The old adage goes “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” What about the third time? Our efforts from 2003 to 2014 to build a pluralistic state or, at a minimum, a functioning military in Iraq failed. There were many reasons for this, one of which was our unwillingness to recognize that the nation building project would require decades. By all accounts, we are about to do the same thing in Afghanistan. The current drawdown has already restricted the ability of coalition trainers and support personnel to perform their missions effectively. The Afghan Air Force, an absolutely necessary capability for a country with very challenging topography and minimal transportation infrastructure, is just being stood up and won’t be fully functional until 2019 or beyond, well after U.S. forces have departed. Well informed observers believe it will be just a matter of time before the regime in Kabul collapses under renewed Taliban pressure.
Creating effective military institutions is about much more than just training soldiers to fire their weapons. The average Afghan learned to do that about the time he could walk. It is even more than just building maneuver units. It is about creating an entire institution from the national level on down with all the requisite functions: intelligence, command and control, logistics, sustainment, finance, contracting, legal affairs and medical services. There is also the requirement to develop the human capital to operate at all levels and across all functions.
The context in which building a nation and a military occurs is terribly important. Unfortunately, the U.S. and its allies in both Iraq and Afghanistan persistently ignored the realities of sectarianism, corruption, limited human capital and outside influences in its plans and programs. Was anyone surprised to learn earlier this year that one reason why the Iraqi Army had collapsed in the face of ISIS’s offensive was that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad had undermined the effectiveness of Sunni-majority units? We spent billions on infrastructure, both civil and military, for Afghanistan that the locals have neither the capacity nor resources to maintain.
The Obama Administration’s proposed strategy for degrading and defeating ISIS is a third try at fooling itself and the American people. The very idea that a couple of thousand trainers and advisers can in a matter of months or perhaps a year reconstitute an Iraqi military that took nearly a decade and the presence of more than 100,000 coalition personnel to build the first time is fantasy. We might be able to build and support a few combat brigades but that does not equal an effective military, one that won’t collapse in the face of the next insurgent attack. Iraq was and remains a project that will take decades to complete, if it even can be done.
Even more illusory, is the proposal to arm and train thousands of Syrian opposition fighters. Yes, we can teach them the basics, even how to employ fairly sophisticated weapons. But that doesn’t make them an army. We can provide them with air power, logistics, transportation, intelligence, spare parts and ammunition. But once these supports are withdrawn, why shouldn’t the Syrian opposition collapse just like the Iraqi Army did and the Afghan military may do? Even if the opposition can successfully defeat ISIS, they still face the problem of defeating the Assad regime. If they are defeated in this endeavor, why won’t this lead, inevitably to the rise of a new ISIS?
Twice the American people have been fooled by the assertion that we have created a stable security environment, one that will allow us to leave a country in the hands of local forces and come home. Now we are about to do it for a third time. Given the limited nature of the investments being made, the complex realities on the ground and our short attention span, we shouldn’t allow the administration to fool us that this attempt at building institutions and creating stability out of chaos will end any better than our previous two tries.
Find Archived Articles: