The Pentagon has abruptly abandoned plans to train alongside the militaries of several countries either involved in the overthrow of democratic governments or accused of human rights violations, reversing course amid recent scrutiny.
The plans, disclosed to Congress in October and reviewed by The Washington Post, detailed the Pentagon’s intent to hold joint exercises this year with Sudan, Niger, Mali and other troubled African nations. Each is broadly prohibited under U.S. law from receiving American security assistance.
The documents, which have not been made public, account for millions of dollars in projected government spending. They revealed anticipated and ongoing partnerships with scores of foreign militaries, including about a dozen that have been condemned by the Biden administration and other governments for participating in coups or committing grave abuses, including extrajudicial killings and mass rape.
When pressed to explain why it partners with such countries, the Defense Department told The Post that at least six of the abusive militaries — those from Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and Sudan — were no longer slated to participate in the exercises. It is unclear whether the Pentagon also will sever plans to train with other countries that have experienced military coups or whose human rights records clash with President Biden’s stated commitment to advance human rights and democratic ideals.
One defense official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation, said the U.S. military “never had an intention” to train with countries facing restrictions. A second defense official characterized the list submitted to Congress as fluid, saying it is possible other countries’ participation could be canceled, too.
The about-face appears driven, at least in part, by criticism from members of Biden’s own political party who, upon learning of the Pentagon’s plans, implored the administration to change course immediately. It’s the latest instance of fellow Democrats challenging aspects of the president’s foreign policy, having questioned his administration’s steadfast support for Israel amid soaring civilian casualties in Gaza and whether he has the authority to wage a new military campaign targeting militants in Yemen.
On Wednesday, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) appealed directly to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, seeking assurances that no troops associated with coup governments would be allowed to participate in U.S.-led exercises. “We further request,” they told Austin in a letter viewed by The Post, “that foreign security force units receiving assistance … are subject to [human rights] vetting, as required by law.”
The first defense official declined to explain when a decision was reached to bar the six African countries from participating in the training exercises, saying the impetus was “due to legal and/or policy restrictions.” Another government official said that, as of Dec. 20, when the Defense Department last updated lawmakers on its joint exercises, all six countries remained on the list.
Joint training exercises, which are not widely publicized by the Pentagon, receive little public scrutiny. When The Post reviewed the Defense Department’s unclassified notifications to Congress, it found participating militaries — labeled “friendly” foreign forces — from some of the world’s least free societies, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks abusive regimes worldwide.
In statements defending the Pentagon’s practices, both the White House and the Defense Department emphasized what officials consider a distinction between defense training programs and other forms of military aid the United States sends abroad. These exercises primarily benefit the American military units that participate, helping to ensure “seamless” coordination should a crisis occur, said Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokeswoman. She acknowledged the “potential political challenges” that can complicate such partnerships but suggested that the pros outweigh the cons.
“In some cases,” Lawrence said, “it is more effective to remain engaged with certain partners so the partner remains aware of U.S. ethos, values, and concerns and uphold human rights standards.” She said that in the absence of American military interaction, these countries could turn to U.S. adversaries to “fill the void.”
Central African Republic, for instance, along with its record of significant human rights violations, has partnered with the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Some in Congress have sought to brand the group a foreign terrorist organization. CAR personnel are due to participate in at least three exercises with American military units this year, the notification documents show.
Sarah Harrison, a former Pentagon official now with the International Crisis Group, said permitting American personnel to hone the proficiency of potentially “tainted foreign forces” exposes a “glaring hypocrisy” that discredits the Biden administration.
“Not only is it a stain on the U.S.’s reputation,” Harrison added, but some of these military partnerships belie a core tenet of the president’s foreign policy. “They have all the information about atrocities. They have information about coups,” she said of the administration, “and still put these countries on the exercise schedule.”
A White House official said the United States “has never hesitated to stand up for human rights and democracy, and will continue to do so with allies, partners and adversaries alike.”
The Pentagon documents submitted to Congress in October and again in December comprised a who’s who of human rights abusers. U.S. troops were slated for training next month alongside the Sudanese armed forces — whom Secretary of State Antony Blinken has decried for committing “war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing” and other atrocities amid the country’s resurgent civil war.
Forces loyal to Eritrea’s longtime dictator were slated for participation in three exercises, according to the documents. They have been accused of extrajudicial killings and rape, and torturing people held in the country’s network of gulags. Ethiopia’s forces, also implicated by the Biden administration in a host of crimes, was due to participate in “live-fire and maritime exercises, and special operations and cyber courses,” according to a description of one of the several trainings. Both countries’ participation was canceled because they are accused of human rights abuse and undemocratic behavior, the first defense official said.
This month, U.S. troops were scheduled to begin a six-month course with the armed forces of Niger — as they did last year — even though the State Department concluded a military coup had occurred there, requiring suspension of “most U.S. assistance.”
In the spring, two State Department-labeled coup states, Gabon and Guinea, along with Central African Republic, are due to join about two dozen other countries for Flintlock, a counterterrorism exercise led by U.S. special forces.
The State Department announced in October that it was suspending most U.S. assistance to Gabon. Officials previously raised alarms about human rights there, referring in a report last year to “credible” claims its leaders sanctioned torture and imprisoned political opponents. The department has said Guinea’s ruling military regime presided over abuses, too, citing reports of unlawful killings and torture.
Azerbaijan — which a Biden administration official described during a November congressional hearing as having “no chance of business as usual” with the United States until it makes progress toward peace with Armenia — is due to participate in 10 exercises with American personnel this year. The oil- and gas-rich autocracy was cut off from a separate line of U.S. assistance after it annexed territory claimed by Armenia.
Over the past few decades, Congress has passed laws and regulations meant to prevent American support for bad actors. Most prominently, they include Section 7008 of Congress’s annual appropriations bill, which restricts assistance to coup states.
A separate law prohibits the State Department and Pentagon from providing “any training, equipment, or other assistance to a unit of a foreign security force” if the U.S. government has “credible information that unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” The legislation is known as the Leahy law, named for the former senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the driving force behind its passage.
“A key purpose of the Leahy law is to ensure the U.S. government and U.S. military personnel, as is the case here, are not tainted by or complicit with individuals or units of [abusive] foreign security forces,” said Tim Reiser, who drafted the law as Leahy’s foreign policy adviser. “We don’t want our diplomats or military personnel in these countries to be seen by the local population as partners with criminals.”
But the Leahy law has gaps. Notably, it requires that restrictions on U.S. assistance be applied to specific military or police units, something foreign policy experts say the government gets around by providing aid more broadly to a country. The administration exercises considerable discretion in how it applies the vetting, experts say. And ensuring compliance largely falls to Congress, where members must navigate an array of programs, some highly classified, run through multiple federal agencies.
A number of Democrats and Republicans who oversee military and foreign policy told The Post that they had not even seen the Pentagon’s joint exercises notifications, and were unaware of the extent to which the military intended to train alongside troops from restricted countries.
The Pentagon’s Lawrence, citing the law’s boundaries, said joint exercises whose “primary purpose” is to enhance U.S. forces’ capability “are not considered assistance” and do not require Leahy vetting.
Cardin and Warren state in their letter to Austin that such a view “ignores” the fact federal funds are underwriting the participation of problematic units in joint exercises, “as well as the obvious benefits to such foreign forces.” Leahy vetting should apply, they contend.
“Military personnel benefit from these exercises, but so do the foreign forces,” Reiser said, “because the point here is to build partnerships. To together, jointly counter whatever terrorist or jihadist or extremist threats exist in these countries. So it’s mutually beneficial. To say that it’s only for our benefit is nonsensical.”
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former Pentagon official, said there is little evidence joint military exercises lead to improvements in troubled societies. “We’ve had a bunch of coups,” she added, “so we’re pretty dubious that this actually provides a positive in this world.”
An essential question for the administration, Yager said, is: “Do we want to make human rights abusers better at what they do?” The U.S. government’s argument, she added, has always been “‘we’re mitigating what they do.’ And the human rights community’s argument has always been ‘you’re making them more savvy.’ And that is an ongoing tension that no one has been able to solve yet.”