June 18, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The False Allure of Training
While the Islamic State’s rise has been described as unprecedented, the approach to countering the group—through the retraining and reequipping of the Iraqi military—has many precedents, most of which are not promising for this latest try. After seven years, $26 billion, and the efforts of thousands of U.S. and coalition personnel, the Iraqi military remains dysfunctional. While there are some high performing Iraqi units, these are the exceptions. Once again, the United States finds itself retraining foreign troops within a system and society that require much larger reform.
There is a tragic symmetry between the rise of the so-called Islamic State and the collapse of the Iraqi military. Several of the issues that helped the Islamic State gain territory are the same issues that plague the Iraqi military: inefficiency, cronyism, sectarianism, and poor leadership. It is against these entrenched realities that the U.S. and other coalition countries will endeavor to train Iraq’s soldiers, ignoring the larger environment that cannot support them.
It is not a matter of having enough foreign trainers but of finding and keeping enough Iraqi recruits to join the training. The increased numbers of U.S. trainers and training facilities have not been matched by increased numbers of trainees. Just this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated that while the U.S. had hoped to be training 24,000 Iraqis by the latter part of 2015, only 7,000 have shown up thus far. Such a shortfall indicates tremendous social divisions that cannot be addressed at the firing range or in the classroom.
It is not just in Iraq that training and retraining, equipping and reequipping, has failed to achieve the stated goals of producing a self-reliant and effective national military. The U.S. has spent $65 billion on the Afghan National Security Forces since 2002. As in Iraq, there are some high-functioning units, usually elite counterterrorism forces, but nothing that resembles a functioning national defense. Furthermore, as in Iraq, the notion of nationalism in Afghanistan is shaky, as provincial concerns and tribal loyalties are still dominant. The results of years of effort and billions of dollars speak for themselves, and illustrate the flawed logic, however seductive, that points to using the number of people trained as a serious metric of success.
Attrition and desertion rates in both Iraq and Afghanistan are unsustainably high, with troops leaving for reasons such as low morale, terrible living conditions, and poor leadership. Training can address some of these issues at a company or battalion level, but the societal and governmental frictions will grind down those that rise above the mean. Logistical deficiencies alone ensure that even well-trained troops lack equipment and supplies.
The fractured Iraqi military reflects the fractured Iraqi society and government. The Kurdish peshmerga have performed well, as have the Iran-supported Shi’a militias referred to now as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). While those groups receive support and training, the level of support pales in comparison to the $26 billion spent on the official Iraqi military, and yet they suffer far less from the systemic rot emanating from Baghdad. This strongly suggests that training is not the alpha and omega of countering the Islamic State and other extremist groups in the country.
From Vietnam to Afghanistan, and again in Iraq, the lure of training as a strategy for success has proven irresistible to governments confronted with extremely complex challenges that defy clear-cut metrics and benchmarks on projected timelines. Supporters of increased foreign training can point to individual successes with justified professional pride. Such successes, however, are both extremely expensive and almost besides the point, since training people to fight is not the same as having something to fight for, no matter how it looks on paper.
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