Cutting US Defense Attachés from Embassies Abroad is a Bad Idea
Without them on the ground, or without the right rank, commanders and policymakers are mostly blind, deaf, and mute.
The Trump administration’s decision to close U.S. defense attaché offices in several West African countries and downgrade the ranks of defense attachés representing the United States in eight key partner nations is a bad idea.
These steps — reportedly intended to save money and reduce the military’s overall number of generals and admirals — will reduce U.S. access to political and military leadership in countries where Washington needs more influence, not less. In West Africa, closing these offices will reduce U.S. insights into terrorist groups tied to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and make it easier for China to increase its influence throughout the region.
Defense attachés, who are based in U.S. embassies, represent the U.S. military’s interests to host governments. Serving as diplomats, intelligence officers, and military liaisons all in one, they establish critical relationships with the leaders and future leaders of local armed forces, report on their capabilities and resources, assess the potential for conflict, and coordinate U.S. military assistance intended to build partner capacity. Attachés also compile strategic intelligence about regional threats of interest to policymakers, including terrorism, thereby helping to inform U.S. national security policy. Without a defense attaché on the ground, defense policymakers and military commanders are mostly blind, deaf, and mute in that country.
U.S. troops are deployed throughout West Africa — including in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Senegal — to undertake counterterrorism missions in partnership with local forces and those of other allies, such as France. U.S. forces deploy to the region frequently for bilateral and multilateral training exercises. Without attachés in West Africa, U.S. operational commanders will have no enduring in-country liaison to facilitate these missions. While U.S. Africa Command interacts with its regional counterparts, defense attachés who work directly for the U.S. ambassador in-country help ensure political, financial, and logistical support for operations by coordinating with defense officials in Washington and local capitals. Without attachés’ involvement, recurring activities could become more difficult to manage, and military-to-military relations could more easily become detached from broader policy objectives.
More strategically, without attachés in West Africa, the United States will lose insight into regional countries’ decisions to turn to China for weapons, training, and equipment — all of which give Beijing exceptional access to African leaders and facilitate China’s goals of expanding its political influence and economic opportunities. China has embassies in 52 of 54 African countries, and a military base in Djibouti. Beijing gives funding and materiel to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, and the Africa Standby Force based in Cameroon. Chinese troops participate in several UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including a continuing rotation of roughly 400 troops in Mali, a critical U.S. counterterrorism partner. From 2008-2018, China sold $3.2 billion worth of weapons – including tanks, artillery systems, fighter jets, and drones – to African countries. In the second half of that period, sub-Saharan African nations turned to China for 24 percent of their weapons imports — a 55 percent increase over the previous five years, and more than three times what they purchased from the United States. Many of these weapons make their way into conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Somalia. Our attachés’ insights into China’s security assistance, troop deployments, and weapons sales, in addition to China’s Africa policy and military export industry, also help the United States assess the potential for regional conflicts in which Chinese-made weapons systems would be employed.
Outside of Africa, the decision to downgrade the ranks of defense attachés in critical partner nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iraq will greatly reduce the U.S. military’s access to senior leaders in these countries. Militaries are by nature hierarchical. The presence of a star on the shoulder of the U.S. defense attaché enables him or her to break through bureaucracy in both U.S. and local institutions, raising the profile of defense policy matters and facilitating resolution of disputes. Defense attachés often play a role in brokering the sale or transfer of billions of dollars of military materiel — transactions that involve senior-ranking local officials. Having a general or flag officer represent the United States in discussions on such transactions helps ensure that U.S. policy views, such as constraints on the use or re-export of such equipment, are clearly understood by the host government and its military establishment.
The presence of highly ranked attachés in such countries also helps ensure that U.S. perspectives are heard above the din. When Russia, China, and Iran have flag rank attachés in capitals where the United States is represented by a field grade officer, our adversaries gain greater high-level access to our strategic partners.
Defense attachés are strategic assets that contribute critical diplomatic, military, policy, and intelligence insights regarding the countries in which they are deployed. Closing their offices and reducing the ranks of attachés in critical partner nations will produce a little savings, but at great cost.
Larry Hanauer worked in the Defense Attaché Office in Senegal; collaborated with DAOs in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East as a country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and oversaw DAO operations as a staff member on the House Intelligence Committee. He is the author of several publications on China’s engagement in Africa.
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