The Hard Lessons of Kunduz and Syria

Why U.S. efforts to train and equip friendly fighters around the world so often fail.

Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Rebels seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq on July 19, dealing a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad, as China and Russia dismayed the West by blocking UN action against his regime. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)
Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Rebels seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq on July 19, dealing a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad, as China and Russia dismayed the West by blocking UN action against his regime. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)

It’s been a bad week, in a bad month, in a bad year. On Sept. 28, the Taliban captured the Afghan city of Kunduz, scattering the city’s U.S.-trained defenders like pawns from an upended chessboard. On Sept. 26, reports emerged that U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had surrendered their U.S.-provided weapons and equipment to an al Qaeda-linked group. On Sept. 16, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress that only “four or five” of the Syrian rebels trained at the cost of tens of millions of dollars by U.S. forces were actually fighting against the people we wanted them to fight. In Iraq, the news has been no better; in May, U.S.-trained Iraqi troops fled Ramadi, leaving it in the hands of Islamic State fighters. In 2014, Iraqi forces disintegrated as Islamic State fighters took Mosul.

If you’re seeing a pattern here, you’re not the only one. The United States has spent untold billions training, equipping, and advising fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, only to see the beneficiaries of that investment run for the hills at the earliest opportunity.

No one would call the collapse of local partner forces a positive development, particularly for a presidential administration that has touted such partnerships as an effective alternative to costly and dangerous U.S. combat deployments. But we should expect to see a different kind of battle emerging in the coming weeks: the battle to control the narrative. With a presidential election coming up, a lot is at stake. And the narrative that becomes dominant will influence who becomes the next president and shape the next administration’s foreign policy.

Hawks — mostly Republicans, but some Clinton Democrats as well — will offer a narrative that goes something like this: “We knew it! You can never rely on foreigners. No matter how much money and time we pour into helping ‘partners’ recruit, train, and equip fighters, it’s money down the drain if we’re not willing to have our own troops right there alongside them, keeping them honest. The instant we leave, they’ll desert, join the enemy, or find a dozen reasons not to fight. President Obama should never have pulled U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 and trusted the Iraqi military to hold things together. He should never have pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in late 2014. As for Syria, we should have sent a ground force in the first place instead of imagining we could train enough ‘moderate’ rebels to do the job for us.”

Doves — mostly Democrats, but Rand Paul Republicans as well — will offer an entirely different narrative: “The obvious lesson here is that the United States just needs to stop meddling in other countries’ affairs. What arrogance to imagine that U.S. military engagement can ‘fix’ other countries and solve other people’s problems! We deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it didn’t make anything better, and the recent shift to relying on local partners and air power has been just as much of a fiasco. Those foreign troops either turn and run, or they prey on the very populations they’re supposed to protect, using U.S.-provided weapons and training to commit abuses. American military interventions abroad never work — they just make things worse.”

To Narrative 1, hawks will add the pious hope that all this bad news will make Congress understand the folly of further cuts to the defense budget. With the United States leaving vital military jobs to weak partners forces and downsizing our own forces, it’s little wonder that Vladimir Putin is laughing in our face! If we don’t reinvest in our military and demonstrate our resolve by using our own forces to achieve our overseas objectives, adversaries will continue to successfully challenge our interests all over the world.

To Narrative 2, doves will add their own earnest plea: The trillions of dollars we’ve squandered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have come at the expense both of investments in diplomacy and investments in rebuilding our own still struggling economy. The United States spends more on defense than the next 15 biggest military spenders around the globe, combined. It’s time to stop throwing money at our military and at helping foreign militaries, and instead reinvest in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and other domestic needs.

But as with most things, the true lessons of recent setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are more complex.

If I had to pinpoint the single most important reason recent U.S. train-and-equip efforts have failed, I’d say it’s this: We consistently fail to understand that other people want to pursue what they see as their interests and objectives, not ours. We go into complex foreign conflicts with a profound ignorance of history, language, and culture; as a result, we rarely understand the loyalties, commitments, and constraints of those we train. Sure, we undertake “vetting,” but it’s remarkably shallow: If there’s no evidence of actual collaboration or affiliation with groups we don’t like, and no evidence of participation in egregious human rights abuses, a trainee or military unit is good to go.

People fight and die for what they care about. When fighting for U.S. interests is convenient or lucrative — and not too dangerous — they’ll fight for what we care about, too. But when push comes to shove, there’s no particular reason for an Iraqi Sunni to keep fighting the Islamic State when cutting a deal offers a greater likelihood of his family’s long-term survival — especially when his corrupt commanding officers have already profited from selling off half his equipment and ammunition. There’s no particular reason for an Afghan Hazara soldier from Badakhshan to give his life to keep the Pashtun-dominated city of Kunduz out of the hands of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban — especially when just going home seems like a viable alternative.

For Americans, national identity is deeply ingrained, and, especially when we’re overseas, national loyalty and military professionalism easily trump race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and geographic origin. And though we don’t like to admit it, sheer self-interest surely also plays some role for Americans, too: When you’re deployed in a place where you look different, talk different, and you can’t even read street signs, much less understand conversations, the incentives to stick with your unit are high. (As Bowe Bergdahl found to his sorrow, a disaffected American can’t just stroll out of a forward-operating base in Afghanistan and make his way home.) Virtually no American soldiers deserted while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it’s worth recalling that American soldiers — particularly draftees — have demonstrated a willingness to desert on many occasions. During the American Civil War, roughly 10 percent of all soldiers fled the Union and Confederate armies. During World War II, virtually no U.S. soldiers deserted while in the Pacific Theater; in Europe, however, where blending in with local populations was more feasible, thousands of Americans did just that.

Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians are just as brave as Americans: In fact, residents of all these states have endured vastly more hardship and bloodshed over the last decade than most Americans see in a lifetime. They’ll fight, and fight fiercely, for the causes they hold dear. When their interests and priorities (as they understand them, not as we understand them) align with ours, train-and-equip missions can be extraordinary successful. But when we ignore the interests and priorities of our partners — through our own ignorance of culture and history, or through a paternalistic conviction that we understand what’s good for them better than they do — train-and-equip missions are doomed to end in failure and humiliation.

This is something the U.S. Army Special Forces have long embedded in their own doctrine — though as a nation, we seem to have forgotten it. We can work by, with, and through local partners if we’re willing to help them achieve their objectives, as they understand them — but don’t expect our local partners to be equally committed to achieving our objectives. If our objectives differ significantly from those of our partners, either commit to using our own military forces to achieve them or find a non-military solution.

If we take this seriously, it gives us a framework for understanding the limited circumstances in which training, equipping, and advising local forces will be worthwhile. If we have to recruit a partner force more or less from scratch, for instance, this should tell us that the odds of success are low; if local people haven’t mobilized on their own, it suggests that they don’t consider it a priority. If we insist that partner forces break up tribal or religious affinity groups in a culture in which such groups define an individual’s identity, we may also have low odds of success; when you rip people out of the groups they care about, their loyalty to the new group you have artificially created may be minimal. Similarly, if a local militia has long sustained itself through corruption, don’t imagine that we can simultaneously get it to fight on our side while trying to dismantle the corrupt networks on which it relies.

And so on. People do change their loyalties, habits, and priorities, but they rarely do so simply because outsiders request it. If we want to form successful military partnerships, we need to accept that, at least in the short term, the preexisting commitments of our potential partners are unlikely to change at our behest. This means accepting trade-offs: Training and equipping foreign forces can be effective if we’re willing to let other people’s objectives take priority over our own.

Sometimes, we shouldn’t: Sometimes local actors will have interests we simply find repugnant (e.g., they may be fighting those we’d like to defeat but committing atrocities against civilians at the same time). Other times, we’ll have to hold our noses and decide, to paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, that it’s better to help others do things tolerably than let them fail and potentially usher in a much worse outcome. Regardless, we need to understand what our partners want — and not kid ourselves about our ability to change it.

American domestic political realities militate against honesty. Policymakers — in both parties — want to hear, “Yes, we can,” not “No, we can’t,” or “Well, we can, but only if we also accept some things we’re really not going to like.” But in the coming weeks and months, as the battle to control the narrative is waged, keep this in mind: Like so much else in life, train-and-equip policies can succeed when they’re well-informed and premised on honesty. When they’re premised on arrogance or willful ignorance, they fail.

Photo credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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