They’re trained and advised, but not fighting. Why? The fault lies with us.
Developing partnered forces is perhaps the defining challenge of our military age.
By Maj. Tom Mcilwaine, British Army
Best Defense guest columnist
Developing partnered forces is perhaps the defining challenge of our military age. We lack the will and troop numbers to impose alone our will on those we seek to control, so the creation of a capable, trustworthy partner forces is an imperative. Without them, we just cannot achieve our aims.
Despite the fact that we have been in this business for the last decade and a half, we are still not very good at it. The two most recent tests of mentored forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been little short of calamitous — the Iraqi Army folding with barely a fight against the Islamic State, and what Stars and Stripes has taken to referring as the “failing Afghan Army” faltering against a resurgent Taliban.
But we used to be good at this. Indeed, if there was a single defining characteristic of the British military in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the ability to get other peoples to fight for the interests that it represented. From the British Indian Army of World War Two (whose rise from the failures of 1942 is chronicled by Dan Marston in his book, Phoenix from the Ashes) to the creation of an effective military in Oman under British leadership, via the African forces which fought so well in the Burma campaign, this is something that the British were genuinely good at. The U.S. experiences of partnering with local forces in an imperial setting was positive too; the exemplary performance of the Philippine Scouts shows that this was not merely a British phenomenon.
So why, despite lavishing money, effort and time on it have we been so unable to replicate the success in the last 15 years? Is it our fault, or theirs?
It is fair to say that Arab military history is hardly stocked with success stories; the record of Arab armies in the period since World War Two is one of almost unbroken failure. There are exceptions of course. For example: the Egyptian success in the early part of the 1973 war. But even then the Egyptians ended the campaign (which had begun at a time and place of their choosing) in disarray. The reasons for these military failures are varied. Culture certainly plays a part, as do failures of education and leadership that are linked to wider faults in Arab societies, and this idea is examined at length by Norvell B. De Atkine in his article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”
But for us the question must go further than general incompetence among local partners. Firstly, we used to be able to create Arab military forces capable of operating under mentorship and later of becoming effective standalone forces; the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces being a prime example. Secondly, we have failed not only in the Middle East, but also in Afghanistan. Afghanistan certainly suffers from many of the same problems that bedevil the Middle East (corruption, factionalism, poor education, and a general lack of development), but the Soviet Union did a demonstrably better job at developing a partnered force than we have done, although it was as reliant on external funding as the current Afghan Army.
The old British Indian Army also recruited (deliberately) from rural areas which share many cultural traits with rural Afghanistan, and those traits did not stop it from developing into a highly capable military force; indeed it was precisely those traits which the British felt gave these soldiers their martial qualities.
So, while our partners must take some of the blame a much larger share of it must devolve to us. The raw material is unchanged, and we have failed in more than one location.
If the raw material remains broadly speaking the same, what has changed? The answer is us. I would point to our own culture as being at the heart of the cause. This can be broken down into two parts. The first of these is the cultural distance between ourselves and those with whom we seek to partner.
This distance shows itself in many ways. The number of officers or soldiers involved in training either Iraqis or Afghans who speak those languages with a suitable degree of proficiency is vanishingly small. Soviet advisors to the Afghan Army, like Soviet advisors to Afghan society, lived and worked with those whom they mentored on a semipermanent basis. Our willingness to take a longterm view is limited; we want results now, despite the fact that this may well work against achieving success in the long term. Our expectations of what our training can achieve, in a short spell, is almost unlimited.
We want them to be like us, but we aren’t willing to put in the hard yards to make them like us, in terms either of training for ourselves, commitment of time, or acceptance of risk. The modern officer and soldier is not set up on a cultural level for success; he doesn’t speak the language, has little sympathy for ingrained cultural prejudices (can there ever have been a more absurd, damaging, and culturally deaf program than Female Engagement Teams in a highly patriarchal society such as Afghanistan), and does not spend enough time on the ground to remedy these failings.
There is a bizarre but very real contradiction at work here. We lack the confidence that the Victorians in their values — we are far more prone to cultural relativism than they were. But at the same time, we often impose (or at least pretend to) our values on our partners in non-core areas. So while we turn a blind eye to pedophilia, corruption, drug abuse, theft, torture, and murder, we are keen to promote gender equality. The effects that this has are tremendously damaging.
Consider the old adage that there are no bad soldiers — only bad officers. Bad officers accept poor standards, look the other way when doing the correct thing is hard, and turn a blind eye to failure. They do not help the soldiers they command be all that they could be.
Our performance — and the language we use to discuss that performance — suggests that we have been collectively bad officers for the last decade and a half. We know what it takes to create a good soldier — discipline, clear standards, focus, and an unwillingness to accept systemic failings or corruption, but we stand by and watch the Iraqis and Afghan forces flout these values and standards. We have accepted everything from corruption to pedophilia, failed to hold senior Iraqis and Afghans to account publicly, and failed to live up to our values because we don’t want to either rock the boat or offend. And then we wonder why these new armies show all the same flaws as the old armies or bands of warlords, and not the standards and discipline of the British Indian Army. It isn’t rocket science — if you send the message that the status quo is good enough, then that is all you can hope to achieve. Furthermore, you have also lost the moral high ground.
So how might we change this approach? We could consider going back to the past for our model: Properly embedded troops and officers, with a deep and emotional connection to those with whom they partnered. One of the reasons that the British Indian Army was able to transition so smoothly to functioning as the army of two independent states was that Indian officers had been drip fed into positions of responsibility over a period of years. They were not parachuted in, without experience, to positions for which they were unsuited by virtue of inexperience, and without suitable assistance and support. We adopted the same approach with the Sultan’s Armed Forces. The Jebel Regiment for example, with whom I trained last year, had a series of British Commanding Officers until Omani soldiers were suitably trained and experienced to take on the role. It is now a fit, disciplined, and highly impressive force.
Imagine how much better the Iraqi Army would be now if the key staff officers in every HQ were British or American, if the key commanders were largely British or American, who had spent the last ten years working in the Iraqi Army, mentoring their replacements as they gained experience and competence. Imagine how much better the Iraqi Army would be if two out of three platoon commanders and platoon sergeants in each infantry company were British or American, who spoke Arabic and lived with the men with whom they fought. Imagine how much more loyal the Iraqi Army would be, and how much more biddable, if our commitment to it was clear and lasting. It would begin to resemble the British Indian Army, which remained reliable through partition — because the standards and beliefs that had been planted in it were clear and unwavering.
Such an approach is not without risks. But war is a matter of risk — and if the cause is worth invading another nation state for, then it is worth taking risks with our soldiers’ lives for — that is after all why soldiers exist. Under the peculiar conditions which exist in the region, the local approach is not better. Our way of war is the most effective yet known, as it has been since at least the 16th century, and our way of building an army — core values and standards, rigorously enforced, is at its heart.
Our current relationships with our local partners have led us only to failure. It is time to have the courage of our convictions and to remain true to our values, and to build our partner forces in our image.
One final point: Just as war serves the purposes of policy, so militaries do not exist in a vacuum. They are the representatives of the societies from which they spring. There is no point in simply ensuring that the military is competent and reflects our values if the rest of the society remains untouched. We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in order to fundamentally remake their societies and ensure that they were less threatening to us. We need to have the courage to either complete that task — of which remaking their militaries is but a part — or to abandon it. To continue in the middle ground, where we do neither very well, is folly.
Tom Mcilwaine is a British Army Major. A graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies, he has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. All views are his own, except the good ones.
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