrorism and exporting its brand of solution far and wide. Among the most problematic, and the most difficult to counteract, was the rapid proliferation and growth of international security assistance and cooperation programs, which, like the sorcerer’s magical mop, has created more problems than it has solved. Since 9/11, the American budget for providing support to foreign security partners has nearly doubled twice since 2002 (from $5 billion in 2001 to $10 in 2003 and then to nearly $20 billion in 2021). The number of countries receiving some form of U.S. security assistance or support to contend with internal security problems has proliferated to the point that many more countries receive assistance than do not. Unlike some of the more infamous programs and activities (think drone strikes, renditions, and torture), security assistance does little to stimulate popular or political resistance. Cloaked in the benign language of “international cooperation” and “local ownership,” and entrenched within a massive bureaucracy of programs, which includes a sprawling network of government offices and contractors, security assistance has a strong, bipartisan basis of support. And while intense scrutiny has rightfully followed the use of more direct forms of counterterrorism, security assistance has spread its blight in other, less obvious, ways that we would be well served not to forget if we wish to truly move past America’s endless wars. First, American counterterrorism assistance to autocratic regimes has grown over the same period that the leaders of those regimes have increasingly cracked down on civil society and human rights defenders. Under the new legitimacy bestowed by a spirit of collective action to counter al-Qaeda, and a new language that could be used to obscure intent, 140   governments around the world passed counterterrorism legislation between 2001 and 2018. Much    of    it was   intended   to   stifle   political   dissent and restrict the conduct of human rights groups, suppressing the one   meaningful   form   of   oversight of security institutions globally. Rather than support civil society in the face of restrictions to enhance the legitimacy of accountable democracy, the United States shored up security support to countries like Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Egypt, and the Philippines where corrupt , rent-seeking elites in government have long used security institutions and state- sponsored violence to maintain control. Second, analysts and academics not to mention practitioners had long ago identified the problem that, like   any   form   of   aid , many if not most forms of security assistance will   always   fail   to achieve the objective of enhancing partner capacity (or improving bilateral cooperation toward shared goals) in the absence of certain prerequisite conditions. But as a political strategy for reducing the cost in American lives by removing the need for “boots on the ground,” America’s political leaders doubled down on building partner capacity through security assistance in many places, like Iraq, where they simply needed   it   to   work , swearing to outcomes that   were   simply   not   possible   to   achieve . Not only did the overstatement of effectiveness lead to massive amounts of waste and corruption, it also introduced significant moral hazard in places like Mali and Afghanistan , where the local public, told to trust in the magical effects of security assistance, have too often paid the price for American perfidy with their lives as local security forces gave way to the so-called Islamic State or the Taliban. Meanwhile, in other places, like Nigeria, where the West made an early bet on security assistance and cooperation rather than on good governance and human rights the challenge to national government from armed groups has only metastasized (to use President Biden’s own language ) and grown. The expansion of the security assistance bureaucracy from the War on Terror will do as all bureaucracies do: it will shape-shift    and    find    a new    cause    in    this    new    era . With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate in June 2021 proposed adding an additional $645 million to the foreign military financing account with the intent of supporting local partners in the Asia Pacific region as a means of competing with China. Meanwhile, secretive counterterrorism, security assistance, and irregular warfare programs continue to expand. The 127e”     and     1202 programs , for example, both received extensions and increases of $5 million in funding in the last Defense   bill , along with a vague and troubling new authority to expend funds “for clandestine activities that support operational preparation of the environment.” And so even as the United States ends the War on Terror in some ways, its poisonous tendrils will continue to spread and grow in others. Once summoned, magical solutions from Washington’s spell book can be difficult to put back.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: U.S. Security Assistance after 9/11
Written by
Director of Research, Learning and Innovation at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT