First Ramadi, then Konduz and now Sangin looks decidedly suspect. The West’s track record of building armies to fight its wars is looking suspect. So what then are we to make of SDSR 15 and of General Houghton’s Christmas RUSI speech where upstream capacity building featured significantly? How does “… building our partners’ capabilities so that they can better deal with terrorism, radicalisation and extremism” work in practice?
The phrase used by General Houghton throughout his RUSI speech was “defence capacity building” and this echoes the language of SDSR 2015. Current defence doctrine defines capacity building somewhat generically as “a range of activities in support of developing an indigenous security force, such as training, mentoring, partnering, monitoring and enabling.” Defence capacity building is often regarded as synonymous with Security Sector Reform (SSR). However the two are distinct and while SSR normally incorporates an element of defence capacity building, capacity building can (and often does) occur in the absence of a meaningful SSR effort. The distinction is important because the effect the UK policy seeks to achieve (stabilization) is probably best achieved by capacity building nested within SSR rather than capacity building in isolation.
“Security Sector Reform addresses security problems and tries to improve the situation through institutional reforms.” “…the crux of the reform of the security sector is the development of both effective civil oversight and creation of institutions capable of providing security.” The problem with defence capacity building in the absence of an SSR effort is that it is highly unlikely to be sustainable. The Iraqi Army did not suddenly collapse in Ramadi in May 2015, it corroded from the inside out over a period of some five years as predatory political and institutional interests undid almost a decade of US and Coalition defence capacity building efforts. Military capacity building in isolation of an SSR effort is unlikely to address root causes of military weakness, in much the same way that building military capacity in unlikely to deliver stability unless security weakness is the primary driver of instability.
There is no guarantee, even within an SSR programme that military capacity building efforts will deliver, much depends on how it is done. Iraq and Afghanistan both contain good examples of this. The most effective fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan today are the Counter-Terrorism Service (Iraq) and Afghan Special Operations Forces. Both of these forces were the subject of intense training and mentoring efforts (including Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany) for a prolonged period of time. Training included rigorous selection, and for the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) sustainable success was designed in as the service was set up separate from extant security institutions with a clear constitutional mandate; in effect SSR birthed the CTS as an uncompromised security institution.
Looking at what has worked and what has not worked it seems clear to me that the most effective military capacity efforts share common characteristics:
- Focused, prolonged engagement,
- Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany,
- Nested within an SSR context.
SDSR 2015 has boosted the means available for military capacity building through the provision of infantry battalions “…reconfigured to provide an increased contribution to countering terrorism and building stability overseas. They will conduct defence engagement and capacity building, providing training, assistance, advice and mentoring to our partners.” It remains to see whether policy will allow them to conduct focused engagement over prolonged periods. While there will always be a requirement to respond to short term requirements, enduring effect tends to come from enduring engagement. It also remains to be seen whether Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany will be part of the remit. Recently the UK has shied away from this latter aspect and while not necessary, it is highly effective. “Accompany” missions exponentially increase the risk (physical and political) but the pay off in terms of defence capacity building is through vastly increased situational awareness and the ability to mitigate indigenous military capability shortfalls while in the process of building up capability.
While the military means for capacity building have increased, one area where SDSR2015 was disappointing was in any effort to address the UK’s absence of a viable police capacity building capability. As SDSR 2015 is at great pains to point out defence and security are inextricably linked and an effective criminal justice system (of which the police are the most visible element) is fundamental to enduring stabilisation efforts. The UK’s Armed Forces are a great many things, but police capacity building is not one of them. As the police are the first line of defence and a key source of intelligence in any potential stabilisation scenario the lack of ability to deploy assets to bolster this capability in struggling states remains a concern, especially considering the lack of US capability in this area.
All in all though, the tools for defence capacity building are now coming on line than we have seen before, certainly in the Army (whither the RAF and RN?). Other options for capacity building are alluded to in SDSR through the new Defence Engagement stream and as part of this greater use of Loan Service personnel would certainly be both popular and desirable. The trick now will be to see if we can combine capability with policy to achieve the desired stability effect.
 Wulf,H, 2004, ‘Security-Sector Reform in Developing and Transitional Countries‘, Berghof Handbook Series, The Berghof Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Berlin, Germany.
 Ball et al, 2003, ‘Governance in the Security Sector, Beyond Structural Adjustment’, Palgrave, London