Why for­eign troops can’t fight our fights

Phillip Carter says it’s hard to train armies to share our in­ter­ests

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @carter_pe Phillip Carter is a for­mer Army of­fi­cer and a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

In a pair of stun­ningly can­did ad­mis­sions dur­ing the past few weeks, the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand has sig­naled that a $500 mil­lion ef­fort to train and equip Syr­ian rebel forces has failed. Just four or five fight­ers of a force planned to num­ber 3,000 to 5,000 by now are ac­tive in the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State; many more of those trained may now be fight­ing for the other side. A sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the U.S. mil­i­tary hard­ware given to the rebels has passed through their hands and into the pos­ses­sion of al-Qaeda. Based on what is pub­licly known, the United States is worse off now than it was be­fore it started train­ing the rebels.

Seen through a nar­row lens, this fail­ure il­lus­trates how dif­fi­cult progress against al-Qaeda and the Is­lamic State will be with­out putting U.S. boots on the ground. Viewed more broadly, how­ever, these Cent­com rev­e­la­tions show fun­da­men­tal de­fects in the idea thatwe can graft U.S. ca­pa­bil­i­ties onto for­eign forces to achieve our ends.

Train-and-equip mis­sions like the one in Syria fall un­der the cat­e­gory of “se­cu­rity as­sis­tance” pro­grams, which pro­vide money,

ma­teriel or ad­vi­sory sup­port to for­eign forces. The most ex­pen­sive of these have been the mas­sive ef­forts to build armies and po­lice forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed suc­cess that I saw first­hand as an em­bed­ded ad­viser with Iraq’s se­cu­rity forces at that war’s height. Closely re­lated are the “for­eign mil­i­tary sales” pro­grams, over­seen by the State and De­fense de­part­ments, that de­liv­ered more than $40 bil­lion last year in U.S. weaponry and as­sis­tance to al­lies and part­ners. And then there is the State Depart­ment’s $2 bil­lion port­fo­lio of po­lice train­ing and as­sis­tance, along with var­i­ous coun­tert­er­ror­ism and mil­i­tary aid pro­grams over­seen by De­fense. These ef­forts to­gether are some­times de­scribed as “build­ing part­ner ca­pac­ity” and cur­rently in­clude 148 coun­tries.

The pro­grams rest on a the­ory em­braced across the U.S. gov­ern­ment: Some­times di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions do more harm than good, and in­di­rect ap­proaches get us fur­ther. The the­ory briefs well as a way to achieve U.S. goals with­out great ex­pen­di­ture of U.S. blood and trea­sure. Un­for­tu­nately, decades of ex­pe­ri­ence (in­clud­ing the cur­rent messes in Iraq and Syria) sug­gest that the the­ory works only in in­cred­i­bly nar­row sit­u­a­tions in which states need just a lit­tle as­sis­tance. In the most un­sta­ble places and in the largest con­fla­gra­tions, where we tend to feel the great­est urge to do some­thing, the strat­egy crum­bles.

It fails first and most ba­si­cally be­cause it hinges upon an align­ment of in­ter­ests that rarely ex­ists be­tween Washington and its prox­ies. Most se­cu­rity-as­sis­tance sit­u­a­tions, as dis­tinct from re­la­tion­ships be­tween the United States and its close al­lies, tend to be my­opic and trans­ac­tional. The United States has no mean­ing­ful long-term ties to the Syr­ian rebels, nor the Iraqi army and po­lice. Our in­ter­ests align to the ex­tent that we col­lec­tively seek to de­stroy Is­lamic State, but even there, we dif­fer as to how badly we want to do so. No won­der that when loy­al­ties are tested among U.S.-trained Syr­ian rebels, those fight­ers dis­ap­pear— and some are tempted to join forces with for­mer en­e­mies whose in­ter­ests may be closer to theirs.

Sec­ond, the se­cu­rity-as­sis­tance strat­egy gives too much weight to the ef­fi­cacy of U.S. war-fight­ing sys­tems and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, as­sum­ing that they alone are enough to pro­duce de­sired out­comes for both our for­eign prox­ies and our­selves. In Amer­i­can hands, so­phis­ti­cated weapons work be­cause they are sup­ported by a com­plex U.S. mil­i­tary ma­chine, one that in­cludes global sup­ply chains, ad­vanced main­te­nance sys­tems, and mil­lions of well-ed­u­cated and trained mil­i­tary, civil­ian and con­trac­tor per­son­nel. That ma­chine is im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate, es­pe­cially dur­ing a short-term or cri­sis mis­sion like that in Syria.

For se­cu­rity as­sis­tance to have any chance, it must build on ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions, adding some­thing that fits within or atop a part­ner’s forces. That was the case with our sup­port to the Afghan mu­jahideen in the 1980s, our counter-drug as­sis­tance to Colom­bia be­gin­ning in the 1990s and our more re­cent fi­nanc­ing of the Is­raeli Iron Dome mis­sile-de­fense sys­tem. In those in­stances, our help has made a big dif­fer­ence.

But giv­ing night-vi­sion gog­gles and F-16 air­craft to a third-rate mil­i­tary like the Iraqi army won’t pro­duce a first-rate force, let alone in­still the will to fight. Em­bed­ded ad­vis­ers can help stiffen the re­solve of lo­cal forces, but only to a point. My team in Iraq do­nated Humvees (painted blue and dubbed “Smur­fvees”) to our Iraqi po­lice coun­ter­parts, only to see them sit un­used and fall into dis­re­pair.

The third prob­lem with se­cu­rity as­sis­tance is that it risks fur­ther desta­bi­liz­ing al­ready un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tions and ac­tu­ally coun­ter­ing U.S. in­ter­ests. As in Syria, we may train sol­diers who end up fight­ing for the other side or pro­vide equip­ment that even­tu­ally falls into en­emy hands. Our as­sis­tance may also cre­ate haves and have-nots within a lo­cal force, ex­ac­er­bat­ing po­lit­i­cal or sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions. That plagued our ef­forts to re­build Iraqi army and po­lice units from the start, and re­sulted in the cre­ation of well-trained and well-equipped forces that moon­lighted as sec­tar­ian par­ti­sans in Iraq’s civil war.

De­fense of­fi­cials fre­quently talk up the value of hav­ing for­eign mil­i­tary of­fi­cers at­tend U.S. mil­i­tary schools. And it may seem help­ful when an Amer­i­can gen­eral is able to call a for­eign gen­eral dur­ing a cri­sis based on their shared school ex­pe­ri­ence. Yet when we help to strengthen uni­formed lead­ers and not civil­ian ones, such as politi­cians and po­lice chiefs, we make for­eign mil­i­taries more likely to pre­vail and seize power in fu­ture po­lit­i­cal skir­mishes. Re­search by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Jonathan D. Caverly and Jesse Dil­lon Sav­age sug­gests that Amer­i­can mil­i­tary train­ing “can nearly dou­ble the prob­a­bil­ity of a mil­i­tary-backed coup at­tempt in the re­cip­i­ent coun­try,” as seen re­cently in Mali and Burk­ina Faso.

The flip side of ev­ery ar­gu­ment for as­sis­tance ought to be a dis­pas­sion­ate as­sess­ment of how the aid might be wasted or lost — or worse, how it might ul­ti­mately hurt U.S. in­ter­ests. Such an as­sess­ment must take both a short and a long view, to cap­ture risks like those we see now in Iraq and Syria, as well as the decades-long blow­back we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in Afghanistan and Pak­istan af­ter our ef­forts to arm anti-Soviet rebels there in the 1980s. We should also as­sess whether our big­gest pro­grams, such as the one that pro­vided more than $1 bil­lion in se­cu­rity as­sis­tance to Pak­istan last year, help or hurt U.S. in­ter­ests over the long term.

To the ex­tent a de­bate ex­ists within the U.S. gov­ern­ment over se­cu­rity as­sis­tance, it tends to fo­cus on the small-bore ques­tions of what to call it, what agency should lead it, how best to fund it and whether to give Hell­fire mis­siles or ar­tillery to a po­ten­tial re­cip­i­ent. Such in­tra­mu­ral dis­putes mat­ter, but re­solv­ing them will not fix the flaws in the strat­egy.

A more hum­ble ap­proach is needed. We must think about se­cu­rity as­sis­tance the same way we think about long-term al­liances, look­ing for align­ments of in­ter­ests, not con­ve­nience. Our as­sis­tance should be nar­rowly tai­lored to the ex­ist­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and needs of the re­cip­i­ents and must be sus­tain­able long af­ter we leave. We should bal­ance mil­i­tary train­ing and equip­ment with sup­port for civil­ian in­sti­tu­tions that pro­mote the rule of law and sta­bil­ity, to guard against blow­back and to help ad­dress the root causes of in­sta­bil­ity.

The United States too of­ten chooses se­cu­rity as­sis­tance be­cause of the urge to do some­thing in a cri­sis — of­ten in cases where we have a na­tional in­ter­est, but not one vi­tal enough to send our own sons and daugh­ters into harm’s way. We fail at these ef­forts, as we have in Syria, be­cause we ex­pect too much from them: that oth­ers will achieve what we want but will not do our­selves.


Be­low: Fed­er­ica Mogherini, the Euro­pean Union’s head of for­eign af­fairs and se­cu­rity pol­icy, says a so­lu­tion in Syria will be more dif­fi­cult than the Iran nu­clear deal.

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