The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, wrought by a conflict entering its fourth year, has called into question the nature and purpose of American security partnership with Saudi Arabia. That, in turn has renewed scrutiny of American security cooperation in conflict areas around the world. Such U.S. partnerships, from Somalia and Niger to Afghanistan and Iraq, will be front and center on the agenda for this 116th Congress. The increased oversight presents an opportunity to examine, and indeed emphasize, the structural and policy changes needed to prevent and minimize the humanitarian and reputational consequences of U.S. security cooperation in the future.

In a recent report, we provide a framework for how the United States can reduce the likelihood that its security support, including partnered operations, will contribute directly or indirectly to civilian harm or humanitarian crises. It may be tempting to separate issues related to civilians and civilian harm from the broader range of political and strategic concerns over security cooperation. But if we have learned one thing, it’s that civilian harm and human rights concerns related to security cooperation activities often are at the heart of public scrutiny.

Casualties and rights violations also can challenge the durability of a bilateral relationship. More importantly, civilian harm and human rights abuses undermine the desired effect of the joint efforts. As such, there’s good reason to consider human rights and civilian harm more seriously in the broader discussion about policy reform.

The recommendations that arose from our assessment are entirely consistent with the emerging policy consensus of “what works” in security cooperation, starting with the importance of selectivity and policy alignment. Mara Karlin, Frances Brown, and Stephen Tankel all have used research and case studies to illustrate the importance of political alignment and threat perceptions to the effectiveness of security cooperation in the context of national security policy.

The consequences for civilians can be dire when the political objectives or threat perceptions diverge between United States and its partners, and when that disconnect leads to the misappropriation of security resources or the misapplication of force. A partner could use shared intelligence to target individuals or groups on the basis of political or factional disputes, for example, or U.S.-manufactured and supplied weapons could be used by partners to commit human rights violations or war crimes. CNN just published a new investigative project outlining in vivid terms how Saudi Arabia and its allies in the coalition fighting in Yemen “transferred American-made weapons to al-Qaida-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions,” violating partnership agreements with the United States.

Flawed Assumptions About Influence

Meanwhile, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Dafna Rand has called attention to another hazard: that limited forms of security cooperation offer little leverage over a partner’s military operations that do not align with American interests. Flawed assumptions about influence can lead to the United States unwittingly exacerbating humanitarian crises caused by conflicts over which it has little direct control.

Even in cases where the United States and its partner share clear political interests and threat perceptions, the partnership may nonetheless present risks as a function of institutional or internal political variables (especially in so-called fragile states). If left unattended or unanticipated, these can quickly descend into the kind of problem that can no longer be ignored.

In such cases, we recommend leaving enough space for adaptation based on a continual assessment of institutional and environmental risks. Greater public oversight and constraints also can help preserve the legitimacy of security actors over time and through significant shifts in the political landscape.  Partnerships should be assessed in terms of:

  • the characteristics and institutional culture of the partner force.
  • the role of the partner force relative to the country’s political elite or governing bodies.
  • the relationship of the force with its own civilian population.
  • the odds and scenarios under which a partner’s security forces, especially the military, may be deployed internally to contend with crises.

Once assessed, the United States should continually adapt its arrangements accordingly, in collaboration with the partner, with safeguards, clear expectations of compliance with international law, and, where necessary, an exit strategy.

Speaking about the terms of partnership on these grounds may be discomfiting to some diplomats or defense officials. But it is much less difficult than an unannounced suspension of security cooperation for either side on the basis of a setback.

Shared Interests … But Not Risk-Free

Finally, cases will arise where the United States and its partner share interests, where there is no history of abuse, and where security institutions are not overtly politicized, but where basic questions about capacity augur risks to civilians. Recent research suggests that Niger may be one such case. The country’s armed forces have no demonstrable record of systematic misconduct, but they are growing rapidly, and may be asked to undertake highly risky operations in areas where they are understaffed and out-gunned.

If such circumstances are mishandled, actions could lead to human rights violations or civilian harm. Niger is also a case where the United States and its partner clearly share at least some security objectives, even if U.S. and European emphasis on countering terrorism could distort the Nigerien government’s own hierarchy of governance priorities. The risk of resources being diverted for political ends or otherwise misappropriated also is tempered in Niger, and leaders in security institutions there seem to appreciate the need for basic capacity building over highly sophisticated weaponry.

Although security cooperation can’t resolve internal conflict at its source, Niger, and other places like it, represent the few cases in which reasonable investments in positive forms of modeling and capacity-building, and support for security governance with a simultaneous emphasis on transparency, accountability, and oversight, can at least not make it worse. To be effective in these circumstances, the U.S. government will have to develop new ways of imparting the skills necessary to protect civilians and to minimize harm to civilians through its training and advising activities.

In cases where an armed conflict is underway, the ability to exercise constant care for civilians, employ appropriate precautions in attack, select and use appropriate weapons, engage with communities, and assess, track, and investigate civilian harm should all be part of the U.S. security cooperation toolkit. The United States should sequence its more substantial forms of material or lethal assistance based on whether the partner has demonstrated the capacity to use it effectively and properly. And of course, as a preliminary step, the United States should be sure that its training on the use of force complies with the appropriate body of law – human rights or humanitarian law, depending on the circumstances.

As a matter of strategy, policy, and operations, the United States will continue to leverage security partnerships around the globe to achieve common objectives. With a new Congress considering ways to strengthen oversight over America’s security partnerships abroad, lawmakers should evaluate the concrete steps needed to mitigate civilian harm and inoculate the United States from being implicated in the “next Yemen.”

IMAGE: Yemeni women and children wait during food distribution in the province of Hodeida on May 30, 2018. Hodeida port, Yemen’s largest entry point for aid, has been in the crosshairs of the Saudi-led coalition in its mission to cut off the Houthi rebels from alleged Iranian arms shipments. (Photo by ABDO HYDER/AFP/Getty Images)