WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Katelyn Hunter

27 Apr 2017 | Publication

Putting the Pieces Together: A Global Guide to U.S. Security Aid Programs

Download the report

Since the “Global War on Terror” began, the Defense Department has been driving assistance to militaries and police forces worldwide. WOLA’s new guide explains how that happened and what it looks like.

The U.S. government arms, equips, trains, builds facilities for, shares intelligence with, and operates alongside military and police forces in over 160 nations. That’s almost 85 percent of countries in the world. These programs are broadly known as “security assistance.”

When U.S. Special Forces support a raid on drug traffickers in Honduras, that’s security assistance. When the U.S. military carries out HIV prevention education in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s security assistance. Sending Egypt billions of dollars in tanks, F-16s, Apache helicopters, and hellfire missiles? Security assistance. Treating livestock in Djibouti or aiding forces securing the Tunisian-Libyan border? Also security assistance.


The budget for these activities pales in comparison to overall U.S. defense spending, but security assistance is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. While it remains impossible to know the exact amount the United States spends on this assistance, it is estimated to be around $20 billion per year, roughly 0.5 percent of the United States’ total budget. The share of this total coming from the Defense Department makes up just 2 percent of the Pentagon’s entire budget.

The U.S. Congress is constitutionally empowered to carry out oversight—and does so—but small, overwhelmed staffs can only do so much, and many of the Pentagon’s activities can be performed without informing Congress. The media plays an essential role, but needs help as well, especially when the programs to be overseen reach a level of complexity that defies easy narration.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the number of U.S. programs assisting military and police forces throughout the world has approximately doubled, from 57 to 107 active programs across several agencies. The number was reduced somewhat by a 2016 reform to the Defense Department’s programs, but remains historically very high. There are now so many Pentagon aid programs—they’re often described as a “patchwork”—that nobody really has a full picture of what the U.S. government is doing with the world’s militaries.

Why WOLA Made This Guide

Writing in 2017, as the new Trump administration proposes to slash State Department-run foreign aid while building up the Defense budget, the migration of foreign assistance to the Pentagon appears set to accelerate. While it remains unclear what this will mean for security assistance, the current “patchwork” is so confusing that no public, authoritative, regularly updated list of all U.S. military and police aid authorities even exists.

That is, until now.

This guide lists and explains all of the programs, legal authorities, and channels through which the U.S. government may provide assistance to foreign military, police, or paramilitary forces. And, in a handful of cases, through which the U.S. military can provide humanitarian or development assistance overseas.

Even more than official secrecy, this proliferation of security assistance programs—also referred to as “authorities”—is the largest obstacle to understanding “what the United States is doing” with the world’s armed forces and police. Even a U.S. government official with a security clearance would have an exceedingly difficult time trying to get the entire picture, because this key foreign policy function is fragmented across so many efforts managed by different offices and agencies, governed by different laws with vastly different conditions and reporting requirements.

Where the Money Goes

The swell of funding in the past 15 years has been spurred by the “Global War on Terror,” with most new dollars directed towards the U.S. military training and equipping forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries while offering substantial backing for counterterrorism efforts worldwide.

In 2001, in dollar terms, the Pentagon managed 17 percent of roughly $5.8 billion in security assistance, according to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor program (to which WOLA contributes). By 2015, that had spiked to 57 percent of $20 billion, with State Department-managed programs now in the minority. Of the 50 new programs created during that period and still active today, 48 are funded through the Department of Defense’s budget, and only one is managed solely by the State Department, and they have diverse but overlapping functions.

From 2011 to 2016, these were the top programs that the U.S. military used to assist the world’s military and police forces:

Consistently, among the top programs over the past five years have been:

  • Foreign Military Financing: Through this State Department-managed program, the United States provides loans and grants for foreign countries to purchase arms and equipment from U.S. companies. In 2016, the maximum authorized expenditure was just over $6 billion.
  • Coalition Support Funds: This Defense Department program allows the Pentagon to cover the costs of any foreign government that is cooperating with U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, as well as provide training, arms and equipment. The maximum allowed expenditure in 2016 was $1.1 billion.
  • Section 1004 Counterdrug (now called Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime): This Defense Department program assists foreign forces confronting threats that have some connection to international drug trafficking or organized crime networks. In 2016, the Pentagon spent some $915 million on this program globally.
  • Afghanistan Security Forces Fund: The Defense Department may provide equipment, supplies, services, training, facility and infrastructure repair, renovation, construction, and funds to Afghanistan’s security forces. In 2016, this program was authorized to provide $3.65 billion of such assistance.
  • Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund: This jointly managed State and Defense Department fund provides billions for the United States to help foreign security forces combat the spread of terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East. In 2016, Congress appropriated $1.1 billion for the program.

As this guide shows, there are about 100 other programs operating around the world.

The plethora of U.S. security assistance programs take forms ranging from joint exercises out in the field, to classroom trainings, Special Forces deployments, negotiated arms transfers, conferences, or construction projects. Some have specific purposes, like fighting drug trafficking, building relationships, creating security forces to replace a U.S. occupying force, securing borders, or generating goodwill.

Such programs are intended to forward U.S. relations and interests in other countries, to guarantee U.S. national security, or to serve as diplomatic leverage. But what message the United States sends with these programs depends on the messenger, and increasingly that messenger is wearing military fatigues.

How We Got Here

The increasing role that the Pentagon is playing in U.S. foreign assistance is a reversal of the original intent of how security assistance was meant to be managed. In the post-World War II period, the United States for the first time became a large-scale provider of foreign military assistance in the developing world. To rationalize this growing activity, the U.S. government began to devise a framework. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 explicitly put diplomats in charge of arms transfers, military training, and similar programs because they—not the Defense Department—were in charge of looking out for all U.S. interests, not just military or national security interests. By the latter period of the Cold War, international human rights began to make the list as one of those interests.

The State Department’s dominion over military and police assistance began to erode in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the height of the “War on Drugs.” 1989 legislation put the Defense Department in charge of overseas drug interdiction, and then 1991 legislation expanded this role by giving the Pentagon the authority to use its budget to provide several types of counter-drug assistance on its own: training, intelligence, construction, and a few other categories.

Since most of the main recipient countries of this counter-drug aid were in Latin America and the Caribbean, WOLA staff were among the first analysts to note the drift of military and police assistance away from the State Department and toward the Defense Department. By the end of the 1990s, the Defense Department’s counter-drug authority had become the second-largest U.S. military aid program in the region. New programs were added for Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and Defense Department aid would be a key component of big counter-drug aid packages like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative. Because these new programs did not go through the regular foreign aid process, getting information about them proved to be very difficult, requiring us to devote a lot of resources to research. That is why this guide was produced by a Latin America-focused organization.

Why We Need to be Watching

Some of these assistance programs are necessary: security is a basic public good that states provide, and one of many areas in which governments can and should partner for mutual benefit. But these programs carry risks requiring close watch, and citizens should question whether, in practice, they are pursuing the right objectives, weighing risks, considering unintended consequences, managing the on-the-ground implementers, performing efficiently and cost-effectively, and evaluating programs’ successes and failures. These considerations have implications not only for other nations, but for U.S. national security as well.

Bad things can, and do, happen:

  • U.S.-aided security forces can commit serious human rights abuses like extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearance, rape, or forced displacement, or they may collaborate with non-state groups that commit abuses. There are allegations of these activities occurring across the globe, from the Middle East to West Africa to Central America.
  • U.S.-aided security forces can participate in coups d’etat, “saber-rattling” episodes, and other undemocratic activity.
  • U.S.-aided security forces can engage in cross-border aggression, arms races, and other activities that threaten regional stability in ways that harm U.S. interests.
  • U.S.-aided security forces can engage in corruption. At times, this corruption may involve collusion with organized crime. When it does, U.S.-aided units may allow drugs, arms, smuggled migrants, trafficked persons, or other contraband to make its way toward the United States, or allow weapons—whether small arms or WMD—to flow from state stockpiles into the hands of violent groups.
  • U.S. assistance to security forces may hinder other U.S. goals, as when a high-profile military aid program confers a “seal of approval” that weakens diplomats’ effort to discourage a foreign leader’s undemocratic behavior.
  • U.S. assistance to security forces may be out of sync with other U.S. agencies’ efforts in a country, as occurs when army reservists build a school or health clinic that then sits empty for lack of teachers or doctors. It is difficult even for diplomatic chiefs of mission to ensure that all efforts are following a unified strategy.

Citizen oversight alone cannot spot all of these “warning signs,” but together with civil society partners in the regions in which we work, we can flag issues and recommend other courses before a risk becomes a full-fledged problem. We can only do that, though, when we know what our government is doing. And in turn, to do that we need to know what the universe of program and funding channels looks like.

This guide meets that immediate need. It is the product of many months of research, interviews, and database creation.

The annual National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, which Congress passed in December 2016, sought to reform and rationalize these Defense Department programs by combining several authorities and improving reporting requirements. This was a laudable effort, but it only made a modest reduction in the number of authorities. Still, it was the first reduction in decades, and we look forward to seeing the reports that result from the new legislation’s transparency measures. Given the Pentagon’s track record, though, we fear that that these reports will be produced months or years after their deadlines, will leave key information missing or expressed in vague language, and will be exceedingly difficult for citizens to obtain.

What This Guide Is and How to Use It

WOLA doesn’t have the full picture, but we set out at least to put all of the puzzle pieces in one place. This publication is that box of pieces.

It offers descriptions of each aid program, and some pointers regarding where to look to find more information and how—if at all—the law requires that the public and Congress be notified. The online version of this guide (defenseoversight.wola.org/program) is searchable, sortable, updated, and includes reports we have obtained and the current amended text of the law governing all programs.

Following this introduction, you will find a discussion of each of the 107 military and police aid programs. Each includes, above and below a plain-English description of the program:

  • Other names the program has gone by;
  • The annual maximum amount the program can spend (if any);
  • The program’s expiration date (if any);
  • The year the program was first legislated, and the years it was amended (if any);
  • The name and section of the law authorizing the program;
  • Whether the law gives the State Department a role in administering the program;
  • Whether the law requires that Congress be notified about the program’s activities;
  • Information about any congressional or public notifications or reports to watch for;
  • The URL of the program’s page at the Security Assistance Monitor website; and
  • The URLs of government reports and other documents of interest about the program (with priority given to programs that operate in Latin America).

The final pages of this guide are an index grouping programs by several categories:

  • Training, education, and information sharing
  • Border and maritime security
  • Arms, equipment, and defense services
  • Humanitarian and economic assistance
  • Counter-terrorism, counter-drug, and counter-proliferation assistance
  • Construction and other services
  • Worldwide programs as well as those operating only in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Europe, Asia, or Africa.
  • Programs managed by the Defense Department
  • Programs managed by the State Department
  • Programs requiring congressional notification, those with an expiration date, and those with a stated maximum amount.

We have a long way to go before we, as concerned U.S. citizens, can access more complete information about what is being done in our name. We hope that this guide usefully advances the necessary work of government oversight personnel, journalists, scholars, advocates, and citizens who care about this important, risky, and growing tool of U.S. foreign policy.

Key Findings

  • Before September 11, 2001, there were 57 security assistance programs. There are now 107. The Pentagon funds 48 of the 50 new programs created, with the bulk focused on counterterrorism. Through these 107 programs the United States funds well over $20 billion in activities, equipment, and services in over 160 countries.
  • Just 45 of these programs have maximum spending limits, totaling $17.6 billion. Of those, the top six programs provide: military equipment ($6 billion), support for Afghanistan’s military and police ($3.7 billion), global antidrug programs ($1.3 billion), counterterrorism capacities in Africa and the Middle East ($1.1 billion), counterterrorism capacities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria ($1.1 billion), and support for Iraq to fight the Islamic State ($1 billion).
  • Out of 107 programs: 67 primarily provide training, education, and information-sharing, 40 provide services, arms, and equipment, 31 focus on counterproliferation, counter-drug, and counterterrorism, 59 offer construction and other services, 21 support border and maritime security, and 18 provide humanitarian and economic assistance.
  • Out of the 107 programs, 87 are managed by the Defense Department, 14 by the State Department, 2 jointly by both State and Defense, and 4 by other agencies.
  • While all but one program managed by the State Department require some form of reporting, nearly 40 percent of defense aid authorities (34 of 87) do not include any legal requirement to notify Congress about their activities.
  • 45 of 87 defense authorities require some participation of the State Department (usually its “concurrence.”) The other 42 do not.
  • 18 authorities can provide economic or humanitarian assistance.
  • 75 of the 107 programs can operate in Latin America and the Caribbean. 87 can operate in the Middle East. 77 can operate in Africa. 77 can operate in Asia. 83 can operate in Europe.