Colombian Army

Assessing U.S. Military Assistance Towards Latin America

There is an ongoing debate in Washington about the U.S. defense budget and the future of U.S. military operations around the world, whether it is President Donald Trump questioning NATO or operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or other places. Another pillar of U.S. military presence around the world are Foreign Military Training (FMT) programs with partner nations. In this commentary we will briefly discuss this initiative with a focus on partnerships between the U.S. and its Latin American allies.

FMTs and LatAm

The U.S. State Department, in co-operation with the Defense Department publishes every operation that falls under FMT programs between the U.S. and Latin America, titled “Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest” (click here for the 2016-2017 version). Two key FMT programs are International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP). The U.S. enjoys cordial relations with most Latin American and Caribbean nations which primarily fall under the jurisdiction of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

The latest FMT report outlines the plethora of initiatives the U.S. carries out with its partners, including bringing Latin American military and police personnel to the U.S. for training at the Army War College, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, the Coast Guard Training Center, the Aviation School at Columbus Air Force Base, the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, among several other institutions.

The training programs carried out are similarly varied, like for example: aircraft electrician and avionic mechanic programs with Colombia; basic army intelligence and naval intelligence courses with the Dominican Republic; NCO professional development training with El Salvador; and courses on countering transnational threats and basic psychological operations with Honduras, just to name a few programs.

Exercises and Partnerships

It is worth noting that U.S. military agencies regularly conduct major training exercises with their Latin American partners which do not fall under the category of FMT programs, but they do serve to promote better interoperability between different military forces. Case in point, multinational naval exercises like UNITAS or PANAMAX help U.S. naval platforms train with platforms and personnel from allied navies. For example, for UNITAS 2017, which took place in Peru, the U.S. Navy deployed USS Somerset (LPD 25), USS Chafee (DDG 90) and USCGC Escanaba (WMEC 907), as well as U.S. Marines – for UNITAS Amphibious 2017, which also took place in Peru – to train alongside regional partners including Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru; and extra regional allies like Spain and the United Kingdom.

Finally, SOUTHCOM is part of the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP), via which “17 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have active partnerships with defense and security forces from 23 nations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.” For example, Louisiana NG carries out initiatives with Belize; Massachusetts NG partners with Paraguay; South Carolina NG teams up with Colombia; and West Virginia NG partners with Peru. Initiatives carried out under the SPP umbrella include Colombian army officers attending a live-fire artillery exercise at McCrady Training Center in November 2017; or personnel from South Dakota NG working alongside Surinamese troops to renovate parts of the O.S. Majosteeg 3 School in Paramaribo last August 2017.

There is a veritable plethora of scholarly work about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of U.S. FMT programs – a cursory online search shows insightful analyses in War on the Rocks, The Nation, Truth-Out, among many others. However, most of these commentaries focus on Africa, the Middle East and specific countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. This is understandable, as the U.S. is particularly active in these regions and states nowadays. The problem is that the conclusions and lessons learned from these case studies should not be generalized.

Furthermore, assessing the effectiveness and need for FMT programs and training exercises is complicated: on the one hand, it is important for the U.S. to keep close defense relations with allies and partners by training military and police officers, particularly if it doesn’t, other global powers, like China, may step in to fill in the void. On the other hand, the U.S. military cannot, and should not, be so involved in another country to the point that it is effectively constructing or reforming its armed forces. Even more, it is impossible to see the effects of these training initiatives until after they occur: will U.S.-trained military offices use what they have learned for the good of the country or will they carry out their own coups?

Generally speaking, U.S. training of Latin American armed forces has a negative connotation, as it brings up memories of regional military officers carrying out coups and human rights abuses during the Cold War – such as General Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia, who attended the School of the Americas (now known as WHINSEC) in 1956 and carried out a coup in 1971.

Then again, a former U.S. special forces interviewed by the author who has trained various armed forces, including from Latin America, pointed out that “it is impossible to know if in three, five or 10 years, someone that we trained will attempt to carry out a coup.”

Moreover, it is important to note that present-day hemispheric armed forces do not require the start-from-the-bottom approach that the U.S. has taken elsewhere. That is a point in favor of continuing ongoing FMT programs and other partnerships.

Even more, Latin America’s security problems, particularly drug trafficking, are a direct problem for the U.S. as drugs make their way from the South to the U.S. market, which supports the argument of ongoing strong engagement in the region.

A final issue is, as other articles have discussed, whether the U.S. is trying to train too many armed forces around the globe. The aforementioned operator acknowledges that, “we are doing too much in too many countries…the U.S. doesn’t need it.” The problem is that most Latin American governments enjoy cordial relations with the U.S. and would actually want more defense and security assistance in order to face threats like drug trafficking, narco-cartels and insurgencies. “I trained various Latin American armies and I never felt any animosity towards myself for being a gringo,” the operator said. Indeed, a retired senior army officer from South America interviewed by the author, similarly mentioned that greater U.S. military involvement would be ideal – the Cold War legacy notwithstanding. Therefore, the question is reaching that delicate balance in which the U.S. military helps partner nations, but it does not do “so much” to the point that it becomes too involved in said country’s internal affairs.

Discussing what should be the future of FMTs and other partnership programs is complicated. Overall there seems to be a general consensus that the U.S. military is trying to do “too much” in certain countries, to the point that it is counter-productive. Even more, any time that a U.S.-trained military officer carries out human rights abuses or attempted coups, this adds fuel to the argument that the U.S. should withdraw from nation-building or army-building altogether.

Ongoing diplomatic issues notwithstanding, U.S.-Latin America defense relations nowadays are arguably at their highest, as Washington does not face any credible security threats from the region, and most armed forces would welcome greater U.S. military involvement to address mutual security threats. The geopolitics and security situation in Latin America cannot be compared to that of Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Thus, an eventual reform of FMT and partnership programs should not be done hastily.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.