Arm, train, fail (repeat as necessary)

I hadn’t even finished my morning coffee, but one didn’t have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today’s New York Times:  #1: "Afghan Army’s Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy." #2: "U.S. to Create an Elite Libyan Force to Combat Extremists" The first story details the various reasons ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages

I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:

 #1: "Afghan Army's Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy."

#2: "U.S. to Create an Elite Libyan Force to Combat Extremists"

I hadn’t even finished my morning coffee, but one didn’t have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today’s New York Times:

 #1: "Afghan Army’s Turnover Threatens U.S. Strategy."

#2: "U.S. to Create an Elite Libyan Force to Combat Extremists"

The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we’ve learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.

I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we’re going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we’re trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There’s also the danger that we’ll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime. 

But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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