Why the U.S. military can’t succeed in training foreign armies

October 5, 2015
Afghan forces prepare for battle with Taliban on the outskirts of Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan

Afghan forces prepare for battle with Taliban on the outskirts of Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan, June 21, 2015. IREUTERS/Stringer

It was big news last month when 7,000 U.S.-trained and -equipped Afghan security troops failed to defend the northern city of Kunduz against a far smaller Taliban force. Yet the setback is just the latest indication of American-trained foreign troops’ continuing inability to fight effectively on their own.

It should not have been surprising. Washington experienced this last year in Iraq. The United States spent $25 billion training and equipping a large Iraqi force, which then threw down its weapons and abandoned two key cities, Mosul and Ramadi, to Islamic State militants. Between 800 and 1,000 Islamic State fighters defeated 30,000 Iraqi troops.

Iraqi Army soldiers march during a parade marking the founding anniversary of the army's artillery section in Baghdad

Iraqi Army soldiers march during a parade marking the founding anniversary of the army’s artillery section in Baghdad, October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

This also happened in Vietnam in 1975. There, the U.S.-trained and -equipped South Vietnamese military crumbled in the face of a North Vietnamese attack. The South Vietnamese forces turned that country over to the communists in Hanoi.

We now see it in Syria as well. The U.S.-trained Syrian forces are not only not fighting Islamic State, they are instead joining with groups like Al Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot.

These defeats should raise two questions for U.S. policymakers: Why does this happen? Why do we keep doing it and expect a different result?

Some argue, as did former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the U.S. military is both unable and unwilling to do effective training.

But this is not true. U.S. non-commissioned officers train young American men and women all the time — and regularly turn them into effective fighters in 12 weeks.

The reason that U.S.-trained foreign forces usually do not prevail is not because they are poorly trained and ill-equipped. In fact, they often have better equipment and far more extensive training than their opposition.

Yet they repeatedly fail largely because they are not as motivated. Military success on the battlefield is more dependent on whether men and women are willing to fight and die for a government they believe in. Rather than how well trained they are, troops have to believe their government is acting in the best interests of all its citizens.

The Iraqi and South Vietnamese troops did not believe this. Nor do the troops today in  Afghanistan. The soldiers view these governments as inefficient, corrupt and sectarian. In other words, the troops do not see their regimes as worth sacrificing their lives for.

Knowing this motivational problem, why does the United States keep training foreign forces? The answer is simple: Washington does it so that it can evade conflicts it should never have gotten involved in in the first place, and then can pretend the United States has achieved its objectives.


South Vietnamese soldiers train in the use of artillery as part of the Vietnamization program. Credit: U.S. ARMY

In Vietnam, for example, it was clear after the 1968 Tet Offensive that the United States could not achieve its aim of creating a viable, independent South Vietnam — despite having 500,000 troops on the ground and 1.3 million personnel in the theater. Washington, therefore, began withdrawing its forces and turning the battle over to the South Vietnam forces that it had trained, a policy called Vietnamization.

The Nixon administration signed the Paris Peace Accords five years later, officially withdrawing all U.S. troops and turning the fight completely over to the South Vietnamese forces, designated as strong and capable enough to defend their own country. On paper, they were.

But the Nixon administration had trained the South Vietnamese military largely as a way to rationalize the U.S. withdrawal and justify the sacrifices of the 60,000 American men and women who died in that conflict and the 500,000 who were wounded. In fact, as President Richard M. Nixon signed the Paris Accords in 1973, he claimed it was “peace with honor.”

When the North Vietnamese launched an offensive on March 19, 1975, however, the South Vietnamese military collapsed more quickly than the Americans and even the North Vietnamese had anticipated. This was due to poor leadership of some of the units and to the fact that many South Vietnamese soldiers could not approach the North Vietnamese communists’ passion to win. Many in the South Vietnamese military also strongly believed that the United States would again come to their rescue.

US President Bush makes remarks on Iraq with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld at White House in Washington

President George W. Bush (R) makes remarks about Iraq with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the White House in Washington, May 1, 2006. REUTERS/Jim Young

Similarly in Iraq, when the invasion did not turn out to be the cakewalk that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had promised — and the United States had foolishly disbanded the Iraqi army — Washington had to begin training a new Iraqi force within months of the invasion. If not, the United States would likely have had to commit to a decade-long, large-scale occupation of a Muslim country. The U.S. policy became “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” President George W. Bush explained.

Unfortunately, because of the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into Islamic State, the United States could not begin withdrawing its forces for another five years. But when it did, it left behind a supposedly well-trained Iraqi security force of 500,000 soldiers.

Afghanistan presents a similar situation. After the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda forces, the United States had no choice but to invade the country and remove the Taliban from power. But after accomplishing that, Washington decided to try to create an independent, stable government in a country historically regarded as the “graveyard of empires.”

As part of this, the American military knew it had to begin training a military force to provide long-term national security and to confront the Taliban, which had begun regrouping in Pakistan. But after increasing the U.S. presence in his first year in office, President Barack Obama set a deadline for U.S. withdrawal and accelerated the training of the Afghan security forces, now more than 300,000.

Yet this well-equipped force also cannot hold territory against the Taliban. Though Afghans have had a reputation of being fierce fighters for centuries, they still cannot win because the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces suffer from high rates of desertion. In addition, many officers are more loyal to their tribes or sects than to the central government, which they perceive as corrupt and ineffective.

One person strongly skeptical of the U.S. ability to successfully train foreign militaries is Obama, who has resisted many calls to leave tens of thousands of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely. Creating and arming a Syrian rebel force, Obama has insisted, is a fantasy.


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What is interesting, that has occurred to me is that our government is becoming just as dysfunctional with money in politics and the extreme views of the right that includes religious discipline and the control of women.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

now reading this you think the U.S learns !! well here we are again in Syria after Libya, truly shocking funny the powers to be act surprised Assad regime will be exchanged for a Terrorist Islamic Crime machine ruled by thugs.

Posted by alectherelic | Report as abusive

You can’t train zealously religious people, period. All the smart people from the middle east are leaving. The rest are loonies who shoot women in the face for studying. Do not spend money on the middle east. It’s really that simple. Bush and Cheney struggled with that rather obvious law of economics and paid the price.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

It depends on the culture of the army being trained.

In Colombia, US training was extremely successful, cutting down on socialist guerrillas ability to continue drug traffic and forcing them to seek a peace accord.

Posted by nuffsaid99 | Report as abusive

Here, in my opinion lies the issue. Our expectations as a government/army is that we spend some time with the Soldiers and we will “rub off” on them and they will immediately soak up our way of fighting. It takes years of training and for many, even in the American Army…failure. We are only as good as the leadership put in place.

As a combat advisor I can tell you that the unit that you are depicting in the picture received very little…only a few months of training from the American Army….literally from January through September of 2014.

Now, some may disagree, but I believe I can speak from experience that the Afghanistan Army can be a very viable Army…but, like all wars, becomes political in nature and is driven by those that are not “on the ground”. There in lies the issue.

Posted by outlawpunisher | Report as abusive

“.. Creating and arming a Syrian rebel force, Obama has insisted, is a fantasy ..”

Yet, he is fully committing all resources to the mission with his buddy – Ash Carter, by his side.

End of the day, these proxy-wars with Russia/China were designed just to pilfer public funds at great proportions to feed the military contractors and the underlying lobby works to please both – democrats and republicans to their whim.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

This is the same old tired analysis of a tired analysis. Everyone including the US Army has known this problem since George Washington marched off as a Colonel with the Indians. Here’s what I see – Democrat presidents seek a way out “with honor.” So they train up a bunch of native troops and leave them behind.
As far as Iraq is concerned, the “army” we abandoned after the war was largely Sunni and the army we wanted was Shia (lord knows why). It was never possible to retain the Baathist Army or to develop a Shia/Sunni force. The “army” in these sand pits is a sinecure for financially rewarding important political figures. Who ya gonna call? Boss Tweed – that’s who.
Here’s the answer – there is no warm fuzzy side. The “people,” are the same “people” who are in power. They’re not ready for modern government. Heck, they’re not ready for indoor plumbing.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

Hey conservatives:

Told you so. Iraq was a boondoggle. Afghanistan was a boondoggle. 4,000 American lives and 3 trillion dollars you people wasted, to give ISIS a new home. You people killed more Americans than 9/11.

America will not forget. You republican half wits won’t seat a president for another 30 years.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

USA fails because the understanding of the tensions in the countries is not understood! IRAQ is not really 1 country as Syria is clearly not 1 country.
The solution is to offer at division of the land in many smaller countries where some of them can unite in a union. USA want to preserve the borders , but the people inside the countries do not want that. When Iraq and Syrias can not offer an feasible solution then the coalition should just pull out. The Iraq army does not want to fight IS – ok then pull out!

Posted by jacobsch | Report as abusive

“The primary goal of our coalition in Iraq is self-government for the people of Iraq, reached by orderly and democratic means…” -George W. Bush, September 2003.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

It’s hard not to wonder if the same underlying factors that make places like Afghanistan and Iraq fragmented and chaotic are the same factors that make them difficult places from which to recruit people who can become credible armed forces. The characteristics that seem to be making people incapable of forming a stable government may also be characteristics that make people incapable of forming a credible military.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

@Bob9999, you are right. That underlying factor is religious fervor. They do great at blowing themselves up on a bus….. and fail at more complicated things. This is the same reason the south never had a chance in the American Civil War. Too many religious nuts down there, answering to the wrong General. Lack of discipline and goals on the ground.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The old saying still rings true:
It is not the dog in the fight that matters……et al.
“No foreign entanglements”..George Washington

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive

Some hope still remaining.
Donald Trump states that he will withdraw from the quagmire in Syria and Iraq then deal with the eventual winning side ..now that seems way too sensible to actually work..?

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive

What is interesting, that has occurred to me is that our government is becoming just as dysfunctional with money in politics and the extreme views of the right that includes religious discipline and the control of women.
**************************************** *
Your strange, because I don’t know any Americans (immigrants excepted) driven
by “religious discipline and the control of women.”, except a extremely tiny religious minority that themselves are remnants of older immigrant groups like the Mormons, who may have aligned themselves with us but don’t represent us.
I think your a hate monger for the upper class.

Our REAL ISSUES are Libertarian “free market” economics, and that’s the Establishment Economics of both political parties, and immigration keeping our labor markets in constant flood stage and That Too is a darling of the establishment of both parties.

So we either get candidates who will take up these issues for the American People, or, I don’t know. Extinction?

Posted by mrkingtut | Report as abusive

What is their motivation to fight? Are they willing or unwilling? What bare the odds they are facing. What have they been asked to do. Are they fighting for something they strongly believe in, or for a paycheck or because they were drafted?
How many are experienced combat veterans? Was their a easy line of retreat when the going got hard?
These are the things I think about.

Posted by mrkingtut | Report as abusive

Just checking to see if comments are still being suppressed.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Haha. Someone said Donald Trump will fix this. Thought they were serious for a second.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Far better to just let the nut job ISIS people come to power. Then you know what building to hit with a rocket. This idea of chasing black pajamas around the desert at 10 billion dollars a month…. is an idea cooked up in the lobbies of congress.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

You got part of your answer today. Apparently we will be arming “moderate terrorists” that are “vetted” by the U.S. government as oppposed to training “rebels”. We can’t be trusted is part of the answer.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Quit giving those in the Middle East our Grandchildren’s money. Turkey, Pakistan, et al. Cut em off and don’t speak to them for 100 years, after closing those embassies. Then close all borders to those coming from those areas. The only answer to survival is isolation…..

Posted by Sherpa1 | Report as abusive