Before You Help a Fragile State’s Military, Ask These Uncomfortable Questions

U.S. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Strike, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), took charge of a ranger training program for qualified volunteers from Iraqi security forces at Camp Taji, Iraq, in 2016.

U.S. Army / 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson

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U.S. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Strike, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), took charge of a ranger training program for qualified volunteers from Iraqi security forces at Camp Taji, Iraq, in 2016.

A checklist for a Pentagon that rarely looks into why so many of its partner-building efforts fail.

For decades, the United States has sought to build militaries in fragile states so they can fight the hard fights instead of the U.S. military doing so. Many of these attempts have failed; in Iraq, for example, American trainers struggled to develop local forces that could effectively take on ISIS. Worse, the Pentagon seems largely indifferent to the lessons these failures might teach. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that most efforts to train and equip partner militaries over the last decade weren’t even assessed.

The United States can do better. Indeed, it has done better. One example is the program to build Greece’s military just after World War II. It was a fragile situation reminiscent of places like Syria today. As Dean Acheson reflected, “Greece was in the position of a semiconscious patient on the critical list where relatives and physicians had been discussing whether his life could be saved.” Its infrastructure was destroyed, more than 300,000 people dead from starvation alone, a ravaged landscape, and a weak military plagued by low morale and overwhelmed by aged soldiers. Greece was losing badly to guerrillas supported by Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, and victory over them was nearly inconceivable.

The U.S. approach to Greece was new and different—and in retrospect, rather mind-boggling. Simply put, the United States involved itself in all aspects of Greek military affairs. These include the most sensitive issues for a military, such as defining its mission, reorganizing its structure to align with that mission, and making sure capable military leaders were appointed to the right positions. This latter aspect is particularly provocative: U.S. officials oversaw a complete overhaul of senior Greek military personnel by helping appoint a new chief of staff, compelling all of the army’s lieutenant generals except one to resign, facilitating the promotion and placement of eight major generals, and encouraging the removal of division and corps commanders who were reluctant to or incapable of supporting the broader strategy. To be sure, all was not rosy between the United States and the Greek military. They disagreed over some U.S.-requested personnel changes, the size of the Greek army, and perceived shortcomings of U.S. equipment. But, overall the U.S. push to transform Greece’s military prevailed.

This story of success does not just focus on the partner military; however, as U.S. officials also prioritized unity of vision and capable personnel on the American side—both in the field and in Washington. When the relationship among senior American officials in Athens grew fraught, President Truman quickly pushed out the U.S. ambassador to Greece to ensure that all American officials in country supported the same vision. The flaccid U.S. defense official who initially ran the military assistance program in Athens was replaced by Lt. Gen. James Van Fleet, a charismatic leader who had both deep experience in strengthening fighting forces and a commitment to transforming the Greek military in accordance with his guidance from Washington. And throughout the program, senior U.S. national security officials regularly assessed it to ensure that its purpose was clear, adjusted it as the situation evolved, and seriously debated the circumstances under which the U.S. military would become a co-combatant.

Greece’s military prevailed over the communist guerrillas seeking to upend the state. With deep U.S. involvement in sensitive Greek military affairs and unity of vision across the U.S. national security apparatus, the Greek military was able to take advantage of the diminished support that the guerrillas received from antagonistic external actors, resulting in a capable security sector. And thus the first postwar example of the United States building a partner military for internal defense purposes became a triumph. Above all, the American investment in Greece consisted almost entirely of treasure, not blood. U.S. military personnel in Greece suffered four casualties; the program to build the Greek military cost about $350 million.

The approach taken in Greece is exactly the opposite of the one chosen for South Vietnam in the 1950s. U.S. officials avoided sensitive military affairs and pursued a fractured vision. In Saigon, the U.S. ambassador and the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) lead detested one another (one said the other was “better suited to be the senior salesman in a good ladies shoe store”). And Van Fleet was the antithesis of his counterpart in South Vietnam, “Hanging Sam” Williams, who had been previously relieved of command and demoted, had infamously clashed with U.S. embassy officials in Saigon, and had kowtowed to South Vietnam President Diem. Contrary to guidance from Washington Williams remained committed to building a conventional South Vietnamese military. He also urged U.S. advisors to have warm relations with their South Vietnamese counterparts, making clear he didn’t want to hear about any problems, particularly reports on South Vietnamese units that might reflect unfavorably on MAAG leadership or harm Vietnamese morale.

The Greek approach is also radically different from U.S. efforts to build Lebanon’s military in the 1980s and over the last decade or so. During the first program, one senior U.S. official sought to have the military commander conduct a coup and another tried to establish a weapons slush fund following his resignation. Washington failed to establish a consensus on the purpose of its involvement in Lebanon; U.S. officials could not agree on why the Marines were there or the purpose behind building the Lebanese military. What began as a 30-day mission for the Marines to oversee the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut turned into a vague and open-ended commitment to support Lebanese stability and security. The U.S. effort to build the military was consistently thwarted by all manner of violent non-state actors, foreign proxies, and governments, including 80-plus violent groups in Lebanon, and militaries or militias supported by Israel, Syria, and Iran. After a year, the Marines were getting combat pay, the USS New Jersey was firing on the Syrian military and various militias in Lebanon — and yet President Reagan wrote in his diary, “this still comes under the head of defense.” Similar confusion marked the recent U.S. effort to build Lebanon’s military which began in earnest in 2006. After Hizballah took over large swathes of Beirut in May 2008, trapping top Lebanese leaders like Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, they were flabbergasted and dismayed that the United States would not consider sending the Marines back to fight in Lebanon’s war.

Follow the Handbook

Over the last 70 years, the United States has not had overwhelming success in pursuing this policy of building militaries in fragile states. Moreover, the current fiscal environment and the growing strategic focus on great-power competition imposes certain constraints on the U.S. ability to help these states.

The United States therefore should return to an old approach when building partner militaries in fragile states. But doing so requires a markedly different understanding of the U.S. role. Deep U.S. involvement within certain parameters—namely, not one that slides into becoming a co-combatant, but one that allows the United States to influence sensitive affairs—can transform a military. There are a handful of key questions that policymakers should consider—and regularly revisit— when building a fragile state’s military. These questions look beyond issues related to training and equipping, under the assumption that an assessment of the partner military will be conducted early on to identify capability gaps and shortfalls. Instead, they delve into the fundamental—and often uncomfortable—issues that invariably shape these programs and the extent to which they succeed.

  • What is the program’s purpose? Why?

  • Is the partner military organized for internal defense? Is the internal defense mission clear to key partner political and military officials?

  • What potential is there for the United States to influence partner military personnel? Which key positions would particularly benefit from different personnel?

  • How unified is the U.S. vision and initiative, both in Washington and among U.S. officials in the partner state?

  • Under what circumstances would the United States expand its role to become a co-combatant? What indicators and warnings might precede this debate?

  • Who are the key antagonistic external actors?
In what ways are these external actors undermining state stability? Why are they doing so?

This article was adapted from Building Militaries in Fragile States by Mara E. Karlin (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

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