When, why, and under what circumstances does security force assistance (SFA) work? Episode 14 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast focuses on best practices of SFA, along with challenges, realistic expectations, and the role it will play for the United States in an era of great power competition with guests Dr. Mara Karlin and Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson.
Dr. Karlin argues that SFA is naturally a political endeavor and that third-party actors cannot be ignored. Her findings are complemented by Brig. Gen. Jackson’s perspective from thirty years of active duty Army service, including standing up the first of the US Army’s new security force assistance brigades (SFABs) before taking his current role as commander of the Security Force Assistance Command. He details the characteristics of good advisors, how the SFABs are approaching the mission of SFA, and the balance between tactical and institutional advising of partner forces.
Dr. Karlin is the director of the Strategic Studies Program and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She has served in various national security roles for five US secretaries of defense, most recently as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. She is the author of the book Building Militaries and Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, which serves as the foundation for the conversation. Her next book, The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War, is set to be released in February 2021.
Brig. Gen. Jackson is the commanding general of the Security Force Assistance Command, the division-level command element for the US Army’s security force assistance brigades. He has held various command and staff positions and has extensive deployment experience during his thirty years of service. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, holds two master’s degrees, and was an Army War College fellow at the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a collaboration between the Modern War Institute and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. You can listen to the full episode below, and you can find it and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. And be sure to follow the podcast on Twitter!
Image: Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson attends an Afghan-led battle update briefing on Sept. 18, 2018, while serving as commander of the 1st SFAB. Jackson and other advisors in his brigade often attend the briefings near his command headquarters at Advising Platform Lightning to offer their insight to counterparts. (Credit: Sean Kimmons)
Let us look at security cooperation — and thus at security force assistance — through the following lens:
First, let us review this excerpt from Samuel P. Huntington's famous "Political Order in Changing Societies" (see page 41.). Herein, let us focus on what Huntington says causes a state to become, shall we say, "destabilized." (Or, if you prefer, become a "weak, failed and/or failing state?"):
“The apparent relationship between poverty and backwardness, on the one hand, and instability and violence, on the other, is a spurious one. It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable, it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor, and stable.”
Next, let us note how, in our own Joint Publication 3-22, “Foreign Internal Defense,” dated 17 August 2018, in Chapter II, “Internal Defense and Development,” at Paragraph 2, "Construct" — note therein how we seem to agree with Huntington's such understanding and contention that (a) "development" efforts lead to (b) "instability:"
"a. An IDAD program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a
level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the
needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promotes unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures
to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.”
Last, let us look this excerpt from Dr. Karlin's "Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States." Therein, see the last paragraph of Page 2, Chapter One: "Understanding the Problem:"
"But at the strategic level, meaningful change is only possible due to the interaction of two key variables: the nature of U.S. involvement and the roll of unhelpful external actors."
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If the "nature of U.S. involvement" (see Karlin above) is to:
a. Help "modernize" other states and societies (a highly de-stabalizing process — as everyone seems to agree?) and to:
b. Bring such states and societies more into the U.S./the West's sphere of power, influence and control,
And, if the "role of unhelpful external actors" (again see Karlin above) — both great nation and small and both state and non-state such "unhelpful external actors" — is to prevent the U.S. from achieving one, or both, of its such objectives,
Then what about this scenario — and/or the "roles" of those operating therein — are we going to be able to change?