An essential part of the U.S. plan to deal with the threat of global terrorism while simultaneously reducing direct U.S. involvement is a buildup of the capacity of partner nations to do more for themselves. The U.S. has spent many tens of billions of dollars training and equipping Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
There has been a massive expansion of security assistance programs particularly in Africa, the Middle East and South/Southeast Asia in an effort to build a worldwide defense against the proliferation of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. U.S. military missions and Special Forces teams recently have been active in countries such as the Philippines, Yemen, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Mali and a number of states of the former Soviet Union.
The strategy of building partnership capacity also has influenced military service plans for organizing, equipping and training U.S. forces. In the Pentagon’s deliberations over the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review there were proposals to create special Army brigades solely for the purpose of training and assistance of local forces. Instead, the Army decided to regionally align certain brigade combat teams.
For example, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will be providing partnership training and security assistance for Africa in 2013. The Air Force at one time contemplated acquiring a fleet of simple, low-cost light attack aircraft which would also be sold to partner air forces. The Marine Corps has expanded the number of Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams, recently deploying one to Yemen.
Recent events in Mali and elsewhere call into question the U.S. strategy.
The U.S. became particularly interested in Mali as it became evident that Al Qaeda affiliates were expanding into the northern half of that country. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on equipment and training for Malian security forces. The U.S. Army and Special Forces Command sent a number of training missions to that country. However, a coup in March, 2012 forced a halt to U.S. assistance activities and fractured the Malian Army. The local Islamic insurgency took the opportunity to expand its control over half the country; a number of units defected to the insurgents, taking their U.S.-provided weapons with them.
So serious had the situation become that France deployed ground and air units to the region and, in the past few days, began conducting air strikes against insurgent positions. Paris has promised to increase its military presence in the country from the current level of 750 to around 2,500. A much larger force may be required in order to liberate northern Mali from the Islamists.
While the French government’s decision to take the initiative in Mali is commendable, its actions also highlight serious and growing weaknesses in its military capabilities and, by extension, those of U.S. NATO allies. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who happens to be in Europe, promised France assistance in the form of drones and other surveillance aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and troop transport aircraft. While the French military still retains a modest expeditionary capability, it and the other NATO nations are sorely lacking in critical enablers and logistics assets vital to the operation of a modern military. Mind you, we are talking about deploying a relatively small number of troops to a country relatively close to France and one that was once a French colonial possession. Yet, neither France by itself nor a coalition of willing European nations seems to have the wherewithal to conduct such an operation without U.S. support.
The situation in Mali suggests two preliminary conclusions. First, the effort to build partner capacity is likely to be more difficult and the results less satisfying than U.S. strategy assumes. Second, that despite commitments by our NATO allies to bolster their military capabilities and invest in critical assets such as ISR platforms, logistics systems and aerial lift and refueling, the alliance remains woefully deficient in these areas. With the U.S. looking to offload some of its global security responsibilities to allies and partners, neither of these conclusions bode well for global security.