Raising an Army: Ten Rules


Last month, many in the Pentagon were aghast to watch a terrorist army sweep aside the U.S.-trained Iraqi military. In Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city, a few hundred fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded and sent 30,000 Iraqi troops running, many shedding their equipment and uniforms as they fled. America invested years of training and billions of dollars in the Iraqi military, and now ISIS drives captured Humvees and shoots heavy weapons made in the United States of America.

How do a few thousand jihadists rout the Iraqi army, a force of 200,000 troops with aircraft, tanks and superior firepower? The answer is disappointingly simple: they are inept.

Helping allies build better armies is a strategic imperative for the United States.  What the U.S. calls security force assistance is commonly termed security sector reform (SSR) in the international community, and it is an indispensible solution for conflict affected states.  SSR professionalizes and strengthens the state’s statutory armed actors so that they can responsibly enforce the law of the land and defend it from armed threats. Operationally, SSR is the exit strategy for costly stability operations like Afghanistan because it allows those countries to provide security for themselves rather than depend on the United States military for firepower. Strategically, helping fragile states professionalize their military and police promotes durable development, since corrupt security forces tend to devour the fruits of development. Additionally, the United States must help its partners grow effective security forces to contend with shared threats, such as global terrorist groups, or it will face a Hobson’s choice: Send in U.S. troops to do the job or permit minor threats to fester into major ones.

Despite this strategic imperative, the U.S. track record is disappointing, and not just in Iraq. In 2012, one in seven of all NATO deaths in Afghanistan were at the hands of the very Afghan troops the coalition was training. America has appropriated over $50 billion to raise Afghan forces since 2002, yet a 2012 Pentagon assessment found that only 1 of its 23 brigades is capable of operating independently.  This augurs poorly for Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws.

Nor are these problems limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. Two years ago a group of U.S.-trained Malian soldiers mutinied and staged a coup d’état in Mali, setting the Sahel region of Africa ablaze. As the international community condemned the coup, a Taureg rebellion seized northern Mali and threatened to advance south, fuelled by small arms from a collapsed Libya and al Qaeda affiliates. Timbuktu and other cities in the north fell to the advancing rebels and a strict version of Islamic law was imposed. Finally the French intervened with military force and pushed the rebels out.

The United States is not alone.  The United Nations has suffered similar setbacksin the Balkans, Haiti, Timor-Leste, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consequently, these places simmer in chaos and threaten their neighbors. Such setbacks bode poorly for potential SSR efforts in Syria and Iraq, assuming those states do not Balkanize.

Inability to competently raise indigenous security forces results in strategic failure.

Why all the SSR failures? There are numerous reasons: it is hard to do; there is a theory to practice gap on how to do it; there are no comprehensive practitioner guides or field manuals, despite the reams of academic literature on the topic; and few practical models exist. The current “train and equip” model as practiced by the Department of Defense is ineffective as it focuses too much on tactics and techniques and misses the important intangibles. Or as General Carter Ham, commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), reflected after Mali: “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos.”

However, SSR success stories exist, and in unexpected places like Liberia.  This small West African country suffered a 14-year civil war waged by warlords.  Warlord-in-Chief President Charles Taylor is now serving 50-years at the Hague for crimes against humanity. The war in Liberia was brutal and infamous for child soldiers, “blood diamonds” and slave labor. Rape was both a tactic and strategy of warfare. Militias chased down civilians and asked them if they wanted a long-sleeve or a short-sleeve shirt. For people who said long sleeves, the fighters hacked off their hands at the wrist with a machete. People who said short sleeves had their arms hacked off closer to the shoulder. To this day, people missing one, two and even four limbs lie on the streets on Monrovia begging for money. The conflict spread to the adjacent countries of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, destabilising them. In late 2002, The Economist magazine predicted that Liberia would be “the world’s worst place to live” that year. They were right.

Of this panoply of human rights horrors, the army committed some of the worst abuses.  In 2004, I helped lead a team to raise a new army for Liberia “from scratch,” which we did. This force now serves the rule of law and even sent a small contingent of peacekeepers to Mali. Liberia has come a long way since Taylor’s inferno. How did this happen?

Our success is partly due to eschewing U.S. and UN techniques. Here are ten things we did differently.

First, drop the Pentagon’s “train and equip” mentality. Raising armies is more sophisticated than this, and involves engaging civil society, growing leaders, building institutions and instilling professionalism. Training and equipping alone only gives you better dressed soldiers who shoot straighter.

Second, understand that this is a deeply political activity because it re-wires de facto authority structures in conflict states, like Iraq. There’s a reason why Maliki puts his Shia cronies in command of Iraqi divisions, just as Saddam Hussein put Sunni Baathists in charge before him.  Technical approaches that ignore the politics will fail.

Third, vigorously vet all candidates for human rights abuses. The United States would never put a cop on the street or enlist someone in the Marines without a background check, yet we did exactly this in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fourth, instill a professional military ethos. Starting in basic training, imbue respect for the rule of law, human rights, and allegiance to the constitution over religious sect or ethnic group.  Liberian recruits spent as much time in the classroom as they did on the rifle range. Cement this through a publically transparent promotion system that shuns cronyism and merits professional values.  Soldiers’ incentive structure will eventually transform past abuses and cultural norms.

Fifth, the force should mirror society. It must be inclusive of all groups and ethnicities, as well as women. To resolve inevitable friction, create a credible ombudsman office to mediate ethnic disputes within the ranks. A force that mirrors the society it serves will be more successful, and prevent it from descending into a sectarian killing machine.

Maliki’s Iraq is an example of this, as he placed Shia cronies in high command and stopped paying the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” forces, effectively demobilizing them. Consequently, Iraq has sectarian security forces that may serve as a grievance and threat to the Sunni population, now largely supporting ISIS.

Sixth, constrain the size of the army to the government’s ability to pay salaries. Unpaid soldiers are a source of coups.  Also, smaller, well-trained, volunteer armies perform better than massive conscripted ones. It is easier to instill discipline and professionalism in a small force.

Seventh, be aware of inherent dilemmas and plan for them. For example, those in Washington, London, Geneva and elsewhere commonly assume that security and justice buttress one another in stability programs.  Sometimes they do but sometimes they do not, and a choice must be made. For example, during the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) phase, do you grant amnesty to encourage combatants to lay down their arms? Amnesty for potential war criminals would not be welcome by victims and is an affront to international justice norms.  However, not granting amnesty may not be enough of a draw to encourage disarmament, resulting in more militia roaming the street. In Liberia we chose not to grant amnesty.

Similarly, in SSR do you turn over human rights vetting records to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or a Special Court?  International justice and sometimes locals that demand perpetrators of human rights violations be held accountable – yet turning over a SSR program’s confidential background checks on candidates to a Commission is dangerous.  People would stop volunteering for the new security force if they thought it could lead to their indictment. It may also cause some soldiers and policemen to desert. Worse, it invites reprisal killings against witnesses who shared, in confidence, information about perpetrators. In Liberia we refused to hand over our vetting records to the TRC, causing a diplomatic incident but preserving the security sector.

Another example: do you prioritize ethnic inclusion or literacy? A balanced security force is important, as mentioned above. Literacy is also important because leaders need to read and write orders.  In some ethnic conflict, certain groups are denied access to education and therefore functionally illiterate. In Liberia, we built in literacy training into basic training, but there are limitations to this approach: such programs cannot lift an individual from a sixth to twelfth grade reading level in a few months.

Being aware of SSR’s inherent dilemmas allows you to plan for them, balance trade-offs and manage outcomes.

Eighth, force structure is key. The architecture of the security force must reflect the country’s needs. Does Iraq really need F-16s? It should have a defense-oriented posture with limited force-projection capability: limited artillery, armor, intelligence, and armed aircraft.   Covert special operations units and their kindred should be avoided since they tend to become manipulated by political factions (East Timor), stage coups (Mali) or a sectarian weapon (Iraq). The risk of abusing firepower by corrupt regimes or ambitious commanders is great, doing more harm than good. It is more prudent to be conservative when arming embryonic allies with unproven leadership.

Ninth, selecting for leadership is difficult. It takes 20 years to make a colonel in the U.S. Army yet conflict countries cannot wait that long. But the simple fact is that forces like the Liberian, Iraq and Afghan armies will initially be an ‘army of privates,’ as new recruits fill their ranks without an older generation to lead them. An international partner may recommend senior leaders but the host nation must select them. Beware of politicization, cronyism and nepotism by building transparent institutions and encouraging a free press.

Tenth, the private sector may be better at this than the government. The United States turned to the private sector in unprecedented ways during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, especially for SSR functions. In Liberia, SSR of the armed forces was entirely contracted.  The United States hired DynCorp International, a private security company, to raise Liberia’s army in toto, marking the first time in 150 years that one country hired a company to raise another country’s armed forces. Today, the private sector arguably possesses more SSR expertise and resources than the government, making them indispensable for this strategic imperative.  Voices in the past have called for an U.S. “advisory corps” but this is unlikely because the U.S. military prefers to identify itself as an assault force rather than an occupation force, especially after being used to uncertain effect as the latter in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contractors are here to stay and can be quite good, if you know how to manage them.

Lastly, be humble.SSR is a marathon and not a sprint. Whether one is raising an army of 2,000 or 200,000, the methods are essentially the same, differing only in scale and scope. It involves political bargaining, operational surprises and imperfect outcomes. Ensure expectations are managed, especially one’s own.

The best metric of success is easy:is a soldier someone a child runs away from in fear, or someone a child runs toward for protection?


Sean McFate is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the forthcoming book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.


Image Credit: Staff Sgt. Edward Braly, USAF