Europe is training military forces in weak states – and it’s very risky

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Hours after the death of the Guinean president in 2008, four officers trained by the German army launched a coup. Led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who proudly wore the red beret and the badge of a German parachutist, the plotters communicated discreetly in German. Next to a assassination attemptCamara was replaced in power by a French-trained parachutist who had been his vice-president.

Thus, two officers trained by European states to strengthen security and civilian control in their country of origin took it upon themselves to seize power through violence. Now known as the ‘German coup’, this story is a warning to all those world powers that are preparing to train and support foreign militaries – in particular the EU, which is stepping up its efforts in this department. and establish a new military training headquarters.

According to Federica mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, the aim is to provide a “more effective approach to the existing military training missions that we have” in countries like Mali, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But training armed men in underfunded and under-institutionalized states is a very risky proposition. Military training provided from abroad can destabilize the policy of a beneficiary state, altering the balance of power between certain military actors and the government. The increase in the resources of the security forces may encourage them to participate more actively in domestic politics, including coups d’état.

At the individual level, training can elevate a trainee’s status and professionalize him, help him convince other agents and more effectively overcome the organizational barriers that coup plotters typically face. Professionalized military officers can increase their autonomy and alienate them from corrupt and dysfunctional civilian elites.

Our argument is amply supported by the experience of the United States of trying to help stabilize developing democracies, only to have its efforts backfired.

The best of intentions

Taken in isolation, US security assistance spending would constitute the world’s fourth largest foreign aid budget ($ 17 billion). While the primary objective of the United States when providing training is to promote its own security, it also actively tries to prevent coups, incorporating civil-military relations into their training and generally cutting funding to states after the military takes power.

Despite this emphasis on limiting military intervention in politics, there are numerous cases of US-trained officers launching coups: Egypt in 2013, The Gambia in 2014, Burkina Faso in 2014 and Honduras in 2009.

A monument to the army in the Malian capital, Bamako.
EPA / Maurizo Gambarini

A particularly striking example is the 2012 coup in Mali, led by a junior officer appointed Amadou Sanogo. Thanks to the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program, Sanogo saw more of the United States than most Americans: English classes in Texas, an intelligence class in Arizona, work with the Marines in Virginia, and finally, basic training for an army infantry officer in Georgia.

Sanogo was so Americanized that when he got home he started wearing an oversized (and unauthorized) US Marine Corps badge on his uniform. Assigned to teach English in Mali, he used his position to lead a group of mutinous soldiers at his home base to seize power and fight a backlash. Reluctantly ceding informal power a year later due to enormous national and international pressure, he was quickly arrested for kidnapping and murdering rivals within the military.

Reap what you sow

So what does the data say? When we looked at all cases of US military training from 1970 to 2009, we have found that about 5% of countries that received training experienced a military-backed coup attempt, compared to 2.7% of those that did not receive training.

Using more sophisticated statistical techniques, we found that these training programs were significantly correlated with an increased likelihood of a coup. For the average case, this increase in probability is equivalent to a doubling of the risk, in absolute terms a rise from 1% to 2% in a given year. While the odds are low, the relative change is significant – and since coups can be catastrophic for the countries in which they occur, it’s crucial to try to understand why this relationship might exist.

Organizing a formal army is a vital part of the development of any country. Because they control a state’s coercive capacity, the military can either promote stability or undermine it.

The United States does not (usually) aim to promote coups and often cut off aid to militaries who launch them – but coups are nonetheless an occasional consequence of international training programs. Both the US and the EU should be careful to consider what the military training they provide might one day consist of.


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