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The Comic Trainers: Why the Collapse of the American-Trained Force in Syria Is No Surprise

The collapse of the American trainee force in Syria should not come as a surprise to anyone who watched a few hundred ISIS fighters rout 30,000 Iraqi troops, who dropped their weapons and ran, abandoning the city of Mosul. This is after the Iraqi army was trained by the U.S. for 12 years.
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It takes an author of much greater talent than mine, a satirist of the stature of Jon Stewart, to do justice to the recently developing tragicomic series of what unfolded in Syria when the US fielded the force of "moderate" locals it trained. After months of preparation, the president declaring from the Oval Office that he is out to "degrade and destroy ISIS" and reports of thousands of Syrians being groomed to fight, the US fielded in Syria a select, carefully vetted, meticulously prepared force -- of some 54 fighters. Shortly after the force crossed into Syria from Jordan, in late July, the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front attacked their headquarters at Azaz, killing several fighters, and abducting their leader. The force was attacked and more of its fighters killed -- a total of 19! -- a few days later. Thus the mighty US war machine gave birth to a tiny troop that could not shoot straight. If you offered this as a script for a B movie, it would be rejected as too implausible.

The collapse of the American trainee force in Syria should not come as a surprise to anyone who watched a few hundred ISIS fighters rout 30,000 Iraqi troops, who dropped their weapons and ran (or raced away in cars) abandoning the city of Mosul. This is after the Iraqi army was trained by the US for 12 years -- and recently beefed up by thousands more American trainers and advisors and, of course, support from the US Air Force and boatloads of cash.

The reasons for these debacles -- add Afghanistan to the list -- are many, which does not make them less obvious. The armies the US trains are corrupted to the core, as are the nations they are supposed to fight for. (Afghanistan is ranked the fourth most corrupt country in the whole world; Iraq the sixth.) Officers buy and sell their commissions, take a cut of the salaries of those under their command, and do not think about going near the front. Weapons and ammunition meant for the Iraqi Army ends up on the black market and in the hands of ISIS. No wonder that despite the US providing "100 million rounds of ammunition, 62,000 small arms, more than 1,000 Hellfire missiles," and 300 mine-resistant patrol vehicles by April 2015, the Iraqi forces defending the city of Ramadi ran out of ammunition before surrendering.

The US's ideas of training local allies is to make them fight like Americans. This proved particularly misguided in Afghanistan. Afghan recruits tend to have smaller build and many simply collapse when they try to carry 70 pounds of gear that American soldiers do. Afghan fighters are used to AK-47s the way Americans are used to steering wheels, but US trainers insist that they fight using M-16s, which are more difficult to keep in working order. US trainers' cultural sensitivity is too small to measure -- no wonder they told Afghans to watch out for people who go binge drinking or empty their bank accounts as suspected terrorists; never mind that most Afghans do not drink, at least in public, and have no bank accounts.

John Nagl made quite a reputation for himself when he captured the difficulties we faced in dealing with people of a different culture, many thousand miles away, with an excellent book titled Eating Soup with a Knife. (Not recommended). He stressed that the US army, unlike the British one, has not been a learning institution. He proceeded by showing it how to become a learning institution, by suggesting that the US should emulate what the Brits did in Malaya: he hold that they defeated the insurgency by winning the hearts and mind of the population. This big idea was embraced first by General Petraeus and then by the US military in general (as detailed in a book by Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents.) and led the US to shift from Counter Terrorism to Counter Insurgency focused on gaining the support of the population. Sadly Nagl did not pay enough mind to what actually worked in Malaya, in which the insurgency was limited to a Chinese minority that amounted to no more than 10 percent of the population. That minority was forcibly resettled in places from which it could not strike. I am not suggesting that the US should have relocated anyone, but winning support of the population, which includes many of the insurgents, their family members and tribal brothers, is no easy feat.

With such "learning," it is no wonder the US is flying blind and is making itself the butt of jokes, as our keystone trainers graduate forces that cannot or will not fight. Reports about their misadventures would much funnier if so many lives were not being lost.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First and most recently Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to

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