Training Foreign Military Forces: Quality vs Quantity

July 15, 2015

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The United States has sent its latest tranche of 450 troops to Al Taqaddum Air Base in Iraq to train that country’s new army recruits. The hope is that this will bolster the Iraqi army, which could make the difference in pushing back the Islamic State. But the American model for large-scale development of partner nation armies is teetering on the brink of failure. Despite vast sums of money and years of effort, America’s allies in Iraq and Afghanistan seem largely uninterested in fighting without U.S. assistance.

So exactly what is it that U.S. forces are getting wrong? In comments he gave to CNN in the wake of the fall of Ramadi, Defense Secretary Ash Carter found the crux of the issue: The Iraqi army, said Carter, lacks the will to fight. Faced with an enemy it had the skill and numerical advantage to defeat, the force simply folded. But what Carter said next highlights a fundamental misapprehension: “we can give them training, we can give them equipment, we obviously can’t give them the will to fight.”

What underlies the will to fight? It is some alchemy of duty, discipline, confidence and patriotism that causes people to choose the collective good over the individual impulse to flee to safety. The modern U.S. military method for training foreign militaries gives little attention to the moral and psychological aspects of military formation. It teaches allied soldiers to shoot straight, but it does a poor job at explaining why and for what cause they are shooting (or just as importantly, when and why they should not shoot). These facets of military preparation are a conceptual afterthought, most likely because the task of developing host nation security forces is so different from the preferred U.S. style of warfare.

In general, the American military favors warfare that is swift, utilizes overwhelming force, employs a top-down military hierarchy and maximizes the use of technology. This is quite the opposite of the slow, indirect, and low-tech process of force development. Moreover, an emphasis on engaging the enemy favors development of immediate combat capacity over more long-term capabilities, such as logistics capacity, or in this case, army and police values across the force.

On a 2010 trip to Afghanistan, I witnessed the corrosive effects of drug-addicted police, and others who had no desire to either fight or win “hearts and minds.” I was told by a senior U.S. military official that I was talking about cancer while the patient was hemorrhaging. What he meant was that in the face of a Taliban threat, large quantities of police were needed, even if they were poorly trained. High-quality, motivated police were a luxury, not a necessity. Between 2006 and 2015, the goal for the size of the Afghan National Police increased some 253 percent and for the Afghan National Army by 279 percent, according to congressionally mandated reporting. World Bank data suggests that these personnel went from being 0.4 percent of the total Afghan labor force in 2005 to 4.2 percent in 2013.

This massive push for numbers and the attendant dilution of training is completely at odds with building a cohesive army with the will to stand and fight, predicated upon an unproven assumption that a “large footprint” is itself a decisive strategy. Despite a rock solid belief that vast numbers of host nation forces are necessary to the fight, on the battlefield, America has become increasingly reliant on two types of foreign forces distinguished by their smaller sizes: special operators and religious or ethnic partisans.

The trouble with partisan forces, of course, is that they have abundant will to fight, but generally a different agenda from either the U.S. partners or their own national government. In a marriage of convenience, these forces are extremely effective on the battlefield, but they can quickly amass enough strength to rival their host country governments. Broadly, pro-government militias are associated with increased human rights violations. A study of the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq found that use of irregular defense forces “civilianized” the fight, causing unarmed civilians to be targeted by insurgents in fighting. And once a shared goal is accomplished, these partisan forces can be difficult to dismantle, as the case of post-Soviet Afghanistan illustrated all too well. In many ways, the United States views these forces as partners of last resort when, as today in Iraq, regular forces cannot be convinced to do the job.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S.-trained special forces have become the de facto fighting force, in many cases filling in where a conventional force ought to be able to carry the battle. Despite being about 5.5 percent of the total Afghan National Security Forces, elite Afghan units conducted 82 percent of all missions in the last six months, while Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), such as the Golden Division, are worn thin trying to substitute for their conventional peers. While these forces do learn showcase skills such as rappelling out of a helicopter, intermediate skills such as clearing compounds of insurgents can sometimes be lacking, at least for the Afghan commandos. These forces are so valued, not because they execute these showcase skills on the battlefield, but rather because they execute less skilled tasks much more reliably. In a prime example, when most soldiers fled Ramadi, ISOF had the discipline and confidence to stand and fight.

Some of that confidence undoubtedly derives from the high-quality air support and medical services provided by U.S. special forces who have partnered with them, but that alone is not a sufficient explanation. Asked why ISOF were so superior to conventional Iraqi forces on the battlefield, former Marine Gen. James Jones said that, “because of the relatively small size of the ISOF … its leaders are able to cull the recruit pool. In a smaller group, it is also easier to inculcate a shared culture of national service and pride.”

There are other advantages to smaller forces that U.S. planners and policymakers should consider when looking at future security assistance efforts abroad. The overall cost of the force is lower, so the host nation can more easily pay the tab on its own, without foreign assistance. In developing militaries, ministerial capacity is also often lacking, and it is easier to exercise command and control over a smaller force with fewer units. Finally, while it’s always possible to add on forces as the institutions are able to manage them, developing countries with internal security threats have a difficult time cutting forces after they’ve grown too big. In Afghanistan, for example, a plan to make significant force reductions in order to cut costs was indefinitely postponed, largely when it became clear that the chief output of such a program would be thousands of unemployed, disaffected young men with weapons training. Finally, it appears to be the case that these smaller forces reach full capacity faster, as evidenced by the high tempo of operations of Afghan elite units, whose largest component, the commandos, were not formed until 2007.

None of this is meant to suggest that host nation special forces are the sole answer, or that the United States should give up training conventional forces. Rather, it points the way to a more effective and efficient means by which to attempt to develop partner forces that could be tried by the U.S. military. It turns out there is good reason to believe that a smaller number of dedicated fighters is better than scads of troops who will retreat under fire. It appears the will to fight is more important than pinpoint accurate fires. And the United States does have the ability to inculcate will to fight, as evidenced by its training of host nation special forces, and even by the training of its own young men and women, for whom desertion is nearly unheard of.

One of the hardest lessons of the last decade of war for U.S. forces to internalize is that a light footprint — if it’s the right one — is more effective than a large ill-conceived presence. It’s time for the United States to apply that logic to the forces it trains as well, to look for quality first and to develop in these forces the discipline and will to face common enemies. Recently, Secretary Carter announced that recruitment for Iraqi forces had reached only 30 percent of target numbers. Rather than lament the lack of force size, the Pentagon should focus instead on developing skill, discipline, and the will to fight in the smaller group of Iraq’s ready volunteers.


Rebecca Zimmerman is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia

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10 thoughts on “Training Foreign Military Forces: Quality vs Quantity

  1. Covered in passing by the author, but a significant limitation: despite several suggestions to the contrary as codified in FM 3-24, the U.S. has tended to train foreign forces to fight using the same methods and capabilities as American troops. This is all well and good when America is there to provide close air support, C4ISR, medical support, and logistics. When those American provisions disappear, those foreign forces are suddenly at a disadvantage, or at very best on par, when compared with some of the more robust insurgent groups (e.g., DAESH and the Taliban). Those same insurgent groups may provide an effective model for study and implementation by U.S. trainers, in a manner comparable to 2009/’10 suggestions that Hezbollah’s hybrid warfare approach in the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict was suggested as a potential model for training Georgian forces to defend against a future Russian incursion. The American model works, with varying degrees of success, for the American military, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all model, and should not be treated as such.

  2. The “go small and special” approach still isn’t perfect. If we look at this method’s implementation in Africa over the last decade the US has achieve varying degrees of success and failure: Mali-fail, Chad-success, Nigeria-mixed.

    Its a complex problem, and requires two things that are lacking in our current military culture: patients and long term commitment.

    1. “Its a complex problem, and requires two things that are lacking in our current military culture: patients and long term commitment.”

      If there’s something our military does generate, its lots of patients for the VA… I kid, I kid…


      One potential problem with the small/special route is that those troops end up as a Praetorian Guard for the regime (I believe that accusation has been leveled on the ISOF), so they end up being a political tool for the regime to suppress opposition, or a source of instability when the troops (or their command, or whoever is paying them the most) decide that it’s time for a change in employment. There’s also the possibility that they could go rogue – see the Zetas in Mexico.

    2. A smaller, more elite (not necessarily “Special Operations”) force can more readily build a larger, adequate force, by serving as a cadre and support for later masses of recruits.

      That is, after all, the basic military strategy the US successfully employed (albeit not necessarily by conscious design all the time… ;) ) from 1783 through 1953. The pre-war privates of the small, very well trained force became the wartime NCOs of the large, slightly less well trained force, and dragged their troops to a higher standard.

      It can lead to problems, when taken to an extreme, such as the debacle that the opening days of the Korean War were. And it really sucks to have to do your cadre building during a war, when every instinct is telling you, “Mass, MASS, *MASS*!”

      But the historical record shows that it almost always *works*, whereas the opposite approach (which we are using now) of trying to take a huge mob and improve quality historically *rarely* works. Approach “A” is building a solid cadre to act as a skeleton to build a large force on, whereas Approach “B” is tossing a handful of buckshot into a bucket of warm spit to “stiffen it up”, while trying to make the buckshot out of the warm spit in the first place.

  3. The author just stated to scratch the surface of this story since there are so many variables at play in an irregular environment. Lack of will?; Or lack of motivation? The first is internal; the second should be a part of the training that Iraqis should receive, but is not being provided.

    “Lack of will”. With a statement like that are they already looking for a replacement? Is this already the downturn of SEC Carter?

    When it comes to irregular threats and irregular warfare the U.S. claims success in the Philippines and Columbia. But are these true claims? What supposedly worked in these countries and what didn’t work? When it comes to training in an irregular environment five specific areas of concern have to be assessed, tailored, and monitored. What does current TRADOC doctrine say about an initial assessment and irregular warfare?

    WOTR keep hitting the training/doctrine issues. Those nuts will crack with repeated blows.

    Take care.

    Joe C.

  4. “One potential problem with the small/special route is that those troops end up as a Praetorian Guard”

    I concur! I think this is not as much a fault of military strategy is at is Grand Strategy. D.C. fits every problem in the context of existing borders. Iraq is a problem largely caused by existing borders. However, if you want a Shia Government to continue to control Sunni Iraq, they will need a “Praetorian” and highly political guard force to do it. Shia Iraqis aren’t going to fight for Sunni Iraq if there is nothing in it for them. Sure, Badr and other militias will because they have a religious bone to pick with IS, but even if that plays out in favor of Iran/Baghdad the underlying problem is not fixed.

  5. A. The author doesn’t directly state it but her arguments lead to a question I’ve had for a long time: why didn’t we open up a US mil style boot camp in IZ? Take 3 months, put volunteers in mixed (blind to tribal or sectarian loyalties) platoons. Weed out the weak or those that can’t adapt. If we started that in 2003 the IA would have a much stronger backbone now.

    B. Daash fight is perfect for SF. Why don’t we have forward deployed combat advisors?

    C. Picture is Nerkh DC in Wardak (OK, I’ll shut ip now)

  6. I would look at the American model of expanding our military in 1942. Our prewar military was a small but professional body, and was able to steadily expand by large pools of new recruits, but the leaders and experts in World War II were almost universally members of the prewar military.

    We need to build a skilled and professional cadre of host nation forces to form the nucleus of the military, but we also need to realize that an effective large army takes time to grow the leadership.

  7. The author makes outstanding points. However, the U.S. will never adopt the small scale approach for 2 reasons, one big and one small: Much less profit for the Military-Industrial-Intelligence-Congressional Complex with the small scale approach and also, too risky from a force protection/casualties standpoint.

  8. Good question: What underlies the will to fight? Or will to defend?

    But I am curious.

    With all the hoopla, controversy, and debate surrounding hybrid, low-intensity, and asymmetric threats, what do you the author of this story want to know, preciously? Can you explain your interest in as few sentences as possible?

    And you the reader of this article saw the title, were interested in the topic, and proceeded to read it or review it. What do you want to know more about? Exactly?

    Please let me know:

    Joe C.