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U.S. Military Forces and Police Assistance in Stability Operations: The Least-Worst Option to Fill the U.S. Capacity Gap

Authored by Colonel (Ret.) Dennis E Keller. | August 2010

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Establishing an effective local police force is one of the most critical elements of successful counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations, but it is a task for which the U.S. Government is the least prepared and capable. The establishment of an effective police force is critical to security sector reform, justice sector reform, and the successful transition to the host nation’s security forces. But the United States lacks the institutional capacity to provide an immediate and coordinated civilian police training and advisory effort, particularly in a failed or fragile state. Because hesitation in addressing such problems causes delays in forming and training new police forces, and, even worse, emboldens corrupt and abusive locals who enable insurgents, terrorist groups, and organized criminal networks, the U.S. military must be prepared to support stability operations at regional level and below by assessing, advising, and even training police units until such time as civilian police trainers and mentors arrive on the ground.

Army doctrine emphasizes the importance of community-focused civilian police forces during stability operations and suggests that clear separation of police and military roles is essential to successful rebuilding. Doctrine also recognizes that military forces may have to perform police functions during the initial response. But history is replete with examples of local police becoming targets of opportunity for insurgencies; having trained, operationally ready police is always important and no more so than in current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At one time, the U.S. Government had a better institutional response than it does now. From 1954 to 1974, first the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), and then its successor organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), established in 1961, presented balanced programs providing technical advice, training, and equipment for civil and paramilitary police organizations. In 1963, USAID established the International Police Academy in Washington, DC, to train foreign police officers. At its peak, the USAID arm had 590 permanent employees, to include staff at the International Police Academy, and advisors in 52 countries at different times. This academy graduated over 5,000 students from 77 countries until it was closed because of congressional fears that the program approved, advocated, or taught torture techniques that had damaged the image of the United States. Thus, legislation was passed that prohibited foreign assistance funds for training and financial support of law enforcement forces within or outside the United States. The reluctance to be associated with local police continues to haunt U.S. Government efforts to train police of fragile and failed states to this day.

As a result, the U.S. Government continues to lack the capacity for timely deployment of civilian police trainers in the early phases of stability operations. Using military personnel to train and advise civilian police is being justifiably criticized. Military personnel, even military police, are not prepared to train and advise civilian police in most tasks. Instead, their training is skewed toward the higher end stability policing tasks such as riot control, convoy security, motorized patrolling, establishing checkpoints, and weapons training. The emphasis on such tasks makes it more difficult to transition to community-based policing. A clear delineation needs to be established between stability policing and community-based policing, with phased transitions as appropriate. Focusing only on the technical skills must cease, while instruction in such normative principles as responsiveness to the community, accountability to the rule of law, defense of human rights, and transparency to scrutiny from the outside, must be institutionalized. Such an adjustment will result in an organizational culture that abjures abuse. Such success will require embedding of quality advisors for a significant period of time, though even then expectations must be kept realistic.


  1. The U.S. Government continues to lack the capacity for timely deployment of civilian police trainers in the early phase of stability operations. The small but reasonably coherent and well-organized police training and assistance programs conducted by USAID’s OPS were ended with congressional passage of Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act in 1974. Since then a variety of legislation and appropriations has funded numerous agencies to conduct police training programs, often on a temporary year-to-year basis, and as exceptions to the standing prohibitions on police assistance of the still-in-force Section 660. As a result, responsibility for foreign police assistance is now shared primarily among DoS INL, DoJ ICITAP and OPDAT, and USAID, but other agencies such as DHS CBP and FLETC also have pieces of the foreign police training action. Each new police assistance program requires new and unique funding and a new interagency agreement for implementation. Once these arrangements are made, the lack of active federal employees or standing reserve arrangements for civilian police trainers requires that a contract be developed and bid to provide the necessary civilian police personnel, creating further delays in the arrival of assistance for host nation police forces. Once the contracted police trainers finally arrive in country, numerous contract and security restrictions may prevent their deployment to nonpermissive regions where police assistance is most critically needed.
  2. Employing military personnel to train and advise civilian police is a bad idea, but leaving local populations with no police or subject to incompetent, corrupt, and abusive police is a far-worse idea. The use of military personnel to train host nation police has been justifiably criticized. Military personnel, even military police personnel, are not prepared to train and advise civilian police in such tasks as arrest procedures, criminal investigations, the nuances of working within local legal frameworks and court systems, crime prevention, and effective relations with local communities. Military intervention with police tends to skew training towards the higher-end stability policing tasks such as riot control, convoy security, motorized patrolling, establishing checkpoints, and weapons training. The emphasis on such high-end tasks then makes the transition to community-based policing more difficult for local police, a transition essential for the long-term security of local communities. However, if local police forces are absent because of being targeted by insurgents, a security vacuum can be created which will be quickly filled by criminal elements, terrorist groups, rebounding insurgents, or nonstate paramilitary organizations—all very negative developments for security sector reform. Allowing an abusive and corrupt local police force to operate unchecked can create conditions wherein local populations will turn to insurgents or terrorist elements for redress. In the absence of civilian police trainers to rectify these conditions, local military forces are left with no choice but to become involved with local police to avoid an inevitable deterioration in local security conditions.
  3. Distinguish between stability policing on one hand, and community-based policing on the other; transition to the latter at the appropriate phase of stability operations. Stability policing is normally conducted by a rapidly deployable, paramilitary police force formed on the model of the Italian Carabinieri, the French Gendarmerie, or the Spanish Guardia Civil, for example. A stability police force is required during the early phase of stability operations to deal with high-end threats such as organized criminal groups, insurgent or terrorist cells, and large riots, which overwhelm local police capabilities. Community-based policing is based on the concept that local security is best maintained by a partnership between the police and the community they serve. Community-based police consult with the local community through a variety of mechanisms and adapt police practices to the security needs of the local community. In the ideal case, community-based police actually mobilize the public to help prevent crime and infiltration of insurgents or terrorists back into the community. A transition from temporary stability policing to more long-term community policing by a permanent local police force is critical for the sustainability of the security sector in stability operations.
  4. Normative standards are more critical than technical skills for community-based policing. Most initial police training, even by civilian police trainers, tends to focus on technical police skills imparted at a centralized police academy. While such training is critical to develop more-competent police, community-based policing, which depends on a positive, mutually reinforcing relationship between local police and the community they serve, will not happen without reform of abusive and corrupt police practices. The normative principles required for effective community-based policing include responsiveness to the local community, accountability to the rule of law, defense of human rights, and transparency to scrutiny from outside the police institution. Improving the technical skills of a local police force without concomitant normative reforms only creates more competent thugs.
  5. Shaping the police organizational subculture in the context of the local societal culture is critical for police reform that makes community-based policing possible. The police organizational subculture is the set of institutional, stated, and operating values, beliefs, and assumptions that police internalize about their organization and that have been validated by experiences over time. These organizational cultural values define the boundaries of acceptable police thought and behavior, especially when police encounter a unique situation that lacks a standard legal or operating procedure, as may often be the case in a volatile and complex security environment characterized by stability operations. When the actual police subculture condones or even encourages abusive and corrupt behavior, the only way to reform police behavior is to shape police culture to achieve necessary normative reforms. Changing organizational culture is difficult but not impossible, and is best done in the context of local societal values rather than by attempting to impose U.S. or other foreign cultural values on a native local police force. Shaping the police organizational culture in the direction of normative reform requires an intimate knowledge of both the local police subculture and the local societal culture in which it operates.
  6. Embedded advisors have the best opportunity to shape organizational culture and achieve a small degree of genuine police reform. An advisor must live with and learn about the local police force in order to “get into their heads” and understand the unspoken rules and forces that govern their daily behavior and create the context of their local organizational subculture. The advisor must observe the police interaction with the local society, and determine whether police behavior conforms to local societal values or clashes with them; he must then identify how best to influence the organizational culture of the local police to encourage greater responsiveness to and support from the local community. The advisor must develop rapport with police leadership to encourage the development and implementation of an appropriate vision for police reform. The advisor must also identify police leaders who are so corrupt and abusive that they fall outside both their societal and organizational cultural norms, and then report and encourage the removal (confidentiality is critical to avoid loss of advisor effectiveness) of such leaders both through the U.S. and host nation chains of command. Only an advisor embedded with a unit for a significant period of time can gain the needed cultural knowledge, access, and rapport to mold organizational culture in the desired shape.
  7. Keep expectations realistic. The ideal end state in the security sector of a reformed local police force conforming to democratic norms and implementing effective community-based policing, is a sustained and safe local security environment. Achieving it is one of the greatest challenges of stability operations. There are significant variables beyond the control of regional U.S. military forces and advisors that may inhibit or even prevent achieving this ideal end state. The political leadership of the host nation must have the political consensus and will to support a reformed local police force. Where ethnic conflict or ideological divisions fracture the political leadership, political factions may attempt to control local police to further their own ethnic or electoral ends, rather than serve the local community. Local societal values of the host nation may be vastly different from those of Western cultures, and may tolerate or even encourage more authoritarian local law enforcement as opposed to a community-based approach, especially where the population is harassed by spiking crime rates. Even in the most favorable circumstances, shaping ingrained local police subcultures to conform to the norms of community-based policing will be a slow, incremental, and uneven process, characterized by numerous setbacks along the way. The local military force or advisors must accept such slow progress with patience, maintain unit and personal integrity in accordance with their own values—and depart, having left the message with host nation leaders that there is perhaps a better way of doing things, which may be the seed for future progress long after the military unit or advisors have gone.