The limits of US security cooperation in Jordan

By: Peter Kirechu

President Barack Obama Meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office on 26 April, 2013. Source: Wikimedia.

The most notable feature of President Barack Obama’s partnership-based counterterrorism doctrine­–roughly defined–is its central focus on training and arming local security services to independently deal with emerging terrorism threats. The President’s doctrine is unfortunately fraught with inconsistent performance of US-trained security services, especially among fragile states in the Middle East and beyond. Whether in Iraq, Yemen, or Afghanistan, singular focus on capacity building within the security sector has failed to remedy the governance failures that fuel instability within the region.

In Jordan, the United States (US) enjoys a long history of sustained political, economic and military cooperation which dates back to 1951. However, since the self-styled Islamic State established a cross-border presence in Syria, concerns with the contagion of trained militants across Jordan’s borders have led to substantial increases in US security assistance. In February 2015, the United States expanded its annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion. The funds were directed towards core counterterrorism priorities (border protection, C4ISR, quick-reaction airlift capabilities) and also the immediate humanitarian demands incurred by the Syrian refugee crisis.

Though the US-Jordanian security relationship is less fraught with discord when compared with other states in the region, this assessment slightly deceives a growing angst within the Jordanian public. Since the brutal loss of Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, to the Islamic State in 2014, the public is increasingly apprehensive of its government’s support of US policy prerogatives. The pilot’s death stood as a stark reminder of the costs paid by the Jordanian military–and the public writ large–in small part due to the government’s role within the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

Despite this fomenting anxiety, the United States appears squarely focused on the more proximate security threats borne by the Syrian conflict. But as the Salafi-Jihadist landscape evolves throughout the region, Jordan will remain an attractive target due to the available reservoir of disenchanted locals eager for a brighter economic future and resentful of the government’s stunted reforms. Unless the United States adopts a more balanced security assistance approach, one that emphasizes comprehensive governance reforms, the current policy will remain inadequate to the underlying causes of domestic instability. 

Jihadist entreaties on a vulnerable public

Since 2013, Jordan has served as the training and staging ground for Syrian rebels battling the Islamic State in Southern Syria. This training effort has slowly expanded and now includes the provision of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) to various US-supported rebel factions. This covert effort proceeded under limited public scrutiny until the Islamic State’s capture and subsequent beheadings of several western journalists and aid workers. These gruesome executions ultimately triggered the US-led aerial bombing campaign against the jihadist group in both Iraq and Syria.

The Jordanian government joined the US effort, viewing its participation as a necessary measure aimed at shoring up Jordan’s national security. At the outset, the public’s response was initially quite supportive but subsequent research polls conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Studies revealed that a majority of respondents viewed the campaign as more beneficial to the United States, Israel and Iran, rather than to Jordan’s security and stability. Though Jordanians expressed early support for their government’s role within the coalition, many did not consider the country’s security interests under direct threat.

But once Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh was captured and gruesomely executed, his death elevated formerly muted discontent with Jordan’s role within the coalition. Those who not normally involve themselves with the ebbs and flows of foreign affairs found themselves participants in a growing conversation on the merits of their government’s continued involvement in the US-led coalition.

Nonetheless, the participation of roughly 2,200 Jordanian citizens in active battlefronts in Syria and Iraq underscores the government’s concerns with the return of trained militants who may seek to undermine the current governing order. As such, the government’s participation in the US-led coalition appears to be a reasonable response to the rising threat of both domestic and foreign militancy.

On the domestic front, Jordanian authorities have banned cleric that are sympathetic to the Islamic State from delivering public sermons. Other measures include the release of some prominent Salafist clerics with the intent of enlisting their assistance in combatting jihadist rhetoric within the public domain. The government has also adopted a more repressive approach to public dissent, detaining Muslim Brotherhood members and introducing new amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law. These changes have criminalized the criticism of foreign countries and their leaders while permitting the prosecution of journalists and activists for speech-related crimes–as widely interpreted by the State Security Court.

The crackdown on public speech under the cover of combatting terrorism weighed heavily on Jordan’s decline from a ‘Partially Free’ to a ‘Not Free’ State according to the Freedom’s House  Freedom in the World rankings. This ranking has endured since 2010 and is not likely to improve under current conditions. Unfortunately, the government’s embrace of these policy prerogatives harms the state’s long-term security by ignoring legitimate public grievances and broadening public apathy with stagnated reforms that were once viewed as a bulwark against domestic instability.

Crises of Socio-Economic Patronage

The Hashemite Kingdom’s most urgent economic ails are grounded in the patronage and subsidy system which secures the monarchy’s rule. Regime loyalty underscores the long-running history of generous welfare benefits accorded to East Banker tribes and the pervasive use of personal friendships and tribal relationships to secure professional positions throughout the government. The patronage system is particularly acute within some sectors of the security services, where political and personal relationships often supersede professional conduct and competency.

The unprecedented nine to ten percent increase of the overall Jordanian population as a result of Syrian refugees has pushed the import-heavy Jordanian government into further reliance on foreign financial aid. Through IMF, EU, and US financial support, the country’s budget deficits have narrowed though public debt remains at 90 percent and unemployment increased from 14 percent to 22 percent in 2014. Due to the government’s overdependence on a politically motivated patronage system, systemic reforms are anathema to those who have historically thrived under public benefits. Thus efforts to curb this reliance ultimately undermine the Monarchy’s ability to institute meaningful economic changes. Nonetheless, progress towards this difficult objective remains a worthwhile goal for Jordan’s overall security.

The international community’s traditional responses to Jordan’s precarious economic position often focus on broadening the country’s financial reserves through infusions of foreign aid. But as long as foreign direct investments serve as the preferred model of external financial support, the government should channel these funds towards economic activities that utilize the immense labor reserves offered by the refugee population and Jordan’s unemployed youth.

By adopting economic policies that target this readily available labor pool, the government can provide opportunities for a highly vulnerable population in the low-skill manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors. Due to the widespread destruction of Syria’s manufacturing output, and the slow disappearance of formerly productive commercial centers and trade routes, the Jordanian government has the opportunity to develop these lost capabilities within its borders. Such an approach similarly coopts the potential diversion of marginalized youths and refugees into criminality or radicalization.

This approach not only addresses the socio-economic grievances that threaten the government’s long-term stability, but also changes public perceptions of the government’s commitment to meaningful reforms.

Due to the inflamed crises that characterize the Jordan’s neighborhood, the opposition movement has so far restrained itself from overt agitation for regime change. This patient resolve is perhaps rooted in the hopes that meaningful change might emerge through cooperation with the monarchy, rather than the revolutionary violence that has resulted in widespread human suffering elsewhere in the region. Unlike other places in the region, the government has the unlikely benefit of a relatively subdued opposition movement. It should capitalize on this level of calm agitation for change and dedicate more of its foreign assistance toward addressing the full breadth of opposition grievances.

The Limits of Narrow Counterterrorism Approaches

It is likely that the more visible results of effective counterterrorism support occur on the operational theater. Local security services elevate their targeting, surveillance, and response capabilities and gain an operational edge against insurgents and terrorist networks through US training and equipment support. However, when partner states accept US assistance, these transactions are also de facto political decisions with immense implications on the governed.

Recipient governments that focus their enhanced counterterrorism capabilities on regime survival or personal enrichment, as seen in Iraq, are unlikely to survive in the long-term. For others, security assistance and cooperation becomes a publically poisonous symbol of US encroachment on state sovereignty as seen in Yemen and Pakistan. In these environments, security-centered assistance is commonly squandered and US national interests harmed in the long-term.

The United States must therefore balance its security-dominant engagement with the Jordanian government and dedicate more resources to the socio-political and economic factors addressed herein. Placing governance and economic reform conditions on US security assistance, is the first step towards changing the United States’ reception within the Jordanian public. These conditions also incentivize the Jordanian government to balance security-based expenditures with the socio-economic investments that target the governance roots of instability. Over time, it is these investments that build economic, political, and social resilience throughout the Jordanian public and prevent radicalization among the most vulnerable sectors of the general public.



Peter Kirechu is a graduate student at the Mercyhurst Institute for Intelligence Studies where he focuses on civil strife, insurgencies and counterterrorism. Mr. Kirechu was also a 2013 Boren Scholar to Jordan where he studied the security and humanitarian effects of Syria’s civil conflict. Twitter: @PeterKirechu

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