US Foreign Military Training: Effort Gone Down the Drain

Foreign military training became a central element in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which concluded that «helping others to help themselves is critical to the long war».

Five years ago then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in Foreign Affairs that according to «strategic reality demands» the U.S. should get better at training foreign militaries.

The time has passed to make it clear: the foreign armed forces that the United States invests so much money, time and effort in training and equipping don’t act to meet expectations.

Today the Islamic State fighters continue to hold ground in Iraq in an effort to expand the boundaries of self-proclaimed caliphate, even with the US-led coalition's aerial bombardment underway since August 2014. It makes ask the question about the vast amounts of money the United States has spent towards "training" foreign troops abroad.

«With alarming frequency in recent years, thousands of American-trained security forces in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have collapsed, stalled or defected, calling into question the effectiveness of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States on foreign military training programs, as well as a central tenet of the Obama administration’s approach to combating insurgencies,» write Eric Shmidt and Tim Arango in their piece published by the New York Times on October 3.

The authors set Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as examples of failure.

In a commencement speech at West Point in May 2014, President Obama put the training of foreign troops at the center of his strategy for combating militant groups that threaten American interests. The United States, he said, will no longer send large armies to fight those wars and, in the case of Afghanistan, would continue to withdraw the forces that are there. Instead, it will send small numbers of military trainers and advisers to help local forces, providing them with logistical, intelligence and other support.

The program has made little headway. It’s easy to confirm this fact by a cursory look at the recent history.

In June, 2014, the US-trained soldiers of Iraqi army threw down the hardware and even small arms behind 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. That's the result of being trained by the US armed forces at considerable cost to US taxpayers.

A New York Times article suggested that, between 2004 and 2014, the US had provided the Iraqi Army with $25billion ($60 billion with construction costs included) in training and equipment in addition to an even larger sum from the Iraqi treasury.

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.

The military of Afghanistan currently has around 200,000 active soldiers, which are expected to reach 260,000 in the coming years, and with nearly 4,000 US instructors involved in their training. The only news we get from Afghanistan is the gains made by the Taliban in controlling vast parts of the country. Experts say the probability is high that the Taliban will eventually move in and take-over over without any real hassle.

The US has spent $65 billion to prepare the security forces in Afghanistan since 2002.

Now we see the same thing in Syria as well. A $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers. 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.

The Pentagon made an acknowledgement at the end of September that its latest trained rebels helped Al-Nusra purportedly in return for safe passage. This is another story that highlights America's checkered record of training locals in other countries. The new group of rebel recruits was supposed to prove the United States could train moderate Syrian fighters to defeat the jihadists in Syria. But soon after returning to the war-torn homeland, the US-trained fighters handed over their ammunition and other equipment to the Al-Nusra Front, a local Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Pentagon officials said last week that they were suspending the movement of new recruits from Syria to Turkey and Jordan for training.

The program suffered from a shortage of recruits willing to fight the Islamic State instead of the army of President Bashar Assad. President Barack Obama had to admit the existence of this problem publicly.

"I'm the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to," he said at a press-conference on October 2.

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Nevertheless, despite the obvious flaws in training troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria the US government is adamant to expand the program and send more instructors to the countries where the security situation is deteriorating. For instance, the armed group Boko Haram has been scoring serious successes in the north of Nigeria in an attempt to establish a mini-caliphate there, following the Islamic State’s footsteps in Iraq and Syria. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari is failing to organise a serious military response to the counter its efforts. The US is going to restore and expand the United States military program to train Nigerian troops.

Continuing the foreign military training program without major changes and lessons learnt seems to be like a fool’s errand. The US - trained foreign troops show inability to fight effectively on their own. And this is a serious foreign policy setback.