Why have US-trained forces in Iraq and Afghanistan failed so badly?

We’ve all read news reports about how army units in Afghanistan or Iraq have failed in combat against, respectively, the Taliban or ISIL.  Their performance has been dire – and that’s putting it charitably.

In an article for Point of Decision, the author describes his experience training Afghan troops, and offers this perspective.

The most basic question remains unanswered: what does it take to raise and train a proficient military force? American drill sergeants would answer with an exhaustive list of physical, mental, and ethical competencies. They would also tell you that they break incoming privates into a rough mold of proficiency, but ultimately the NCOs at the receiving units must sharpen them into effective soldiers. This continuing developmental process is taken for the granted in the American system (ridiculing the Structured Self-Development courses and safety briefings tends to take precedence), and largely ignored when training foreign soldiers.

Soldiers and policemen alike in the worst years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were trained to be bodies that could patrol and die. In the low-intensity wars of attrition, bodies and unit strength percentages mattered. Higher-tiered priorities like ensuring unit integrity and developing officers and NCOs were afterthoughts. As a result, there was a wild deviation between units. I experienced this firsthand: our first company of ANA soldiers had a tough, respected CO. Drug abuse, skipping patrols, and falling asleep on guard duty were met swiftly with corporal punishment. The follow-on replacements were led by an obese, lazy man. He never left the wire, and rarely managed his company. His unit rarely showed up for patrols, and when they did the few volunteers were stoned out of their minds. Lack of leadership cripples units at the company level, but the problem lies much deeper.

There’s more at the link.  Interesting reading for all military veterans, particularly those who’ve benefited from good leadership and know what that means – and what it takes.  I can add from my own experience, having been able to see at first hand what it took to train African recruits in several countries into effective soldiers, that I think the author is spot on.  Without good NCO’s, the process must and will founder . . . but where is one to find such NCO’s in a country where few possess such attributes?



  1. Whenever I've seen photographs of western-trained Arab soldiers, they look grumpy, they are ill at ease in their uniforms, they don't look like they want to be there at all.

    By contrast, I have watched many videos of young studs in the Islamic State, riding captured APCs or Toyotas; attentively listening to instructions from their commanders; laughing their silly heads off as they discuss how they will rape and murder their next victims. They seem totally at ease, like people who have found their true calling… they have "come home" to who they really are.

  2. We've had this problem since at least, oh, say… Vietnam. The ARVN had moments of glory, but they were widely and justly denigrated as being ineffective, especially when compared to the VC and NVA.

    Why were they like that? What made the difference between the highly effective and motivated Montagnard and Hmong forces we raised in the Highlands vs. the rest of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam? By and large… It was this: Vietnam was a significantly dysfunctional country, a "failed state", if you will. The indigenous forces that were administered by the corrupt South Vietnamese government were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led. By contrast, the ethnic forces of the mountains were largely trained by Americans, administered by Americans, and paid by Americans. They fought, and fought hard. Why the difference? Read this paragraph, again, and you'll see it.

    You can't form a successful army and give it to an essentially corrupt government. When dealing with countries like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, you're a hell of a lot better off if you take their troops, train them, lead them, pay them, and foster a military culture without corruption. It can be done, and has been done–But, it takes a long time, generations, even. Look at the difference between the Jordanian Legion and other Arab forces. The British took the time to develop that force, over the course of decades. When it was turned out to its own devices, many of the successful British cultural traits had "taken", and the Jordanian Legion managed to be a lot more successful than many other home-grown Arab forces.

    We want the quick solution, the "shake-and-bake" army. There isn't one, especially when dealing with these failed nations. You want a successful state? You need to plan on a decades-long project, and the security forces are a huge component. We should have formed up Afghan units where the troops were recruited from the street, to be administered and led by Americans. Such units would not be ready to be "let go" from American leadership until an entire generation had made its way through the pipeline, and their own indigenous leadership free from corruption had worked its way up the pipeline from recruit/lieutenant up to sergeant major and battalion commander.

    We didn't do things that way, and as a result, the Iraqi Army fell apart as soon as we left and the politicians started playing their old Arab games with things like pay and supplies. Same thing in Afghanistan–You can't grow an Army in a few short years. The amount of time it takes is measured in decades and generations.

    How long did it take to foster and grow formations like von Lettow's African Askaris, some of whom still remembered their drill decades later, when it came time for the FRG to pay out some of their pensions? Did the Germans manage that in a year or two? How about the various formations of the Empire, whether speaking of the King's African Rifles, or the many Indian Army units? You don't manage that sort of thing overnight, especially in areas of the world that aren't really modern nation-states in the first damn place.

    We tried fixing Iraq and Afghanistan in a hurry and on the cheap. We shouldn't be surprised that the armies we "built" are falling apart. You have to spend the time to fully inculcate and form the culture, and that's simply not an overnight task. Particularly when you're fighting a culture that's already highly corrupt…

  3. The thing is most Middle Eastern military units are not culturally inclined to fight a stand up fight or Western military dogma. Since the time of the Crusades they retreat from large set piece battles, fight hit and run raids and only press on when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor. They trade large areas of useless land because it hold little or no strategic value. The horse riding Native Americans fought the same way. TE Lawrence understood the limitations of his forces and used them accordingly.

  4. Central Asian and Western civilizations differ by a thousand years. Civilizing the Middle East will take a thousand years. Unfortunately at that point they will still be a thousand years behind us. Unless we collapse.

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