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Shifting the blame: How the Pentagon lost Afghanistan

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How could Afghan security forces wholesale collapse after $83 billion have been spent to train and equip them? In the past days, the Taliban overran major Afghan cities such as Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, sometimes taking Afghan security compounds without a shot. Now the Taliban zoom around in Humvees, and American-trained Afghan soldiers have fled or joined the enemy. Kabul has become Saigon circa 1975, with desperate Afghans running alongside diplomatic convoys heading to the airport, begging those inside to save them. Security conditions have deteriorated so much that President Biden is sending an additional 3,000 troops to evacuate Americans from the embassy. We may not see Hueys landing on rooftops but we will see Chinooks landing in U.S. compounds. As we say in the military, the situation is FUBAR.

This has become a disturbing theme in American foreign policy. The U.S. lavished $26 billion on Iraqi security forces, only to see them flee at the sight of ISIS’s black flags, throwing down their weapons and ripping off their uniforms. For Syria, Congress approved $500 million to train and equip around 5,000 anti-ISIS fighters but had “only four or five” to show for its efforts, according to Lloyd Austin, the general in charge — then the head of the U.S. Central Command, and today the Secretary of Defense. Other U.S.-sponsored militias simply handed over all their U.S. weaponry and ammunition to terrorists. The worst: Militias armed by the Pentagon fought those armed by the CIA

The finger-pointing disco over Afghanistan has begun. Typically, U.S. policymakers blame the trainees. After ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq, in 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the Iraqi forces “lacked the will to fight.” Now others will say: “It’s Afghanistan, what did you expect?”

It’s easy to blame-shift, but it ignores the obvious: The Department of Defense (DOD) is absolutely horrible at raising indigenous fighting forces. Ten years in three countries with the same result is a pattern. Kabul is just the latest data-point, and our stunning lack of preparedness is evidence. Heavy confirmation bias and delusional thinking have long plagued U.S. military commanders on the ground and policymakers back home, including President Biden’s assurance in July that “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy.” The week is still young. 

But the problem runs deeper. The U.S. military still lacks a comprehensive field manual and “doctrine” on how to achieve wholesale security force assistance, even though it has been core to our exit strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. Why? Because our military’s identity is about assault and not occupation, and training foreign troops smells of occupation. We would rather blow up the enemy.

Other rookie mistakes include “mirror imaging” the solution. Rather than tailor a military to Afghanistan’s unique needs and culture, the Pentagon simply cut-and-paste American templates onto Afghan forces and then was surprised when they did not survive first contact with the enemy.

Despite the dismal track record, the U.S. has been successful in Colombia, the Philippines and Liberia, in circumstances as bad or worse than Afghanistan. These countries succeeded not because they had more “will to fight” — a cheap concept — but because those programs were more effective. I know because I helped lead the effort to raise a new army for Liberia after its brutal 14-year civil war, and what we did looks nothing like the follies in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can read the details here, but here are a few differences:

First, the successful security force assistance missions were all sideshows in the Defense Department. None of these countries was “front and center” in U.S. national security circles, and consequently did not receive the “help” of ambitious policymakers, lawmakers and generals who had zero knowledge about raising foreign armies. Instead, only experts ran the show and this yielded results. For example, U.S. Army Special Forces specialize in raising foreign fighting forces. Before soldiers earn the coveted Green Beret, they must pass a grueling, four-week exercise called Robin Sage at Fort Bragg, where they must train foreign forces in a hostile environment. When left alone, the pros can get the job done.

Second, technical solutions alone will fail, but this is how most think about security force assistance: training and equipping. All this yields are better-dressed soldiers who shoot straighter. It does not provide leadership, a warrior ethos, a Defense Ministry, good strategy, a culture of merit over cronyism, and so forth. The core of a professional fighting force is respect for the rule of law and fostering allegiance to the constitution over an individual leader or political party. Training and equipping alone will never achieve this.  

Third, security force assistance is a deeply political process that must be accomplished in partnership with the country undergoing the reform. Security institutions are the de facto institutions of power in conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan, and altering their balance through security force assistance is dangerous. The risk of rejection (read: war), reprisal, sabotage, co-option and corruption are ubiquitous yet ignored by U.S. planners, who have a “train and equip” mentality. 

Fourth, conduct human-rights vetting of all candidates for the security forces, which is not just a good idea but also U.S. law (22 U.S. Code § 2378d). We would never dream of putting cops on our streets or soldiers in our military without a background check, but it’s what we did every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are we now surprised they are corrupt, spineless forces? Some trainers say human-rights vetting is too difficult in failed states that have scant or unreliable public records to check, and therefore can be ignored. However, there are methods to vet in these circumstances. We just chose to ignore them.

There are other lessons too:  

  • Strategy, force structure and doctrine must reflect the country’s needs, and not a cut-and-paste job of ill-fitting U.S. templates;
  • A defense-oriented force posture with limited force-projection capability will not threaten neighbors, creating a security dilemma;
  • A force size must be constrained by a government’s ability to pay salaries, because unpaid soldiers are a bigger threat than invading neighbors;
  • Artillery, armor, intelligence, fighter aircraft and special operations forces should be limited, because they can be exploited by domestic leaders for personal gain. It’s safer to have basic motorized infantry that is affordable and sustainable;
  • Smaller, well-trained volunteer forces are preferable to massive militaries. Quality is superior to quantity, as Iraq and Afghan forces have demonstrated;
  • Literacy is important. You may need to integrate literacy training at all levels, starting with basic training. 

The Afghan military is a symbol of our strategic failure, and it’s hard to watch. It is easy to blame Biden for the disaster, but the problem is 20 years old: Our exit strategy relies on competent foreign forces “to stand up as we stand down,” yet we do not know how to create them. This is not a Biden problem but a U.S. national security imperative. Afghanistan is our third strike, after Iraq and Syria. It is time we take this mission seriously before we are tested again, and no one should assume that training foreign forces will not be part of great-power competition. The good news is that we already know how — if we listen to those who have successfully accomplished it. 

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, professor at Georgetown University, and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcfate.

Tags Afghan Armed Forces Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Taliban War in Afghanistan Withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan

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