Military officers overthrew Mali’s government in a coup d’état in August 2020. Among the more worrying aspects of the coup is the fact that a number of the officers involved had received foreign training, most notably the US.
In fact, this was the second time in eight years that US-trained officers in Mali had launched a coup. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one civilian government to a coup launched by foreign-trained officers is a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
But does US foreign military training provoke coups d’état? The short answer is we don’t know. Until we know more, we should be sceptical of the blanket claim that it does. Initial evidence suggests a link.
Researchers find that US foreign military training roughly doubles coup risk in recipient states. They argue, plausibly, that foreign training grants recipients credibility and power within the officer corps, which they can then use to rally officers against shaky civilian governments.
What commentators seldom note, however, is that this analysis is confined to just two US training programmes. Yet the US has some 34 different foreign military training programmes involving partners in almost every country in the world.
Researchers at the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, also analysed the link between US training and military coups in Africa. They too cast doubt on the link between the two.
And in a recent dissertation, post-doctoral fellow Renanah Miles Joyce finds that, on average, US training in Africa reduced military involvement in politics and human rights violations.
Officers in many countries embark on the security equivalent of global training pilgrimages through a transnational circuit of academies, exercises and manoeuvres. This training is often the key to building a successful career.
Consider the curriculum vitae of Mali’s coup plotters. Assimi Goïta, who heads Mali’s junta, spent years training alongside US special forces. His colleagues, Colonel Malick Diaw and Colonel Sadio Camara, the coup’s architects, were allegedly training at the Higher Military College in Moscow.
But if we cannot make a general claim about the training-coup link, perhaps a link can be found in certain situations. For example, the kinds of training that are undertaken, and how training intersects with local political conditions.
Some argue that training focuses too much on technical and tactical expertise to the detriment of democratic norms and military professionalism.
Yet, precisely because improving civilian control of the military is a key objective, these democratic norms feature prominently in curricula. The trouble seems to be that it is difficult to transplant norms, as the US and European Union are learning to their detriment, after years of effort and tens of millions of dollars trying to reform Mali’s security sector.
It’s also the case that norms of military professionalism are ambiguous and open to abuse. As Professor Risa Brooks argues, norms of professionalism in the US are not stopping American military personnel from involvement in politics. And Professor Sharan Grewal provides evidence that US officers’ increasing politicisation rubs off on their foreign trainees.
In the search for more effective security partners, the US and its allies have increasingly focused on elite units, including the special forces unit. While this intensive, long-term training can transmit skills, it’s also at risk of encouraging the formation of praetorian guards that threaten democratically elected civilian governments.
Such training may indeed create a dangerous nucleus of discipline, competence and power at the centre of an otherwise dysfunctional state. In other cases, as in Mali’s neighbour Chad, foreign training of the authoritarian regime’s elite forces may help to help defend the regime against coups. (