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.
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