July 31, 2009

Why isn't army-building working?

Further to the Reese memo in the post below: I do hope some historians are somewhere beavering away on an answer to the question, "Why can't the West seem to build up a credible host nation army in the middle of a war?"

One could argue that we haven't been able to historically, either. The Vietnamese ARVN had most of the same characteristics as the Iraq and Afghan armies. So did the Korean Army in 1950 (David Halberstam's recent book, among others, documents how horrible that military was in combat.) Indigenous forces capable of being anything on the whole other than a drag on the overall war effort have been few and far between since the Second World War. I'm not saying there haven't been successes, because there have been, but they are so few and far between that it's proving very hard to draw usable lessons on why they succeeded and all the others failed. (Cue the historians.)

And that's a BIG problem, because the entire underpinning of FM 3-24 and most other Western counterinsurgency doctrine is that you need to raise effective indigenous forces, hand the situation over to them, and get out. But we can't seem to achieve the first thing on that list, at least not dependably and on the kind of time, money and size scales we're talking about, in a conflict environment. So until we can figure out what we're doing wrong and right, and how to generate large host nation armies far more reliably than we have thus far, all of our counterinsurgency doctrine risks being a complete dead letter.

See also Richard Sale and Pat Lang.

Posted by BruceR at 04:47 PM

Looking down the road with the ANA 2 years or so

When I was in Afghanistan, many U.S. officers, good guys all of them, would frequently offer words of consolation when dealing with the Afghan security forces to the effect, "Don't worry, this is just what I was dealing with in Iraq in 2006."

I've been watching the recent post-SOFA drawdown in American support for the Iraqi army with interest, then, because assuming the rule above holds, one would expect something the situation to start looking similar, perhaps as early as 2011 (a year by which I suspect Canada will not be alone in looking for the exits, by the way, so we shouldn't feel so bad.)

Col. Reese's memo on why it's time to leave Iraq, specifically because they've passed the point of diminishing returns in security force improvement, should be instructive in this regard, and is worth reading in full. For this is what we should expect to be written about the ANA once we're done with them (and they with us), as well.

Reese's list of problems with the Iraq Security Forces reads like every honest presentation about the current Afghan army I have read or seen (with the possible exception of blaming the whole thing on Saddam and the Soviets). I was actually saying, "yep, yep, yep," the first time I read it:

The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the ISF is incapable of change in the current environment.
a) Corruption among officers is widespread
b) Neglect and mistreatment of enlisted men is the norm
c) The unwillingness to accept a role for the NCO corps continues
d) Cronyism and nepotism are rampant in the assignment and promotion system
e) Laziness is endemic
f) Extreme centralization of C2 is the norm
g) Lack of initiative is legion
h) Unwillingness to change, do anything new blocks progress
i) Near total ineffectiveness of the Iraq Army and National Police institutional organizations and systems prevents the ISF from becoming self-sustaining
j) For every positive story about a good ISF junior officer with initiative, or an ISF commander who conducts a rehearsal or an after action review or some individual MOS training event, there are ten examples of the most basic lack of military understanding despite the massive partnership efforts by our combat forces and advisory efforts by MiTT and NPTT teams...

Aside: Make no mistake. In my experience and those of people I trust, verything on that list can be said accurately about the vast majority of the Afghan National Army now. (The ANP has all those problems and more.) And in Iraq that state has only been achieved after five years (2003-04 being a total write-off) of well-resourced, unified, and determined army-building efforts, in a country better suited to reward that effort than Afghanistan is.

Continuing, Reese outlines what the end game for military mentors in Iraq (and by extension, Afghanistan) risks looking like:

They [the Iraqis] will tolerate us as long as they can suckle at Uncle Sam’s bounteous mammary glands. Meanwhile the level of resistance to US freedom of movement and operations will grow. The potential for Iraqi on US violence is high now and will grow by the day. Resentment on both sides will build and reinforce itself until a violent incident break outs into the open. If that were to happen the violence will remain tactically isolated, but it will wreck our strategic relationships and force our withdrawal under very unfavorable circumstances.

For a long time the preferred US approach has been to “work it at the lowest level of partnership” as a means to stay out of the political fray and with the hope that good work at the tactical level will compensate for and slowly improve the strategic picture. From platoon to brigade, US Soldiers and Marines continue to work incredibly hard and in almost all cases they achieve positive results. This approach has achieved impressive results in the past, but today it is failing. The strategic dysfunctions of the GOI and ISF have now reached down to the tactical level degrading good work there and sundering hitherto strong partnerships. As one astute political observer has stated “We have lost all strategic influence with the GoI and trying to influence events and people from the tactical/operational level is courting disaster, wasting lives, and merely postponing the inevitable.”


1) This may simply be a fact of giving a country sovereignty before you give them a military. Which is what happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and for which very few historical examples exist before that. In the military realm, it drastically slows any momentum for institutional change, and then makes the separation process at the end more abrupt, perhaps. Iraq is now past the point of no return on that, which is why Ross Douthat's musings that it's still more important than Afghanistan is really beside the point. The fork, as it were, has been stuck into that one. But even in Afghanistan, any serious efforts to fix the Afghan military or its broken judicial system at this point carry a large risk of making the elected government look weaker, and even further undermining it with its own people people.

2) My ANA colleagues were incredibly nice and hospitable people, who kept no secrets from me, and who were genuinely glad to see us each day. Mentor teams in 2011 and later rotations should be prepared for that to change, and change rapidly, as their Afghans' direction from above starts to shift, because when it comes, the shift will likely be just as sudden as it is now in Iraq.

3) The simple facts are Iraq seemed better placed to support a military mentoring effort all along. Its population was more educated on the whole and more urbanized, but even more importantly there was some reasonable prospect that oil revenues at the end could finance whatever was built. In Afghanistan we're spending far more on the security forces, by at least a factor of 10, than the Afghan government will ever be able to spend left on its own. One suspects that is going to make our departure even more difficult to stick-handle.

4) The American military is looking at getting the ANA up to snuff no earlier than 2014, as mentioned earlier. Whether there is the political will to keep this going that long, in either Afghanistan or the west remains an open question: in the end, even that timeline should not be seen as wholly dependable.

Posted by BruceR at 04:31 PM