Make allies, not kill lists

January 31, 2013

Viewers of Thursday’s  confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel can be forgiven for thinking they were watching a years-old C-SPAN rerun. The importance of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated initial questioning. Then the war in Iraq was debated. In the end, the issue that most concerned senators from both parties was Hagel’s loyalty to Israel.

During an eight-hour hearing, the difficult decisions that the U.S. military now faces received scant attention. Vast budget cuts loom. Suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are appallingly high. Diverse security threats ranging from Iran to cyber-attacks to al Qaeda in North Africa must be countered.

Overall, a more nimble, modern and smaller American military is needed, but you heard little of that in Thursday’s marathon hearing.

The senators would have benefited from a conversation with a retired American Green Beret whom I interviewed earlier this week. After serving in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, he has a unique view on the strengths – and limits – of U.S. military power. His advice was simple. Long-term training of foreign military forces is more effective and less costly than deploying large numbers of American ground forces.

“It’s the cheapest and the best solution in the long term,” he told me.

Failures, of course, happen. Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, points out that billions of dollars have been spent on a largely failed effort to create a professional police force in Afghanistan. Peter Singer, an expert at the Brookings Institution, correctly argues that the key issue is our relationship with foreign governments, not how much military training we provide.

“We need to move beyond the assumption,” Singer said in an email. “that training someone in our system somehow creates any perfect alignment between our geostrategic interests and their local political interests. It wasn’t true during the Cold War and isn’t true today.”

I agree. But as Congress debates harsh Pentagon cuts, it is important to look at new forms of military power. In a December article in Foreign Affairs, journalist Linda Robinson described Washington’s unprecedented reliance on Special Operations Forces. As identifying, locating and attacking suspected terrorists and insurgents has grown, U.S. Special Operations budgets have soared from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The number of Special Operations Forces fielded by the U.S. is 63,000 and rising.

Robinson argues that American policymakers have become too reliant on “kill and capture” raids and drone strikes known as “direct action.” She said there is a “misperception” in Washington that pinpoint attacks “avoid prolonged, messy wars.”

“In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States,” Robinson wrote. “…special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy.”

Robinson called for more training of local forces, known in military parlance as “indirect action.” She cited long-term Special Operations Forces training missions in the Philippines and Colombia as success stories. In 2001, American Special Forces began training the Filipino soldiers who targeted the Abu Sayyaf militant group. American soldiers were barred from engaging in combat, but they played a central role in a raid that freed some kidnap victims and killed the group’s leader.

Fifteen years after the Clinton administration launched its $7.5 billion “Plan Colombia,” the effort has helped Bogota weaken the country’s FARC guerrillas, who have forsworn kidnapping, released many prisoners and begun peace talks. Violence is down and cocaine production has dropped by 72 percent since 2001, according to Robinson. Today, Colombian commandos trained by U.S. forces are training counter-narcotics units in Central American and Mexico.

Some American training efforts, though, have gone badly wrong. Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report documenting systematic abuses of pro-democracy activists in Yemen by local security forces, some of whom had received U.S. training. The International Federation for Human Rights reported last week that soldiers from the Malian Army – which also received U.S. training – had executed at least 11 people in Sevare after retaking the town from Islamists forces.

More broadly, an American-trained Malian army captain carried out a coup last year that destabilized the country and opened the door for Islamists to gain control of the north. Skepticism of the Malian army’s ability to gain public confidence or simply become an effective fighting force against militants is rampant.

The former Green Beret, who spent extensive time in Mali training local soldiers, said the training effort was too limited. He said U.S. Green Berets on average trained Malian units for six-week sessions. High turnover in the Malian units and lack of basic items for soldiers — from vehicles to weapons to food — made progress difficult.

In neighboring Chad, American Special Operations Forces lived with Chadian military units for six-month periods and achieved better results.

“You need that 365, 24-hour-a day presence if you want to make a difference,” he said.

Robinson agreed in an email, arguing that the training was “episodic” in Mali. I agree with Robinson and the soldier.

Training by U.S. Special Forces is not a cure-all. Unless local governments share American strategic goals and political values, training their forces is a waste of time and resources.

So was Thursday’s Senate hearing. The United States faces serious questions about how, where and whether to wage war. The senators performed poorly. So did Hagel.

As the U.S. military shrinks, its training capacity is more important than its ICBM arsenal. The fact that more U.S. soldiers committed suicide  than died in combat last year is more important than re-litigating Iraq. While Israel is an important ally, the United States needs allies across the Middle East to counter a reduced but still real terrorist threat.

Technology is not a replacement for a committed ally. Investing in allies will lead them to invest in us.


PHOTO (Top): Former Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be Defense Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2013. . REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert): Chadian soldiers sit atop vehicles ahead of their deployment in Mali, at the town of Gorou, in Niger, 10 km (6.2 miles) from Niamey, January 30, 2013. REUTERS/ Alain Amontchi


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Are there any real diplomats left in the State Department?
It seems that U.S. diplomacy is done through drones and M16’s.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

The ONLY way to realistically reduce our military spending and maintain a high-quality military is to reintroduce the draft.

Every single dollar that is spent on military contractors, is a dollar of total waste that can be eliminated by drafting our young people again.

Part of this would be to go back to relying on a system of reserve troops (e.g. National Guard) instead of maintaining a large peacetime military.

That would result in a much smaller military, with the ability to call up fully-trained troops as needed.

The US completely destroyed this concept by going to an “all volunteer” army.

That has been an unmitigated disaster for this country, and it needs to be changed immediately.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

I agree that we need to use indirect methods and make sure the regimes we back are serious about protecting people, not oppressing them. I’ve studied modern Chinese history and know a little about some of our cold war era ventures…. it doesn’t take a genius to look at how so many east Asian countries got messed up because we supported corrupt autocrats instead of something better. No wonder communism had a field day over there.

Sometimes, you don’t get to choose who your friends are. But sometimes, you can tell your friends, “stop arresting everyone who speaks bad about you, murdering political opponents, etc, or we’ll happily let the communists/terrorists/whatever” stomp you into the dirt. We should not become so desperate for allies that we tolerate people who are just as bad as the flavor of the week villain. There’s a price to be paid for that in the long run. Governments change hands, but people are slow to forget.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

The USA needs to practice what it preaches at home first.

We have very serious domestic problems, not the least of which is a 1960’s mindset which does not acknowledge the significant changes in the country. In general, Washington is concerned about power and dominance, not about freedom, development and respect. This applies domestically as well as internationally.

Until we reform our corrupt political and judicial systems we have no chance of domestic tranquility, let alone consensus. Time to outlaw congressional districts that do not meet strict mathematical standards. No more gerrymandering! Give us a much, much larger House with Representatives that do not behave as if they are foreigners to their own purported “constituents”. We need to eliminate judgeships as untouchable Princes of the State. No more lifetime tenure. We need more citizen initiatives permitted at every level of Government.

When we have agreement at home, then we can decide policy abroad. Meanwhile we might as well have a dictatorship.

This country has more to do than to deny the vote to Muslims. There are just a few Americans of such type, but they run the country like their personal medieval barony. The mechanisms they are using must be extracted like a rotten tooth.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

The Republican Senators are still stuck in the Cold War mentality, longing for times when American forces were on the battlefield. And spending taxpayer money on fancy war toys, built in their own States and districts, for wars that will never be fought against enemies that don’t exist. While ignoring the threats that do exist, since they are not in one country and one place.

Obsess over North Korea, while ignoring that peace in the Middle East goes through Israel. All too often the ‘friends’ we support are stabbing American interests in the back.

America cannot impose their will on others, and too often fails to understand the reason for their anger.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

@ ShiroiKarasu —

I strongly disagree with your hypothesis that we should “use indirect methods and make sure the regimes we back are serious about protecting people, not oppressing them.”

Your reasoning is fatally flawed for at least two serious reasons:

(1) Military weakness invites military disaster. By relying on other nations, we weaken our own security.

(2) You are making exactly the same mistake as current US foreign policy — “make sure the regimes we back are serious about protecting people, not oppressing them” —
literally means we are dictating terms to a sovereign nation as to how it should handle its intenal policies.

What we need is to get rid of the politically crippled and corrupt military we have now, by which I mean get rid of all the civilian contractors and remploy the draft (as I stated above).

Doing this alone would maximize our miliary expenditures, while minimizing the cost.

You may not like it, but I challenge anyone to come up with a better, quicker and more economical solution.

And never mind sending me comments that I am recommending what I would not do myself. I am a Vietnam War veteran and have “been there, done that”.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Umm, Didn’t you guys “lose” The War In Vietnam? And didn’t you have a draft system set up then too?

You are still right though, it would be the most economical system and better/ cheaper then using rogue mercs. But you have to take in to account the fact that in a draft system you end up with a lot of people unfit for service. Whether it’s due to Physical, psychological and/or Ideological reasons.
I mean would you feel confident fighting next to a pencil necked anxiety ridden pacifist? Who is essentially unfit for combat yet made it past the line because they had nothing obviously wrong with them? Would you want a guy like that watching your back?
The draft system was done away with in many countries because it forced people who didn’t wan to fight to go to war. Not only that but it forced those that shouldn’t be fighting in to service.
Draft systems should only really be initiated in times of REAL defence, REAL wars. Not to aid in wars in the name of special interests.

Also in a society that values it’s freedom I do not think conscription (it’s technically what a draft is) will go down well.

Posted by Azza9 | Report as abusive