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What if the Military Has Been Focusing on the Wrong Thing the Whole Time?
The author, Yinon Weiss, meeting with Sheiks in Iraq
For over a decade, and ever since the United States began the endeavor of creating a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, the dogmatic military view has essentially been “We will train our allies until they are able to secure their own nation.” With conflict in Afghanistan lasting over 13 years, and with the recent tragic losses of momentum, equipment, and territory in Iraq, it is apparent that things are not going as was hoped by many. Going back to my time training Iraqi Commandos as a US Special Forces officer, I have had one question that always lingered in the back of my mind:
“We are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in training our allies, so how is our enemy able to achieve so much success when no major power is training them?”
In other words, despite the seemingly successful training of the Iraqi Army, why are they unable to stand up to forces like ISIS, who are not trained by any major power? Similarly, why is training the Afghan Army considered the yardstick of success, when there is no major power similarly training the Taliban? If training is the key to success, how is the other side surviving and even thriving when we have been training our allies for over a decade?
The problem may be rooted in the fact that the US military, and even its Special Forces, has largely been focused on tactical and technical training. We measure our allies’ capabilities through the lens of traditional American military metrics; whether they can organize at the squad, platoon, company, or battalion level, etc. As has been recently shown in Iraq, where the Iraqi Army has surrendered despite outnumbering and outgunning their enemies, these metrics have been a failure. Is it possible we have been focusing on the wrong thing this whole time?
Evans Carlson was the first commander of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion in World War II, charged with leading early guerilla operations against the Japanese while the US was still building up its conventional force in response to Pearl Harbor. So important was his mission that his second in command was James Roosevelt, the sitting President’s oldest son. Evans studied guerilla warfare during his time as a liaison to the Chinese Communist Army in the 1930s, and through his previous experience in Nicaragua. Evans believed that the key to his men’s success was “a broad and deep political education system designed to give men something to fight for, live for, and if necessary, die for.” This belief system is something the US military instills in all of its members. Each year thousand of young Americans volunteer to serve overseas, to be far away from their families, ready to fight for our nation’s causes, and to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. Teamwork, purpose, and a belief in something bigger than yourself is instilled in our young service members during basic training, and throughout the course of their military careers. It is this complete commitment to success, and to each other, not our GPS guided bombs, which makes the American military such a formidable force. Yet, when it comes to building our allies military, we do almost none of this. We have failed to impart in them the very element which has made us so successful. Instead, we focus on the important but somewhat superficial measures of how well they can organize in a formation, how well they can patrol in a street, and how well they can write an operations order.
We continue to measure progress by how well trained our allies are, but no amount of training can replace the determination and the willingness to fight for a cause. That determination is something our enemies have. It's also something the US Armed Forces have. However, it's something we have failed to give to our allies.
In Iraq I trained a crack commando Iraqi unit. Every day we trained for hours on end, teaching them to shoot better, to maintain their equipment better, and to plan and communicate their operations better. All basic tenets of a functional combat unit. When we did missions together, they performed well. Years after we left, would they hold up to an aggressive and determined enemy? Recent history shows that it's unlikely. Even when Iraqis significantly outnumbered their enemy, were better equipped, and were better "trained,” they were not prepared to fight.
Perhaps "training" is an easy political concept for our leaders to sell to the American people of what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I would argue that no amount of training, no matter how well we train our foreign allies to aim their AK-47, will be enough to defeat an enemy if there is no fundamental and cultural trust and commitment to that cause. To defeat such a determined enemy, we must indoctrinate our allies with the same will and desire that we have in our own US military, or at least on par with their enemy. These are qualities much more difficult to measure than whether one can operate at a platoon, company, or battalion levels - metrics the U.S. Army loves to measure.
Even special operations training of our allies has focused on tactical skills such as raids, ambushes, and surgical strikes. Those are important skills, but there is no equivalent body teaching that to ISIS and they regularly outpower and overwhelm the forces trained by the United States. We need to acknowledge that tactical training of a force will never, by itself, prepare them for combat effectiveness. If we ever want our allies to truly be in charge of their own defense, we need to focus on building forces with the desire to win, and with the willingness to die. This is not just about “winning hearts and minds” – this is shaping them. That kind of training happens through years of communication and cultural investment at all levels, and not by spending even more time shooting paper targets at a flat range.
To be successful, we must not only train our allies on how to aim their rifles, but also develop their willingness to employ that weapon. The former is much easier to measure, but the latter is much more important for success.