When it comes to building capable foreign forces, one can have all the will, skill, money, and allies – but no guarantees.
The spectacular setback in the U.S. military program to equip and train the Syrian opposition – with the revelation last week that no more than nine are still in the fight – is as depressing as it is shocking, especially for those of us who believed in the effort and had a hand in building it. But reflecting on other U.S. experiences with such endeavors, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.
Working to arm, train and sustain insurgent or indigenous forces is hardly new, and history offers a few cases showing it effective. The program to strengthen Afghanistan’s mujhadeen rebels against the Soviets is usually held up as the shining example for how this can work. But there are far more examples of when it hasn’t. Think of the Bay of Pigs. Or the South Vietnamese Army after U.S. forces withdrew in the early 1970s. Or the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s.
This checkered record is certainly on President Barack Obama’s mind, and he’s made no secret of his skepticism. “I actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well,” he said in an interview last year. “And they couldn’t come up with much.”
Recent experience provides further reason for caution. In Iraq, thousands of American troops occupied that country for nearly a decade and the U.S. spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi security forces. Despite some successes, those efforts could not prevent a large chunk of the Iraqi army from rapidly collapsing last year as the Islamic State, or ISIS, stormed Mosul and hurtled toward Baghdad.
In Afghanistan, another country the U.S. and its allies have occupied for even longer, building the Afghan Security Forces has been a key pillar of our strategy. Yet as Afghan forces have been out on their own against the Taliban, they have been struggling even to maintain a stalemate. Casualties are up by 50 percent compared to this point last year. So when judging how the Afghan forces will hold up once additional coalition forces leave after 2016, it is safe to say the jury is still out.
If it’s hard enough when we are all-in, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is even harder when we’re not, like in Libya and Syria.
In 2013 in Libya, the U.S. and key partners like the United Kingdom and Italy embarked on a major effort to train a “General Purpose Force” to help strengthen the government against the militias. But that fell flat as the Libyans were unable to come up with competent recruits and promised resources. While the British and Italians actually trained a few hundred troops — only to see them return to Libya and quickly disband — Washington’s part never even got off the ground before the instability in Libya made it impossible to proceed.
Having worked on the Libyan effort and the early stages of the Syria program during my time in office, I can assure no one ever believed success would come easy, if at all. In both cases, the U.S. had a limited or no presence on the ground to administer the work, making essential steps like finding and vetting recruits difficult. Given insecurity, the training would have to be done elsewhere, complicating things immensely. And even if we successfully recruited and trained forces, neither Libya nor the Syrian opposition had a capable command structure they could plug into, raising the question of how these forces would be led, fed, and sustained over time.
Despite such limitations there was enough reason to try, and in both cases we had evidence to hope for success. At the time Libya had a government that was desperate for international help, promised the recruits were ample and ready, and pledged full financial support. President Obama was keenly focused on this policy, and pushed the bureaucracy hard to make progress. In the much tougher situation in Syria, the U.S. has had critical cooperation from partners like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and thanks to them and the American taxpayer, adequate resources to fund the effort.
There was also no question that the U.S. military knows how to do this. After years in Iraq and Afghanistan to hone its skills, the U.S. military has developed impressive capacity to train partner forces, learning a lot of valuable (and hard) lessons along the way. So responsibility does not rest with the troops who’ve tried.
This is what makes these setbacks particularly sobering. When it comes to building capable forces in such situations, one can have all the will, skill, money, and allies. But still that is no guarantee for success.
Sure, there have been mistakes in planning and execution. Perhaps such efforts could have started sooner, with even more resources, fewer constraints and some vetting requirements loosened (as reports suggest the administration is considering with the Syrian effort). But looking back, it is hard to believe that different decisions would have brought a substantially different outcome. After all, if our massive investments of time, resources and troops to train forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have delivered mixed results, one should have reasonable expectations of what a far more modest investment under more limiting circumstances will bring.
This does not mean that we should throw up our hands and quit. Nor does it mean—as the administration’s critics assert—such failures stem simply from lack of leadership or gross incompetence. Washington finger-pointing aside, the challenge is far tougher.
A core pillar of the U.S. strategy toward the vast swath of crises stretching from Mali to Afghanistan is to create capable partners—foreign militaries and security forces—to help do the work of fighting terrorism and securing peace—for us. Yet there are no silver bullets: success requires a healthy dose of patience, resilience to setbacks, and greater appreciation for the limits of what we can do. In some instances, progress will be painfully slow; in other instances, we will be better off scaling back our ambitions for more focused, modest results.
The Pentagon confirmed Monday that 70 more Syrian opposition forces have completed training and will soon be in the fight. One hopes they fare better. Yet history teaches that we need to be more humble about what to expect from such efforts, and careful when embarking on them.