After Iraq, Questions About Training Foreign Armies

By Sandra I. Erwin

The collapse of the Iraqi army is likely to raise new questions about U.S. military plans to train foreign allies to help fight insurgencies and terrorist groups.

Building "partner capacity" has been a hallmark of U.S. military strategy and is viewed as a key mission for American forces in the coming decades. President Obama last month asked Congress to approve a $5 billion "counterterrorism partnerships fund" that would be used to "train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."

Members of Congress, many of whomhave been longtime critics of security cooperation programs, see the situation in Iraq as another cautionary tale.

During a June 18 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey defended the president's initiative and argued that the United States has no other choice but to build allied capacity to counter violent extremist organizations.

This threat is "going to be with us for another, in my judgment, 25 to 30 years," said Dempsey. The U.S. military could not possibly do this on its own, he added, especially as extremist groups continue to expand their reach from Pakistan, across the Arab world, Middle East, North Africa and Western Africa. "We've got to find a way to address them regionally," said Dempsey.

The United States needs "partners and capable allies. ... That's what this fund is all about," he said. "I don't think we have any choice, frankly, but to find more capable partners and in other cases build more capable partners because the thought of doing this all ourselves is a difficult one to grasp."

Dempsey led the effort to train Iraqi security forces from 2005 to 2007. Untold billions of dollars and human resources were spent to train those forces to defend the country. What is happening today is a "bitter disappointment," Dempsey told the committee. "They simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way."

A similar outcome now is feared in Afghanistan, where the United States also spent a decade building and training security forces. "I can't completely convince myself that the risk is zero, that that couldn't happen in Afghanistan," said Dempsey.

Military training alone can only go so far, he added. "At the end of the day, a security force is only as good as the instrument that wields it, and that's the central government."

Although Dempsey insisted that training foreign forces is central to U.S. military strategy, he acknowledged that the Iraq crisis will prompt some rethinking. "Clearly, we will look back on this and do what we always do, an after-action review and use that results to change the way we build partners."

Military experts have praised the "light footprint" approach to counterterrorism that keeps U.S. forces from having to engage directly. "Assisting our friends and allies in developing their own security forces directly supports our national interests and world security," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, senior advisor at the National Security Network.

It is unlikely that the Iraq crisis will put a damper on partner-building initiatives, although critics will certainly try to make a case that the Iraq effort, like others, backfired on the United States, said John R. Deni, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College. "Sometimes U.S. objectives for what we hope to see other countries achieve are not going to mesh up very well with what they want," Deni said. "But I still think security cooperation is going to be the primary means through which we exercise our military power over the next five to seven years."

The military does not expect to be fighting major conflicts against nation-states in the foreseeable future, Deni noted. It does believe it will need to "shape the security environment through security cooperation."

Building partner capacity is the cornerstone of U.S. Special Operations Command's vision of its future. SOCOM Commander Adm. William McRaven has been a forceful advocate of partner-capacity building programs.

Although the U.S. track record in this area is mixed — some countries take the tools and lessons the United States gives them and use them to subjugate their political competitors — the military is a strong believer in building up allies, Deni said. "Despite Iraq, I’m not ready to say this is a bad tool in the toolkit."

SOCOM has been in the vanguard of training African forces, for instance, said Deni. The command also has spent years strengthening its relationship with the State Department and other civilian agencies that oversee security cooperation. Although the Defense Department has a primary role in security cooperation efforts and owns most of the resources, the "train and equip" authority and funding is under Title 22 of the U.S. Code that governs foreign affairs.

In private discussions, SOCOM officials said the command's new "campaign plan" mirrors the Obama administration plan the president outlined May 30 in his West Point commencement speech.

The problem with current efforts, a senior military official said during a recent industry gathering, is that they are short term. "We need persistent presence," the military official said. "We are hoping we will have the resources. We’ll see what happens with this budget."

The Iraq debacle could dampen the enthusiasm for training foreign armies, although the official pointed out that Iraq's special forces have been more effective because SOCOM made sure they had an equal balance of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Training, Logistics

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