Generals and Cops Trained by the Pentagon Are Staging Coups All Over the World

U.S. trained and educated officers are toppling governments and expanding American proxy power.

Nick Turse August 10, 2017

Vehicle Patrol Base Badel, Konar Province (U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith/Flickr)

This arti­cle first appeared on Tom Dis­patch.

Win­ning! It’s the White House watch­word when it comes to the U.S. armed forces. We will give our mil­i­tary the tools you need to pre­vent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing – you know what that is? Win! Win!” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump exclaimed ear­li­er this year while stand­ing aboard the new air­craft car­ri­er U.S.S. Ger­ald R. Ford.

Since World War II, how­ev­er, nei­ther pre­vent­ing nor win­ning wars have been among America’s strong suits. The nation has instead been embroiled in ser­i­al con­flicts and inter­ven­tions in which vic­to­ries have been remark­ably scarce, a trend that has only accel­er­at­ed in the post‑9/​11 era. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Soma­lia to the Philip­pines, Libya to Yemen, mil­i­tary invest­ments – in lives and tax dol­lars – have been cost­ly and endur­ing vic­to­ries essen­tial­ly nonexistent. 

But Amadou Sanogo is some­thing of a rare all-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary suc­cess sto­ry, even if he isn’t Amer­i­can and his suc­cess was fleet­ing. Sanogo learned Eng­lish in Texas, received instruc­tion from U.S. Marines in Vir­ginia, took his intel­li­gence train­ing in Ari­zona, and under­went Army infantry offi­cer basic train­ing in Geor­gia. Back home in his native Mali, the young army offi­cer was report­ed­ly much admired for his sojourn, stud­ies, and train­ing in the Unit­ed States.

In March 2012, Sanogo put his pop­u­lar­i­ty and skills to use when he led a coup that over­threw Mali’s elect­ed gov­ern­ment. Amer­i­ca is [a] great coun­try with a fan­tas­tic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into prac­tice here,” he told Der Spiegel dur­ing his tenure as Mali’s mil­i­tary strong­man. (He even­tu­al­ly lost his grip on pow­er, was arrest­ed, and in 2016 went on tri­al for com­plic­i­ty in kid­nap­ping and assassination.”)

Since 911, the Unit­ed States has spent more than $250 bil­lion train­ing for­eign mil­i­tary and police per­son­nel like Sanogo. Year after year, a sprawl­ing net­work of U.S. pro­grams pro­vides 200,000 of these sol­diers and secu­ri­ty offi­cers with assis­tance and sup­port. In 2015, almost 80,000 of them, hail­ing from 154 coun­tries, received what’s for­mal­ly known as For­eign Mil­i­tary Train­ing (FMT).

The stat­ed goals of two key FMT pro­grams – Inter­na­tion­al Mil­i­tary Edu­ca­tion and Train­ing (IMET) and the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Fel­low­ship Pro­gram (CTFP) – include pro­mot­ing inter­na­tion­al peace and secu­ri­ty” and increas­ing the aware­ness among for­eign mil­i­tary per­son­nel of inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized human rights.” In real­i­ty, these pro­grams focus on strength­en­ing U.S. part­ner and proxy forces glob­al­ly, though there’s scant evi­dence that they actu­al­ly suc­ceed in that goal. A study pub­lished in July, ana­lyz­ing data from 1970 to 2009, finds that FMT pro­grams are, how­ev­er, effec­tive at impart­ing skills inte­gral to at least one spe­cif­ic type of armed under­tak­ing. We find a robust rela­tion­ship between U.S. train­ing of for­eign mil­i­taries and mil­i­tary-backed coup attempts,” wrote Jonathan Caver­ley of the U.S. Naval War Col­lege and Jesse Sav­age of Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin in the Jour­nal of Peace Research.

Bad Actors

Through near­ly 200 sep­a­rate pro­grams, the State Depart­ment and the Depart­ment of Defense (DoD) engage in what’s called secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion,” build­ing part­ner capac­i­ty,” and oth­er assis­tance to for­eign forces. In 2001, the DoD admin­is­tered about 17% of secu­ri­ty assis­tance fund­ing. By 2015, that fig­ure had jumped to approx­i­mate­ly 60%. The Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Fel­low­ship Pro­gram, a post‑9/​11 cre­ation indica­tive of this growth, is most­ly run through the DoD and focus­es on train­ing mid- and senior-lev­el defense offi­cials from allied mil­i­taries in the tenets of coun­tert­er­ror­ism. The State Depart­ment, by con­trast, is the dri­ving force behind the old­er and larg­er IMET pro­gram, though the Defense Depart­ment imple­ments the training.

Under IMET, for­eign per­son­nel – like Sanogo – trav­el to the U.S. to take class­es and under­go instruc­tion at mil­i­tary schools and bases. IMET is designed to help for­eign mil­i­taries bol­ster their rela­tion­ships with the Unit­ed States, learn about U.S. mil­i­tary equip­ment, improve mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and instill demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues in their mem­bers,” wroteJoshua Kurlantz­ick in a 2016 Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions mem­o­ran­dum aimed at reform­ing the program.

How­ev­er, in an inves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished ear­li­er this year, Lau­ren Chad­wick of the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Integri­ty found that, accord­ing to offi­cial U.S. gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, at least 17 high-rank­ing for­eign­ers – includ­ing five gen­er­als– trained through IMET between 1985 and 2010 were lat­er accused and in some cas­es con­vict­ed of crim­i­nal and human rights abus­es. An open-source study by the non-prof­it Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy found anoth­er 33 U.S.-trained for­eign mil­i­tary offi­cers who lat­er com­mit­ted human rights abus­es. And experts sug­gest that the total num­ber of crim­i­nal U.S. trainees is like­ly to be far high­er, since IMET is the only one of a sprawl­ing col­lec­tion of secu­ri­ty assis­tance pro­grams that requires offi­cial reports on human rights abusers.

In their Jour­nal of Peace Research study, Caver­ley and Sav­age kept the spot­light on IMET because the pro­gram explic­it­ly focus­es on pro­mot­ing norms of civil­ian con­trol” of the mil­i­tary. Indeed, it’s a tru­ism of U.S. mil­i­tary assis­tance pro­grams that they instill demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and respect for inter­na­tion­al norms. Yet the list of U.S.-trained coup-mak­ers – from Isaac Zida of Burk­i­na Faso, Haiti’s Philippe Biam­by, and Yahya Jam­meh of The Gam­bia to Egypt’s Abdel-Fat­tah el-Sisi, Moham­mad Zia-ul-Haq of Pak­istan, and the IMET-edu­cat­ed lead­ers of the 2009 coup in Hon­duras, not to men­tion Mali’s Amadou Sanogo – sug­gests an embrace of some­thing oth­er than demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and good gov­er­nance. We didn’t spend, prob­a­bly, the req­ui­site time focus­ing on val­ues, ethics, and mil­i­tary ethos,” then chief of U.S. Africa Com­mand, Carter Ham, said of Sanogo fol­low­ing his coup. I believe that we focused exclu­sive­ly on tac­ti­cal and tech­ni­cal [train­ing].”

In 2014, two gen­er­a­tions of U.S.-educated offi­cers faced off in The Gam­bia as a group of Amer­i­can-trained would-be coup-mak­ers attempt­ed (but failed) to over­throw the U.S.-trained coup-mak­er Yahya Jam­meh who had seized pow­er back in 1994. The unsuc­cess­ful rebel­lion claimed the life of Lamin San­neh, the pur­port­ed ring­leader, who had earned a master’s degree at Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty (NDU) in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Two oth­er coup plot­ters had appar­ent­ly even served in the U.S. mil­i­tary.) I can’t shake the feel­ing that his edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States some­how influ­enced his actions,” wrote Sanneh’s for­mer NDU men­tor Jef­frey Meis­er. I can’t help but won­der if sim­ply imprint­ing our for­eign stu­dents with the Amer­i­can pro­gram’ is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and unethical.”

Caver­ly warns that Wash­ing­ton should also be cau­tious about export­ing its own for­eign and domes­tic pol­i­cy imper­a­tives, giv­en that recent admin­is­tra­tions have left the Defense Depart­ment flush with fund­ing and the State Department’s cof­fers so bare that gen­er­als are forced to beg on its behalf. Put more suc­cinct­ly,” he explained, you need to build up mul­ti­ple groups with­in civ­il soci­ety to com­ple­ment and some­times coun­ter­bal­ance an empow­ered military.” 

Caver­ley and Sav­age iden­ti­fied 275 mil­i­tary-backed coups that occurred world­wide between 1970 and 2009. In 165 of them, mem­bers of that country’s armed forces had received some IMET or CTFP train­ing the year before the coup. If you add up all the years of such instruc­tion for all those coun­tries, it tops out at 3,274 coun­try years.” In 165 instances, a takeover attempt was car­ried out the next year. That’s 5%, which is very high, since coups hap­pen rarely,” Caver­ley told TomDis­patch. The ratio for coun­try-years with no U.S. train­ing is 110 out of 4101, or 2.7%.”

While U.S. train­ing didn’t car­ry the day in The Gam­bia in 2014 (as it had in 1994 when U.S. mil­i­tary-police-train­ing alum­nus Yahya Jam­meh seized pow­er), it is nonethe­less linked with vic­to­ri­ous jun­tas. Suc­cess­ful coups are strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with IMET train­ing and spend­ing,” Caver­ley and Sav­age not­ed. Accord­ing to their find­ings, Amer­i­can trainees suc­ceed­ed in over­throw­ing their gov­ern­ments in 72 of the 165 coup attempts.

Train Wreck

There is sig­nif­i­cant evi­dence that the sprawl­ing patch­work of America’s mil­i­tary train­ing pro­grams for for­eign forces is hope­less­ly bro­ken. In 2013, a State Depart­ment advi­so­ry board found that Amer­i­can secu­ri­ty aid had no coher­ent means of eval­u­a­tion and no cohe­sive strat­e­gy. It com­pared the baf­fling” array of pro­grams to a phil­an­thropic grant-mak­ing process by an assem­blage of dif­fer­ent foun­da­tions with dif­fer­ent agendas.” 

A 2014 RAND analy­sis of U.S. secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion (SC) found no sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant cor­re­la­tion between SC and change in coun­tries’ fragili­ty in Africa or the Mid­dle East.” A 2015 report from U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Command’s Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Uni­ver­si­ty not­ed that efforts at build­ing part­ner capac­i­ty have in the past con­sumed vast resources for lit­tle return.” That same year, an analy­sis by the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice con­clud­ed that despite the increas­ing empha­sis on, and cen­tral­i­ty of, [build­ing part­ner capac­i­ty] in nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy and mil­i­tary oper­a­tions, the assump­tion that build­ing for­eign secu­ri­ty forces will have tan­gi­ble U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits remains a rel­a­tive­ly untest­ed proposition.” 

There are no stan­dard guide­lines for deter­min­ing the goals of [counter-ter­ror­ism] secu­ri­ty assis­tance pro­grams, par­tic­u­lar­ly part­ner capac­i­ty-build­ing train­ing pro­grams, or for assess­ing how these pro­grams fit into broad­er U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives,” reads2016 Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty report. And there are few met­rics for mea­sur­ing the effec­tive­ness of these pro­grams once they are being imple­ment­ed.” And in his 2016 report on IMET for the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, Kurlantz­ick not­ed that the effort is deeply in need of reform. The pro­gram,” he wrote, con­tains no sys­tem for track­ing which for­eign mil­i­tary offi­cers attend­ed IMET… [a]dditionally, the pro­gram is not effec­tive­ly pro­mot­ing democ­ra­cy and respect for civil­ian com­mand of armed forces.”

Stud­ies aside, the fail­ures of U.S. train­ing efforts across the Greater Mid­dle East have been obvi­ous for years. From the col­lapse of the U.S.-built Iraqi army in the face of small num­bers of Islam­ic State mil­i­tants to a still­born effort to cre­ate a new armed force for Libya, a $500 mil­lion failed effort to train and equip Syr­i­an rebels, and an often incom­pe­tent, ghost-sol­dier-filled, deser­tion-prone army in Afghanistan, large-scale Amer­i­can ini­tia­tives to build and bol­ster for­eign forces have crashed and burned repeatedly. 

One thing state­side U.S. train­ing does seem to do, accord­ing to Caver­ley and Sav­age, is increase human cap­i­tal” – that is, for­eign trainees’ pro­fes­sion­al skills like small unit tac­tics and strate­gic plan­ning as well as intan­gi­bles like increased pres­tige in their home coun­tries. And unlike oth­er forms of Amer­i­can aid that allow regimes to shut­tle state resources toward insu­lat­ing the gov­ern­ment from coups by doing any­thing from brib­ing poten­tial rivals to fos­ter­ing par­al­lel secu­ri­ty forces (like pres­i­den­tial guards), FMT affords no such out­let. If you give assets to a group with guns and a strong cor­po­rate iden­ti­ty with­in a coun­try lack­ing well-devel­oped insti­tu­tions and norms, you cre­ate the poten­tial for polit­i­cal imbal­ance,” Caver­ley told TomDis­patch. An extreme exam­ple of that imbal­ance is an attempt to take over the entire government.”

Strength and Numbers

The Unit­ed States has a trou­bled past when it comes to work­ing with for­eign mil­i­taries. From Latin Amer­i­ca to South­east Asia, Wash­ing­ton has a long his­to­ry of pro­tect­ing, back­ing, and fos­ter­ing forces impli­cat­ed in atroc­i­ties. With­in the last sev­er­al months alone, reports have sur­faced about U.S.-trained or ‑aid­ed forces from the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, Syr­ia, Cameroon, and Iraq tor­tur­ing or exe­cut­ing prisoners. 

Some U.S.-trained fig­ures like Isaac Zida in Burk­i­na Faso and Amadou Sanogo in Mali have expe­ri­enced only short-term suc­cess­es in over­throw­ing their country’s gov­ern­ments. Oth­ers like The Gambia’s Yahya Jam­meh (who went into exile in Jan­u­ary after 22 years in pow­er) and Egypt’s pres­i­dent – and for­mer U.S. Army War Col­lege stu­dent – Abdel Fat­tah el-Sisi have had far more last­ing tenures as strong­men in their homelands.

Any for­eign mil­i­tary train­ing pro­vid­ed by the U.S., write Caver­ley and Sav­age, cor­re­sponds to a dou­bling of the prob­a­bil­i­ty of a mil­i­tary-backed coup attempt in the recip­i­ent coun­try.” And the more mon­ey the U.S. spends or the more sol­diers it trains via IMET, the high­er the risk of a coup d’état.

In 2014, the U.S. resumed IMET sup­port for Mali – it had been sus­pend­ed for a year fol­low­ing the insur­rec­tion – and even increased that fund­ing by a mod­est $30,000. That West African nation has, how­ev­er, nev­er recov­ered from the coup cri­sis of 2012 and, half a decade lat­er, remains wracked by an insur­gency that Sanogo, his suc­ces­sors, and a French- and U.S.-backed mil­i­tary cam­paign have been unable to defeat. As the mil­i­tant groups in Mali have grown and metas­ta­sized, the U.S. has con­tin­ued to pour mon­ey into train­ing local mil­i­tary per­son­nel. In 2012, the year Amadou Sanogo seized pow­er, the U.S. spent $69,000 in IMET funds on train­ing Malian offi­cers in the Unit­ed States. Last year, the fig­ure reached $738,000.

For the bet­ter part of two decades from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Pak­istan, Soma­lia to Syr­ia, U.S. drone strikes, com­man­do raids, large-scale occu­pa­tions and oth­er mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions have led to small-scale tac­ti­cal tri­umphs and long-term stale­mates (not to men­tion death and destruc­tion). Train­ing efforts in and mil­i­tary aid to those and oth­er nations – from Mali to South Sudan, Libya to the Philip­pines – have been plagued by set­backs, fias­cos, and failures.

Pres­i­dent Trump has promised the mil­i­tary tools” nec­es­sary to pre­vent” and win” wars. By that he means resources, per­son­nel train­ing and equip­ment… the finest equip­ment in the world.” Caver­ley and Savage’s research sug­gests that the Pen­ta­gon could ben­e­fit far more from ana­lyt­i­cal tools to shed light on pro­grams that cost hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars and deliv­er coun­ter­pro­duc­tive results – pro­grams, that is, where the only wins” are achieved by the likes of Yahya Jam­meh of The Gam­bia and Egypt’s Abdel-Fat­tah el-Sisi. 

Warfight­ers focus on train­ing oth­er warfight­ers. Full stop. Any sec­ond order effects, like coups, are not the pri­ma­ry con­sid­er­a­tion for the train­ing,” Caver­ley explains. That’s why secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion work by the U.S. mil­i­tary, like its more vio­lent oper­a­tions, needs to be put in a strate­gic con­text that is large­ly lack­ing in this cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion, but was not much in evi­dence in oth­er admin­is­tra­tions either.”

This piece was orginial­ly pub­lished in TomDispatch 

Nick Turse, asso­ciate edi­tor of TomDis​patch​.com, is the author of The Com­plex: How the Mil­i­tary Invades Our Every­day Lives (Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books) and a forth­com­ing his­to­ry of U.S. war crimes in Viet­nam, Kill Any­thing That Moves (Metropolitan/​Henry Holt). His web­site is Nick​Turse​.com.
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