The US Military Needs a Teacher Corps to Train Its Partners

  An Afghan National Army noncomissioned officer instructs his soldier to move during a clearance training drill at the Regional Military Training Center in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 8, 2017.

NATO photo by Kay M. Nissen

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An Afghan National Army noncomissioned officer instructs his soldier to move during a clearance training drill at the Regional Military Training Center in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 8, 2017.

Much of the $70 billion spent to train Afghan armed forces has been wasted. Here’s how to do better.

As we speak, U.S. troops are training Afghan armed forces. U.S. forces were also training them last year, and the year before that. In fact, American troops have been training them ever since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, to the tune of $4 billion per year. Other NATO countries have been training Afghan forces, too. But despite these enormous teaching efforts, the Afghans are nowhere near ready to fight on their own. What we need — and not just in Afghanistan — are dedicated Teacher Corps of didactically talented, well-trained troops.

Since the end of the Cold War, Western countries’ military teaching missions have “not been 100 percent successful,” as Gen. Richard Barrons, who previously commanded Britain’s Joint Forces Command, diplomatically puts it. To offer just two supporting facts: by 2016, the U.S. alone had spent more than $70 billion rebuilding Afghanistan’s security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction; meanwhile, half of Afghan troops who came to train in the U.S. have gone AWOL, while others have absconded at home.

And despite all the training, the Taliban still control 45 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. In Helmand and Kandahar, 40 percent of senior Afghan officers were so incompetent they had to be fired. So bad is the situation that NATO has said its members will send another 3,000 troops this year. Separately, last summer the U.S. began deploying several thousand troops there. All these troops will train Afghan forces; the SIGAR report says the U.S. will have to keep training Afghan soldiers until 2020. In Iraq, meanwhile, the NATO-trained Iraqi Army was for years thrashed by local militias.

But it is possible to train an ally. Russia is doing it in Syria. Iran has trained one that’s not even a national military: Hezbollah. And U.S. Special Forces have successfully trained small groups of special operators in countries from Colombia to the Philippines.

And, while $70 billion is clearly an enormous expense, training allied forces makes sense. “If we are to help allies improve their security, it’s better and cheaper to train their armed forces than to do the fighting ourselves,” Barrons says. Deploying 70,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan for a year, for example, would cost around $70 billion.

Here’s the good news: among our troops there are many men and women with a talent for teaching. But until now, the teaching of Afghan forces has been done by whichever unit was available – and those units came and went. Think of it as a school class that received a different teacher every few months. “Teaching allies thrives on human relationships that are built over time,” Barrons says. Indeed, the SIGAR report points out that “the constant turnover of U.S. and NATO trainers impaired the training mission’s institutional memory and hindered the relationship building and effective monitoring and evaluation required”. What we need are Teacher Corps whose members volunteer for overseas training assignments because they have a talent and passion for teaching.

Both the U.S. and UK have taken steps down this path. Last year, Britain created just such a unit, the British Army’s Specialist Infantry Group. “Instruction is core to our mission of working with partner forces,” its commander, Brigadier James Roddis, told me. “Our troops are good fighters, but they also score well in empathy and cultural understanding, and they have volunteered for this assignment.”

The Specialist Infantry Group’s teacher-warriors are currently undergoing training. Upon completion, they will know how to teach in high-threat environments, with a curriculum featuring infantry skills in small African countries, tank-assisted urban warfare in Iraq and every type of conflict in between. But they’re also learning soft skills such as cultural sensitivity and how to teach virtually illiterate pupils.

The latter may seem like a negligible aspect in a profession that’s more geared towards action than reading. But if a soldier can’t even read the label of the ammunition box, the instructor has to use different educational methods.

In addition to instructing soldiers and officers, Brigadier Roddis’s troops will be able to accompany them on missions. “You really have to work alongside the partner force to understand the situation they face and help them achieve the right outcome on the ground,” he pointed out. In the past couple of decades newly trained forces have been dispatched on solo missions, often with disastrous results. As Barrons explained: “If you wave the trainees off at the camp gate, you inject enormous risk into the mission.”

The U.S., too, has a new teacher corps, the Security Force Assistance Brigade. Two SFAB units have already completed their Teacher Corps curriculum at the U.S. Army’s new Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning, studying subjects such as cultural understanding and rapport-building. One of the units – which each have some 500 officers and NCOs — is about to deploy to Afghanistan. Eventually, there will be six SFAB units.

Teacher Corps are not a new concept: during the days of the British Empire, London managed its far-flung dominions by having designated teacher-warriors who, in small numbers, taught colonial forces and fought alongside them. American troops successfully built South Korea’s military. But after the Cold War with its U.S.- or Soviet-allied proxy forces, the units built to train foreign allies were largely disbanded.

Even the most didactically talented soldiers and officers would, of course, rather fight than teach. What’s more, instructors also have to maintain their own warrior skills. As a result, the Specialist Infantry Group’s officers and soldiers will come from the Infantry and other British Army units, and rotate back at appropriate points in their career to maintain their warfighting skills.

But Teacher Corps duties also offer a distinct advantage: while combat deployments are relatively rare, there is always a need for military instructors. Specialist Infantry Brigade and SFAB troops will, in other words, deploy more frequently than combat units.

With their focus on training the trainers, and only recruiting soldiers and officers with a talent and interest in education of overseas forces, the Specialist Infantry Brigade and the SFAB are exactly the right way to go. In fact, more countries should have a Teacher Corps. Noted a senior official in the Italian Ministry of Defense: “In most Western armed forces, a significant percentage of personnel is made up of teachers and trainers; training functions can reach up to 30 percent of the total force. What we need are deployable training units that can do the same job that they do at home in a different country and in a different cultural environment.” Italy has more troops in Afghanistan than every country except the United States. Last year, the Italians trained more than 2,000 Afghan troops; they have also trained nearly 120,000 Iraqi troops and more than 10,000 police officers.

And the prospect of new Teacher Corps raises another question: are countries willing to let their trainers accompany their students on missions, or would they insist on the trainers waving the soldiers off at the camp gate because they don’t want to risk casualties among their own men?

Because helping allies reach acceptable military standards requires more than teaching infantrymen how to fight, every country involved in such security sector reform should have dedicated teams teaching other aspects as well: how to set up and operate command and control systems; how to organize and operate a defense ministry.

Of course, not even the best teacher will struggle to make a reluctant student excel. “Good technical training, even by trainers focused on cultural adaptation, is not enough, and neither are good weapons” the Italian official said. “The local troops’ motivation matters too. Kurds in Iraq and Syria have achieved outstanding results despite having modest equipment and relatively poor organization.”

But with cracker-jack trainer teams like the one Brigadier Roddis is assembling, our military investment in Afghanistan and beyond would yield vastly improved results. And NATO, for one, would gain far more capable and loyal allies. With such outcomes, $4 billion per year spent on teaching is a bargain. 

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