Building partner capacity in Africa through security assistance (SA) and cooperation (SC) activities provides the capability to maneuver in that space.

Can the U.S. Department of Defense do two things at once: Operate in the gray zone of small wars and excel in great power competition?  The rise of China has some analysts worried that the U.S.  “is focused on the wrong countries and being used to build the wrong capabilities.”  Small wars are out, big wars are in, and are increasingly used for justifying increased budgets for expensive ships and aircraft.  The general idea is that competition with China and Russia – great power competition (GPC) – is the priority and all instruments of national power must be bent to that end, at the expense of all other needs.  At best, this view is myopic; at worst, it is a false narrative.  The U.S. can succeed in the gray zone in which would outflank China and Russia in the next (perhaps the last) strategic zone:  Africa.

Building partner capacity in Africa through security assistance (SA) and cooperation (SC) activities provides the capability to maneuver in that space.  SA and SC around the world cost about $19 billion dollars in 2019.  Learning from the long counter-terrorism wars since 9/11, Congress created specific categories of activities in for BPC which lie in the gray zone like counter terrorism operations, countering illicit drug trafficking, countering organized crime, supporting intelligence operations and supporting multi-national operations- like AMISOM in Somalia and the G5 Sahel. These funds are critical in providing equipment and training support against various insurgent, transnational terrorists, and smuggling threats in twenty-one countries.  Moving those funds from these conflicts to support great-power competition would result in the abandonment of those partners who are now decisively engaged on the United States’ behalf.  There is real danger in a U.S. withdrawal of support to these fragile partners.

What are building partner capacity funds?  They are a basket of congressional authorizations meant to counter urgent and emergent threats.  In various forms, they have been around for three administrations.  In the early 2000s, the DOD needed an authorization to quickly buttress and fund operations with smaller countries not in formal alliances like NATO or through the cumbersome existing security assistance framework of foreign military financing and sales.  The guiding idea of BPC funds was to quickly provide rifles, trucks, radios, and ammunition, along with tactical training, to partners who were fighting terrorists and insurgencies that were critical to U.S. security. These funds were meant for partner states actually engaged in the business of killing bad guys. Compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, which gobbled up billions of dollars, building partner capacity funds have been small. BPC funds have gone through several iterations since their introduction in 2006. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act re-authorized the largest part of the funds under section 333. They have never exceeded 1 percent of the DOD budget.  Indeed, in 2020, 333 Global Train and Equip fund, made up less than 0.14% of the defense budget.

Where have 333 funds been used?  Since 2017, they have been used in Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, supporting Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti in the UN mission in Somalia. In Africa in particular, the need is urgent.  That is exactly where these funds should be deployed to allow the rest of the billions and billions of dollars of security assistance to be spent more directly against China and Russia in other, decisive theaters. 

A Flanking Action

The assertion that security assistance is somehow out of sync with U.S. great power competition priorities is false. Security cooperation does not “hinder U.S. allies and partners”  vis a vis China. Simply focusing on major military capabilities like anti-ship missiles or emerging air capabilities reveals a deep strategic misunderstanding. The world is the battlefield, not just the South China Sea. Building partner capacity is exactly how the U.S. remains engaged and one step ahead of China on the flank of the decisive effort.

That zone is where malign actors create chaos and seek to replace legitimate authority in its wake.  On one side is the area the U.S. and the international community can access, and on the other, are the forces that seek to confront the U.S.  In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, attacks by Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates have increased dramatically since 2015, with more than 4000 deaths reported in 2019. 

Figure 1. In areas of conflict, the zone of insecurity can be influenced to move left or right by engagement.  It is not the insecurity that is important in great power competition, but who fills the area of legitimate authority on either side of the zone.

A withdrawal of BPC funds abandons the ideals of building up partners. The Department of Defense could just find itself in a deeper hole ten years hence, anxiously requesting another funding stream to counter, bigger, more dangerous threats.  That is on the horizon:  For example,  Burkina Faso is the focal point of an increasingly complex regional war in which jihadist groups take advantage of nonexistent border security. This in turn has exacerbated and amplified local grievances about corruption and bad governance.  From 2019 to 2020 there were almost 3,000 deaths in an 800,000 square kilometer area that roughly runs from Bamako in the west, to Niamey in the east, Ouagadougou in the south, to Timbuktu in the north.

This is typical of the vast trans-Sahel region in which the reach of the central state governments closely follows the roads and towns, with millions of square kilometers of scrub and desert left with only the lightest touch of government authority.  In 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali teamed up with heavily armed Toureg nomads back from the Libyan Civil war. The group captured key cities and declared northern Mali an Islamic state.  The short, sharp civil war toppled the Malian president in a coup in March 2012, resulting in the French deploying 4,000 soldiers to push back the Islamist groups.  In August 2020, another coup toppled the latest leader of Mali.  Building partner capacity funds are used in each country for air reconnaissance assets, long range communications, and heavy-duty desert vehicles, along with training on how to tie them all together in operations. This contributes to every partner’s internal stability, thus keeping them in the fold of international norms and values, and more resistant to Chinese and Russian influence.

For China and Russia, concerns over human rights abuses matter little

China and Russia behind the Gray Zone

If the U.S. pulls back from these areas of conflict, China (and Russia) will step in. In many cases, it is because of the security situation and corruption that U.S. companies hesitate to operate.  For China and Russia, concerns over human rights abuses matter little.  Chinese investment in Africa tops $200 billion per year and since 2015, Beijing has provided $120 billion in financial aid.  In Burkina Faso, China is building a $140 million hospital and a $1.3 billion dollar road. In Guinea, another west African country, China has provided $20 billion in loans to develop bauxite mines and another $14 billion for iron developments.  In Mali, the Chinese have invested $11 billion in infrastructure deals.

It is true that many of these failing states are run by corrupt, narcissistic family and clan confederations whose human rights records are little better than the insurgent terrorists who seek to replace them.   Security assistance funds provide an important foot in the door for the U.S. in these developing nations. It is particularly important because these weak countries view many of the U.S. State Department’s activities as subversive and possibly corrosive to their own authority.  Security cooperation funds activities that are security and that is simple enough to understand.  If this ‘foot-in-the-door’ is removed, Chinese dollars will work just as well, their thinking goes.  If the U.S. were to retreat the line of instability would move, allowing the space behind to be filled by Russia and particularly, China.  The places where Chinese money is invested would need security and already China has peacekeepers in Congo, Liberia, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan.  China already partially funds the G5 Sahel Joint Force., along with France, the EU, and the U.S.

More baldly, but perhaps more importantly, these small countries vote in the big international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.  These potential allies will be needed in the coalitions of international cooperation that President Joe Biden looks to lead.  Thwarting Russia and China short of actual war will require a broad coalition of countries voting on issues ranging from climate change to fair trade.  Already, China uses dollar diplomacy to keep vulnerable, weak states in its orbit.  It won over Burkina Faso in 2019, at the same time China offered to pay for security forces in the Sahel.  BPC funds, for all their simplicity, can help buy votes, too.

Considering the price point and investment level of BPC funds, they have been successful.  They have paid for support to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia and strengthened the Jordanian efforts against ISIS and Al Qaeda. They proved instrumental in providing real capabilities in Tunisia’s struggle against trans-national violence spilling over from Libya.  The 333 funds, and other, even smaller building partner capacity authorizations have made a difference in these places where the average cost per capacity building program is just $5.5 million. BPC funds exist to provide an incentive (in some cases, the only incentive) for partners to meet and fight terrorists.  Reducing these funds throws away a strong method a strong method of deterring Chinese and Russian aspirations in these gray zones.


The U.S. pays $700 billion a year for the world’s largest defense establishment on the premise that this massive juggernaut of aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and infantry divisions is needed for deterrence.  The $700 million or so used for building partner capacity makes an equally large difference in a very different fight. The U.S. gains very real advantages in strengthening small partners quickly and effectively. The Department of Defense can walk and chew gum at the same time.  At least Congress thinks so, hence the categories legislated in the original building partner capacity authorization that allows these different approaches in different areas. The U.S. will not send infantry divisions to west Africa; it can and should support governments in improving their own security. The DoD can confront China and provide capacity support to friends in the fight.  For less than a billion dollars a year, the decision is a no-brainer.

Phil W. Reynolds is a visiting scholar at the Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii, and is the author of Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism. His new book Less Than War: Security Assistance and South Vietnam, 1956-1962, is due out in 2022.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Burkinabe Defense Minister and Veteran Affairs Chief Cherif Sy and Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso, observe a pass in review during the closing ceremony of exercise Flintlock in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 1, 2019.

Photo Credit: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Evan Parker

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