Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy. Elias Yousif is the deputy director of the Center’s Security Assistance Monitor. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Recent revelations have exposed the United States’ role in providing military and paramilitary training to at least some of the alleged hitmen behind two of the most high-profile assassinations of the past decade – the murder of Saudi journalist and political dissident Jamal Khashoggi, and the recent killing of Haitian President Jovenel Moise. These revelations, reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post, cast a harsh light on US security cooperation programs and the private firms operating with the approval of the State Department that train thousands of foreign military personnel every year.
Without stronger safeguards on America’s foreign military training enterprise, it seems inevitable that the United States will continue to hone the skills of those who go on to become foreign assassins, coup leaders and human rights abusers.
In the 2018 fiscal year, which ended just two days before Khashoggi’s brutal assassination, the US State Department, along with the Department of Defense, provided military training to approximately 62,700 foreign security personnel from 155 countries. That number excludes many more who received military training in deals commercially licensed by the Department of State but negotiated directly between foreign clients and US defense contractors.
Whatever the mechanism, US foreign military training remains plagued by a range of flaws that have clearly implicated the US government in the behavior of powerful – and in many cases, brutal – foreign security services. The scale of these programs and the risks that they will be used for nefarious ends should prompt a new and more comprehensive review of all US military training programs worldwide, with reforms that more effectively bar members of military units that have a record of human rights abuses.
The United States has long seen foreign military training as a critical instrument of American statecraft, helping to provide foreign partners with the expertise to address shared security threats, and also as a means of deepening and expanding America’s network of alliances. Training in particular, as opposed to arms sales or other security cooperation programs, is seen as especially effective in enhancing US influence among the security elite of foreign partners, aiding in the cultivation of personal and cultural ties as well as a shared military ethos that are meant to provide enduring returns for US security interests. Others have touted the importance of US military training in improving the professionalism, human rights compliance and civil-military affairs of foreign partners.
Despite these good intentions, these programs too often go awry, as in the case of the alleged role of US-trained operatives in the assassinations of Khashoggi and Moise. The recent collapse of Afghan security forces in the face of a concerted Taliban offensive despite more than $88 billion in intensive US training, equipping and defense institution building over the past 20 years also raises serious questions about the efficacy of US military training programs.
While various US government agencies are supposed to weigh in on decisions regarding foreign military training, the current vetting procedures are far from perfect. Background checks for foreign students have missed red flags, as was the case for a Saudi military trainee who opened fire at a Pensacola naval base in 2019, killing three US sailors. A subsequent review and more rigorous screening led to the expulsion of an additional 21 Saudi military students.
While applicants are first cleared by their home countries before they undergo a US-led screening process, it’s unclear just how thoroughly the US government reviews the histories, backgrounds and political roles of the applicants before they are approved for training programs. US and Saudi sources who spoke to the Washington Post allege some of the operatives behind Khashoggi’s killing who had received training in the United States were part of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, a key instrument in a campaign of surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi dissidents.
While there is no evidence that either the American officials who approved the training or the company that provided it knew of the trainees’ involvement in the crackdown in Saudi Arabia, it is important to ask two questions: If US officials didn’t know, did they conduct a thorough enough background check on the trainees? And if US intelligence did know about this group, did it share any information with the State Department?
Additionally, guardrails to ensure that training is not provided to human rights abusers are all too easily circumvented. Officials responsible for protecting human rights are frequently cut out of security assistance decision-making processes. The Leahy Law, a key safety measure meant to prevent the provision of US assistance to military units that engage in human rights abuses, is not applied to a variety of activities – including training purchased on a commercial basis – in deals with private companies that are licensed by the State Department, as was the case with the four alleged Saudi assassins.
Moreover, the State Department processes thousands of licenses for the transfer of weapons and services, including training, every year, which creates bureaucratic challenges in ensuring thorough assessments.
And while Congress is meant to play a key oversight role when it comes to foreign military training, such activities often fall under the radar. In our conversations with congressional staffers, we learned that lawmakers are often unaware of the scale of the training enterprise or of many of the programs through which trainings are administered. Worse still, members of Congress are not notified when the executive branch authorizes sales of training that fall below multimillion-dollar thresholds, meaning these programs often proceed without any meaningful opportunity for lawmakers to intercede. The system lacks transparency and reforms are urgently needed to keep lawmakers and regulators in the executive branch engaged, enforce accountability measures and condition assistance on human rights criteria more broadly.
The most recent revelations are just some of the most conspicuous examples in a long and troubling history of US forces providing assistance, training and the means of violence to actors who are then in a position to make use of their newfound resources to prey on civilians or expand their power in fragile political environments. In Mali, for example, the leaders of two separate military coups in the past decade received US military training.
In Colombia, US-trained commandos are prized recruits for the shadowy world of international private military contracting, where they have been deployed as mercenaries in theaters as far-flung as Yemen and Iraq. Across Latin America, the United States has provided critical combat training to individuals who have gone on over many decades to be involved in coups, paramilitary activities and hit squads, most notably through the now rebranded School of the Americas.
How well has the United States either tracked the activities or assessed in advance the risks of training thousands of Colombian security personnel – many of whom have since transitioned to private military contracting? Why have successive US administrations allowed this to go on in the first place, given the unintended consequences that can in some cases, hamper US interests?
In the past few years alone, the United States has financed or sold training to numerous countries that have been alleged to engage in serious human rights abuses, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cameroon and Azerbaijan, among many others.
These trainings impart sophisticated combat skills to foreign security services.
They also create relationships between the top brass in the United States and international partners that are intended to foster kinship through shared experiences, expertise and benefaction. But these partnerships between Washington and the security forces of recipient countries also bind the United States to the use or abuse of imparted combat skills and the elevation of particular military elites in deeply unsettled political environments. And with tens of thousands of foreign security personnel granted visas to the United States each year, the question must be asked: How many future assassins, coup leaders or human rights abusers are benefitting from these training programs?
President Joe Biden has pledged to place human rights at the center of US foreign policy. Without urgent reform to America’s foreign military training enterprise, that promise will remain only rhetorical in nature. In the Saudi case, a State Department spokesperson declined to confirm whether it awarded the license that provided the Saudis training and stated, “This administration insists on responsible use of U.S. origin defense equipment by our allies and partners, and considers appropriate responses if violations occur. Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory, and we are committed to working together to help Riyadh strengthen its defenses.”
And despite the alleged role of US-trained Colombian personnel in the assassination of the Haitian President, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby denied there was anything from the training they received that could be tied to the assassination. He went on to say, “I know of no plans right now as a result of what happened in Haiti for us to reconsider or change this very valuable, ethical leadership training that we continue to provide.”
US Army Col. John Dee Suggs also told Voice of America in April, “We will only train people who have the same human rights values that we have, who have the same democratic values that we have.”
If President Biden wishes to match his promises with deeds, he should start by improving vetting procedures, embracing restraint, applying Leahy Law procedures to arms sales, and committing to public transparency on the military training the United States is sharing with its international partners.
Until then, the risk that the United States will train more individuals like the four Saudi operatives who are accused of playing a role in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, or the handful of Colombians allegedly involved in gunning down a sitting head of state, will remain high.