The U.S. is trying to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria using a tactic that’s rarely worked: training and equipping foreign forces.
The effort to defeat terrorists and insurgencies without using American troops is failing in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations have now intervened. It still faces long odds and long wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
For now, President Barack Obama is doubling down on getting other nations to fight by boosting arms sales to the Gulf states, resuming military aid to Egypt and supporting the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen.
In Afghanistan, trainers have 21 months left before Obama plans to recall them. In Iraq, U.S. advisers are rebuilding a U.S.-trained army that crumbled last year when Islamic militants attacked. Training moderate Syrian rebels, which Congress approved last fall, has yet to begin.
Weak institutions and sectarian divisions in all three countries have imperiled the chances for success, and the U.S. military remains focused on maintaining its own combat capabilities, not developing those of uncertain allies, say former military officers and diplomats.
“We want to kill people and break things; we don’t want to train, advise and equip our allies,” said John Nagl, a West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar and combat veteran who calls inadequate training of Iraqi and Afghan units “the single biggest military failing of the last 15 years.”
The dilemma isn’t new. Almost 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon tried “Vietnamization,” a failed effort to extricate the U.S. from the Vietnam War by bolstering South Vietnamese forces.
The U.S. has long trained allied militaries from South Korea to Colombia and El Salvador, and Pentagon officials have cited the Philippines, and until recently Yemen, as successes.
Even so, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in Foreign Affairs five years ago that “strategic reality demands” that the U.S. get better at training. That became a central element in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which concluded that “helping others to help themselves is critical to the long war.”
The failures of that effort are prompting calls for change. Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says the failures of U.S.-trained units in Iraq and Mali merit a look at “institutional changes” in the Pentagon’s approach.
“A major part of U.S. national security in the future will be working with and through other security forces, and we need to learn and be as clear as we can about what works and what doesn’t,” Thornberry told Bloomberg reporters and editors on March 19.
Teaching foreign recruits how to wage war isn’t the problem, according to current and former military officers. After all, drill sergeants in the U.S. teach civilians the rudiments of soldiering in eight to 12 weeks of basic training.
“The question is can we put a government in place that’s worthy of their sacrifice?” said Richard Armitage, a former Pentagon and State Department official and Vietnam veteran. “And if we can’t do that, they won’t die for their country, and all the training in the world won’t get you anywhere.”
Barbara Bodine, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, said the U.S. devotes disproportionate attention to foreign countries’ military needs while overlooking shortcomings in vital civilian institutions.
“We tend to go in and put enormous focus on training the military, providing literacy, providing equipment,” she said. “It’s unbalanced. We don’t do anything with nearly the same intensity on the civilian side.”
In Yemen, the U.S. has provided more than $401 million in counterterrorism aid since fiscal 2006 to help government security forces fight the local al-Qaeda affiliate. But when Yemeni officials warned of the danger from the Houthis, a northern sect of Shiite Islam, they were ignored, Bodine said.
Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that training local militaries is only part of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
“In every case, a political solution is required,” he said. “To achieve that political solution, there’s a requirement to have a trained and centrally controlled security apparatus.”
The U.S. reliance on others is the latest chapter in an approach to military conflict that’s evolved as the focus has changed from battling Soviet tanks in Europe to “asymmetric warfare,” combating insurgencies that are no match for the U.S. in conventional terms but use improvised explosives and ambushes to even the odds.
When the U.S. fought Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991, it fielded a land army 500,000 strong. During the “surge” of 2007, as Army General David Petraeus pursued a classic counterinsurgency strategy, the U.S. presence in Iraq peaked at 157,800 troops.
“The conventional wisdom is that counterinsurgency is too expensive for the U.S., and maybe a fool’s errand,” said Carter Malkasian, a former political adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan who’s now an analyst for CNA Corp.’s federally funded Center for Naval Analyses. “It’s been replaced with a reliance on local forces.”
Five years after Gates’s call to acknowledge “strategic reality,” though, progress remains elusive.
In August, Obama called the prospects for turning opponents of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad into a credible combat force a “fantasy.” Now the U.S. president is aiming to train and field 5,000 moderate rebels annually for the next three years to battle Islamic militants in Syria.
After disbanding the Iraqi army in the wake of the 2003 invasion, the U.S. spent more than $25 billion through fiscal 2012 to build a new force, according to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
Yet several Iraqi divisions collapsed under Islamic State attack last year, with soldiers shedding their weapons and uniforms and fleeing the battlefield.
The Pentagon blames former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for politicizing the security forces, replacing qualified Sunni officers with his own Shiite supporters, and skimping on training after the 2011 American exit.
In December, Maliki’s successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said the army’s ranks had been inflated by 50,000 nonexistent “ghost soldiers,” whose paychecks were pocketed by corrupt commanders.
Michael Barbero, a retired three-star Army general who led the effort to train Iraqi security forces for 17 months until 2011, said the Iraqi recruits were eager students. Many mimicked their American counterparts, wearing protective kneepads casually draped around their ankles and even spending their own money on helmet clips for U.S. night vision gear.
Even so, the shortcomings in the force were apparent long before last year. In mid-2010, Barbero told Iraqi officials that they commanded a “checkpoint army” that was incapable of combining infantry and artillery operations and in need of more U.S. assistance.
Now, the U.S. and its European allies are retraining Iraqi soldiers at four facilities. Nine Iraqi and three Kurdish peshmerga brigades are to be trained to wrest Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, away from Islamic militants.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. training effort has faced numerous challenges over the past six years, including 83 U.S. or coalition personnel killed by Afghans in so-called green-on-blue attacks since the beginning of 2012, the latest one today.
The Afghan training program has suffered manpower and funding shortages, according to a March 19 report by Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Through 2012, the military was hundreds of trainers short, and “many if not most advisers actually present had no prior area or training experience,” Cordesman wrote, adding that the U.S. program has been “rushed and erratic.”
The U.S. combat mission ended in December, and Afghan forces are now responsible for the war against the Taliban and its allies. That meant heavy casualties in the most recent fighting season. Desertions, too, are whittling away at Afghanistan’s army just as it prepares for renewed fighting.
The slow pace of progress has prompted Obama to keep 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan for the remainder of this year to maintain the training tempo, instead of drawing down to 5,500.