As the Syrian civil war has entered its sixth year, US military aid to Washington's key ally in the region - Jordan - has risen to a staggering $463m in 2016 alone. But little is known about how this money is spent. Who benefits? And who or what is secured by US military funding?
The King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre (KASOTC) is the centrepiece of US-Jordanian counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation. It not only offers a base for the training of international Special Forces and Jordanian border guards, but also for military adventure holidays, corporate leadership programmes, and stunt training for actors. While war at KASOTC is an interactive and consumable event for affluent customers, it engenders deadly realities for others.
Following Jordanian approval of a political-military agreement concerning the use of the facility, the US provided $99m of military assistance for the construction of the centre, accounting for a third of the total US military aid to Jordan in 2005. While KASOTC was built by the Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Programs Center, it is owned by the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF), and managed by the Maryland-based limited liability company ViaGlobal.
The ViaGlobal staff based at KASOTC have US military background. Also the board of the company almost exclusively consists of retired US military personnel. Although KASOTC thereby comes close to operating as a US army training centre, its business structure allows both the US and the Jordanian governments to insist that there are indeed no foreign military training centres in the country
According to one ViaGlobal employee, in 2013, 60 percent of the revenues earned at KASOTC came from the training of US soldiers and 20 percent from the training of Jordanian forces. As all Jordanian border guards and law enforcement units have received compulsory training at KASOTC since 2014, the latter figure is likely to have increased further.
KASOTC offers its customers what its construction manager imagined to be an environment that is just like what soldiers might encounter with terrorists. Besides a fake Afghan village, a real Airbus 300, a mock city, and a sniper range, KASOTC also features its own artificial refugee camp. The simulation of a typical terrorist environment is further enhanced by the use of thousands of sound and smell effects, fog generators, and rooftop explosions.
With a JAF-owned facility managed by a US private business and Jordan's military budget heavily dependent on foreign aid, the likelihood that the Jordanian military sector may ever come under effective public control is rather meagre.
Practically unknown to most Jordanians, the centre openly markets itself to international Special Forces units as a state-of-the-art training hub in the global fight against terrorism. As part of its Annual Warrior Competition, KASOTC for instance invites Special Forces units from all over the world to what its business manager, a former US marine, in 2013 aptly called the Olympics of Special Forces.
The event itself primarily serves PR purposes and is sponsored by international weapons producers. In return for their sponsoring, the latter can directly showcase their products to the participating units.
Besides teams from various international security and military agencies, the US company International Defense Systems has already registered a corporate team. Although KASOTC is owned by the JAF, its commercial business structure implies that Jordanian military units who wish to train at the centre need to pay like any other customers. However, they do get a discount, according to a ViaGlobal employee I talked to.
Staff and profit structures are clearly skewed in favour of private commercial interests. In addition to the centre's dozen ViaGlobal staff, around 100 Jordanian soldiers assist in the everyday running of the centre. The earned profits, however, flow to the Jordanian private company KASOTC, and the US private company ViaGlobal.
Owing to KASOTC's operation as a private for-profit company, the services on offer are also open to other private companies. The customer base of the centre includes MissionX, among others. MissionX was established by CK Redlinger, the former Baghdad security manager of US General David Petraeus, who after his work in Iraq moved on to become KASOTC's business development manager. MissionX offers what it calls a Special Operations Adventure Experience. This is conducted at KASOTC and allows participants, who are issued with Special Forces equipment, combat uniforms, and weapons, to play war in the Middle East.
Partnering with London-based Fieri, MissionX also markets the programme as a corporate learning experience. Participating managers and employees can thus, according to the description, explore a new and unique approach to commercial leadership development by, for instance, learning how to handle a shotgun and seek cover in an Afghan village or a bazaar. Finally, MissionX has also provided technical advice and training to Hollywood films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
Without doubt US military aid has helped to prevent a spillover of the Syrian civil war into neighbouring Jordan. However, the effects of US military assistance do not end there. While it is not known whether other US-funded facilities in the country are managed similarly, the case of KASOTC clearly demonstrates that commercial actors such as ViaGlobal and KASOTC have gained considerable influence in the Jordanian security sector as a direct result of the provided assistance.
In fact, the US preference for a strong role of private firms in the security sector seems to be met by an equal level of enthusiasm on the side of Jordan, which in 2005 contracted Blackwater to train Jordanian helicopter pilots. The helicopters were bought using US foreign military funding.
With a JAF-owned facility managed by a US private business and Jordan's military budget heavily dependent on foreign aid, the likelihood that the Jordanian military sector may ever come under effective public control is rather meagre. A better understanding of the dynamics briefly analysed here is key to understanding why US military assistance to Jordan, despite helping to protect the country against potential attacks by the so-called Islamic State, nevertheless remains so controversial.
This article is a shorter version of an academic article published with Security Dialogue.
Benjamin Schuetze is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Freiburg and a research associate with the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute.