Written by Anca Grigorescu
The United States (US), as NATO’s largest military power, has been committed to empower and develop the military training of other countries’ armed forces, as one of the core elements of its foreign policy (McLauchlin et al., 2022). With China’s evolving military strategy and economic development, the US is faced with an unprecedented challenge which endangers its status as the world’s greatest military and economic power. Ever since the Cold War, the US has been playing its trump card, namely its foreign military training, through which they endeavour to safeguard US security stakes, while establishing defence coalitions, boosting the military proficiency of allied partners, and upgrading information interchange and intelligence sharing (Milani, 2021). Notwithstanding the fact that, up to 2021, the US can boast of military training of almost 34,000 foreign students, from 152 countries, with costs rising to over $526 million (DOD, 2021), international criticism of the training program continues to question its effectiveness (Karlin, 2017). The unceasing reprimand is linked to the considerable number of coup plotters and human rights abusers who have been militarily trained by the US over the last decades (Fabian, 2021). Inasmuch as the US grants meaningful help to armed forces all around the world, it appears desirable to expound the persistent critique that has been brought to it in recent years, on the issue of foreign military training.
Foreign military training: a contested American tutelage
The cornerstone on which the US builds this necessity of training some of the world’s armies is portrayed by cross-border threats manifested in the form of terrorism, rebellions, drug trafficking, or attacks on human rights (McLauchlin et al., 2022). With these multiplying menaces to democracy and state security, in 1994 the US was bent on establishing the International Military Education and Training program (IMET), in a period when states were becoming more reluctant to invest in the army (Lumpe, 2022). This yearning for the foreign training of the world’s militaries sent the US on a high-priced journey, involving officers or staff of the US government, or private contractors approved by the government. Typical foreign US training pertains to operational field command, within and without the US, in conjunction with “joint combined exercises of U.S. and foreign armies, deployments especially designed for training, military unit exchanges” and even theoretical learning (Lumpe, 2002).
The assistance that the United States pushes through this foreign military training is in terms of human capital, which the US considers the top asset that states have at their disposal to defend their human security and through which they can exploit another spectrum of resources, economically, or socially speaking (Caverley et Savage, 2015). By this roundabout approach, the US fosters “security assistance”, “partner capacity-building”, and “phase zero operations”, accompanied by its main partners, such as France, Germany, or Israel, which followed suit with the American model of supplying military aid, with an eye toward enhancing and shielding their own stakes (Caverley et Savage, 2015).
The political disturbances—experienced by Latin American or West African states such as Bolivia, Honduras, Mali, or Burkina Faso—have given rise to hypotheses according to which the direct involvement of states such as the US in foreign armies of fragile states, by supplying weapons and military training, can be linked with the increasing probability of a coup d’état (Caverley et Savage, 2015). Military support is not the only contributing factor to possible coup d’états,non-military external help can also empower authorities to remain in power by strengthening stable ruling forces and by suppressing the people. Bearing in mind events such as the repeated coups in Mali or Burkina Faso, led by IMET graduates, these military men are considered to be the most likely leaders to command the security rules of a country, and who have the determination to organise a coup (Caverley et Savage, 2015).
Criticism of the military training led by the US abroad has appeared since the Cold War, when the Americans laid the foundations of this external military training by founding the US Army’s School of Americas (SOA). This renowned institution emerged in the period after the Second World War, with the aim of providing military training for Latin American leaders, in the hope of countering the spread of communism in the region (Amnesty International, 2010). One of the most difficult challanges of the institution arose due to the fact that, according to information that came to light in the 1990s, the school’s instructors supported practices such as “torture, extortion, kidnapping and execution”, which led to the formation of leaders who committed human rights abuses and who dominated the Latin American region for decades (Amnesty International, 2010). The high-profile case that drew international outcry and the subsequent closure of the SOA was that of the 1989 SOA-trained El Salvadoran soldiers who were found guilty of murdering a woman, her teenage daughter, and six Jesuit priests. Nineteen soldiers involved previously acquired SOA training, while other three officers followed human rights instruction (Amnesty International, 2010).
The protests against this institution were linked to the fact that the breaches of human rights committed by its graduates were a consequence of the military education they acquired there, or that the institution did nothing to deter violent conduct or to hold them accountable for earlier incidents (Amnesty International, 2010). Following these criticisms, the US “closed” the School of the Americas, restarting it in January 2001 under the new name “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC), pledging that they would initiate a training and human rights advocacy campaign for military staff (Amnesty International, 2010).
Different places, echoed patterns
Disapproval towards the US foreign military training is felt through the prism of events and conflicts that took place in different regions of the world. In Bolivia, for example, the US is believed to have been associated with a military coup that coerced the country’s president-elect, Evo Morales, to step down on November 10, 2019 (Sprague, 2019). The commander of the Bolivian armed forces, Williams Kaliman, who led the events against the president, had his experience with the US, as in 2003 he was assumed the role of the military attaché of the Bolivian embassy in Washington (Sprague, 2019). Kaliman is one of the Latin American leaders trained at WHINSEC, participating in 2003 in a course called “Command and Staff” conducted by the Americans (Sprague, 2019). Yet Kaliman was not the only leader who was a graduate of the institution, close to him being at least seven other members of the coup who were also graduates (Sprague, 2019). General Kaliman—twice a graduate of WHINSEC—was educated by the US, which was the organiser of the program for future chiefs of staff and military commanders of 2003. These courses are strategically positioned for the US, and are coupled to the US’s purpose of building bridges with outstanding military heads to further global US interests. The WHINSEC leader later spelled out that “the relationships US have built here in Latin America help us to get things done” (Sprague, 2019). Apart from the military training that the US provided to Kaliman and his aides, US government agencies, like the US Agency for International Development, publicly sponsored Bolivian groups that were against President Morales for several years (Sprague, 2019).
Nevertheless, criticisms of the US regarding their training of human rights abusers in Latin America seem to be taking shape again, but on another continent: Africa. The pattern can be observed in Mali, which has become the subject of a series of coups in recent years. For a region like Sahel, consumed by ethnic and religious conflicts, on top of repeated coups, the situation that started in Mali in 2012 is nothing new. However, what distinguishes the events in Mali is that, in the 2012 coup that overthrew then-President Amadou Toumani Touré, two months before the end of his final mandate, the master of the events was Amadou Haya Sanogo, a young army officer and President of the National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (Whitehouse, 2012). Blame on the US came from the fact that between 1998 and 2010, Sanogo followed a minimum five Pentagon-funded military courses in the United States and even earned promotions, first to lieutenant and then to captain (Whitehouse, 2012).
The foreign military instruction that the US provides to its international partners has been recently called into question once again, following a new coup in Mali in August 2020 under the leadership of Assimi Goïta, who managed to topple President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from power. Introducing himself as the president of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, Goïta was a young colonel who previously led an assault group during combat operations against terrorist factions and drug trafficking, and was militarily trained at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, which is part of the US Department of Defense and the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Diallo, 2012). Colonel Goïta was the commander of the Autonomous Battalion of Special Forces and War Center, a highly-trained elite team founded in 2018. Owing to this position, Goïta was able to advance to the rank of Deputy Chief of the Army General Staff (Diallo, 2012). His battalion crew consistently collaborated with US troops on the ground. Moreover, his group is part of the “Flintlock” operations that gather constituents of various African forces and American fighters in versatile tactical exercises (Diallo, 2012). Military soldiers, led by Goïta, vanquished the Malian government in an aggressive coup on August 18, 2020. It represented the second circumstance in eight years that US-educated Malian military leaders started a coup, but the events were repeated in 2021, when the Malian army, again under Goïta’s leadership, removed from power President Bah Ndaw, who was put in office after the previous coup d’état (Diallo, 2012).
On the same continent, the state of affairs in Burkina Faso resembles the one in Mali. The foreign military training that the US offers had a significant input on the 2014 coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, against President Compaoré (Whitlock, 2014). As in the other states previously mentioned, the US offered the chance for the military to engage in two counter-terrorism trainings sponsored by the Pentagon (Whitlock, 2014). These same military personnel would later be responsible for the political disturbances to come. Over the past decades, the Americans have dedicated themselves to training two military groups that were considered to be devoted to President Compaoré, namely the Presidential Guard and the 25th Parachute Regiment. Together, these groups are speculated to possess well-trained and highly qualified fighters, whose intention is to get involved in violent acts against the incumbent presidential administration (Savell, 2021). Zida was the deputy commander of the Presidential Guard and, on account of his military and intelligence training, managed to remove the president from power and proclaim himself the interim leader of Burkina Faso, after the protesters assaulted the government offices and drove Burkina Faso’s president out of the country (Whitlock, 2014). One of the courses organised by the US in which Zida participated took place in 2012, at the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and was organised by the Joint Special Operations University of the Department of Defense, and during that year the lieutenant colonel entered in a five-day military intelligence course in Botswana that was funded by the Pentagon (Whitlock, 2014). The US army has recently established a strong bond with Burkina Faso, which represents a valuable support for the US to carry out special operations and reconnaissance flights in West Africa (Whitlock, 2014).
In January 2022, the events were repeated in the same way in Burkina Faso, but this time against the democratically chosen president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, while the leader of the coup was Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. The success that Damiba had in this coup was due to his readiness, to which the US also contributed (Turse, 2022). Damiba has reportedly joined at least six US training drills, according to the US Africa Command (Turse, 2022). Between 2010 and 2020, he played a part in a yearly special operations training exercise, known as ‘Exercise Flintlock’ (Turse, 2022). At the same time, Damiba was approved to be engaged in a “training and assistance course for emergency operations in Africa”, a peacekeeping educational program supported by the State Department (Turse, 2022). In many years, Damiba followed the Pentagon-funded “Basic Military Intelligence Officer Course” in Africa, and in both 2018 and 2019, he worked together with a US Defense Department Civil Military Support Element in Burkina Faso (Turse, 2022).
On the whole, as NATO’s largest military power, the US annually provides finance for the military sector, both for the expansion of its army and for the upgrade of national defence capabilities of many countries (O’Hanlon & Miller, 2020). Although many of the world’s armies have grown and developed significantly due to US financial investments, there are many criticisms of the foreign military training program that the US leads in certain regions of the world. Criticism stems from examples such as coups in at least five countries in West Africa—Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, and Gambia—where officers previously trained by US-funded military programs overthrew democratically-elected presidents (Turse, 2022). Because of some leaders that the US accepted for its military exercises and who turned out to be coup plotters and abusers of human rights, international criticism of the US military has been widespread, throwing into question the manner by which the US verifies, accepts, and controls foreign soldiers in its programs, as well as the methods by which they are trained (Caverley et Savage, 2015).