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 that we 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 the 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 situationsin 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.