The Training Game

The ongoing foreign policy debacle in Iraq and Syria has provided fodder for the Republican critics of President Obama who have blamed him for the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the face of aggression from the Islamic State, and the similarly poor performance of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" despite ongoing covert efforts by the United States to equip and train them. The principal sources of the Republican discontent are the decisions by the president to withdraw all US combat forces from Iraq in 2011, and his refusal to confront Syria militarily in 2013. Now that the Republicans have gained control of the US Congress, there is the likelihood of increased calls for military engagement in both Iraq and Syria that goes beyond that already undertaken by the Obama administration to confront the Islamic State in those two nations.

Key Republican leaders have been calling for a more aggressive posture by the United States vis-à-vis the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Current US plans call for the launching of a major offensive by Iraqi armed forces against the Islamic State in the spring of 2015, with the goal of driving the jihadists out of their strongholds in Mosul and Anbar provinces, and back onto Syrian soil, where they will be defeated by a 5,000-strong force of "Free Syrian Army" fighters. The effort in Iraq will be aided by a significant presence of American military advisors, backed by robust American air power. In Syria, the CIA will provide covert capability designed to enable "Free Syrian Army" forces to better direct American air strikes against Islamic State forces. Once the Islamic State has been neutralized, the "Free Syrian Army" will turn its attention against Assad. What, if any, role US air power would play in such a scenario has not yet been articulated, but, clearly, the Republicans would like to see some application of US military force to facilitate the removal of Assad from power.

Whether or not the Obama administration will give in to any future Republican pressure to increase the level of US military involvement in Iraq and Syria is yet to be seen. But what is clear is that any military action, including those plans already approved by the Obama administration, hinge on Iraqi and Syrian ground force capability that, for the time being, exists only on paper. The planned spring offensive is built around three Iraqi army divisions -- some 20,000 troops -- and three new Iraqi National Guard brigades -- another 6,000 men -- that have yet to be trained and equipped by the US military. Likewise, the planned 5,000-strong force of "Free Syrian Army" fighters is merely a figment of American creative thinking in so far as such a force has yet to be organized, trained and equipped by US advisors. While there has been a significant expansion of US military presence in Iraq, to include the deployment of thousands of US military advisors whose mission it is to train these new Iraqi forces (both the CIA and the Pentagon remain tight-lipped on how they plan to train and equip the "Free Syrian Army" in time to participate in the planned spring offensive), the fact of the matter is the United States has a poor track record of training the militaries of other nations.

The collapse of the Iraqi army in and around Mosul earlier this year led to a general rout in northern and western Iraq that was halted only when the forces of the Islamic State reached the environs of Baghdad, and the Iraqi government was able to draw upon the assistance of Shi'a militias backed by the Iranian government to block the advance of the jihadists. Between 2004 and 2011, the United States expended more than $25 billion in an effort to train and equip a successor force to the army of Saddam Hussein, which had been disbanded on American orders in the months following the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This new Iraqi army was touted by its American military trainers as being "combat effective" and "capable of independent operations" -- that is, able to close with and engage hostile forces without the advice or assistance of the US military. In its rush to disengage from Iraq, the Obama administration paraded a host of military officers, including General David Petraeus and General Ray Odierno, before Congress who testified to the efficacy of the new Iraqi military. This testimony enabled President Obama to keep one of his major campaign promises: the withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq.

This wasn't the first time the US military had been called upon to deliberately mislead Congress about the capabilities of a foreign army that it had been responsible for training and equipping in order to provide political cover for a policy of military disengagement from an unpopular theater of operations. In 1949, the Truman administration was keen to remove US military forces from South Korea in order to help facilitate deep cuts in the defense budget. The training of an effective South Korean army was considered a precondition to this decision. The officers responsible for overseeing the training of the South Korean army wrote numerous reports and provided compelling testimony about the supposed strong capabilities of the South Korean forces. And yet, in June 1950, when the armed forces of North Korea invaded, the South Korean army melted away in the face of a better trained, equipped and motivated foe. It wasn't that the American military advisors believed their reports -- many knew the capabilities of the South Korean army were dubious at best, but feared the consequences to their careers if they told the truth. The end result of this deception was a rout of the South Korean armed forces and the engagement of US forces in a bloody war that lasted more than three years and left the Korean peninsula divided some sixty-plus years later.

The American military adventure in Vietnam produced an even more calamitous result. The decision by the Nixon administration in 1968 to withdraw US combat forces from South Vietnam led to a policy of "Vietnamization," where the US poured in billions of dollars to build and equip a robust South Vietnamese military capable of standing on its own against the combined forces of North Vietnam and the indigenous Viet Cong. A test of this policy came in the spring of 1972, when the South Vietnamese military, backed by US military advisors on the ground and massive US air power, beat back a concerted offensive by North Vietnam. This "success" led to Congressional action in the form of the Cooper-Church amendment in August 1973, facilitated by the testimony of US military officials as to the robust capabilities of the South Vietnamese armed forces, which effectively barred future US military operations in Vietnam. When North Vietnam resumed its offensive in March of 1975, the South Vietnamese military, operating on its own, collapsed, and Saigon fell to North Vietnamese on April 30.

The failure of the US military to adequately train and equip the armies of foreign allies does not rest on the issue of professional competence of those doing the training. Clearly, those called upon to conduct military training were qualified to do so, and the heroic performance of their trainees at the small-unit level underscored this fact. But it was the corrupting influence of politics that compels otherwise honorable men to put self-interest before the national interest. Men who would be willing to give their lives in combat wilt under the pressure of careerism for the simple fact that both intrepidness under fire and facilitating the whims of superiors, while seemingly contradictory behaviors, are traits that help one move up the steep pyramid of military command. Cowardice in the face of the enemy and speaking truth to power, likewise considered polar opposite behaviors, result in career termination.

The senior military officials who oversaw the training of South Korea's military in 1949-1950 knew that Syngman Rhee was a problematic leader of a problematic nation. The same can be said of South Vietnam's Nguyen Van Thieu, and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki. If war is an extension of politics, so too are armies an appendage of the bodies they serve. There is an old proverb that states "a fish stinks from the head." This holds true of nations as well, and if a government fails to command the respect and loyalty of the people it governs, then an army drawn from the ranks of those very same people cannot be expected to fight and die in its name. This is the fundamental problem facing the US military as it prepares to train yet another fighting force in both Iraq and Syria. Nouri al-Maliki might be gone, but the government that replaced him continues to implement his policies. There is no political leadership of the "Free Syrian Army" worthy of the name.

Two new American generals have been summoned to oversee the training effort in Iraq. Lieutenant General James Terry will lead the effort, supported by Major General Paul Funk II. Each will, in due course, be called upon to testify before Congress as to the progress they are making in their mission. Neither will earn an additional star if they report back that their charges are militarily incapable of achieving the optimistic objectives set forth by the Obama administration. Congress can anticipate that each of these men, and any others they call upon to testify, will provide them with the sort of pat answers one has come to expect from such hearings. That is how the training game is played in Washington, DC. There is a tongue-in-cheek definition of insanity that attributes the affliction to anyone who does the same thing over and over again, yet expects a different result. The fact of the matter is, void of meaningful political change in both Iraq and within the political leadership of the "Free Syrian Army," there will be no cause in either of those countries worthy of the sacrifice of the men America plans to train to fight in the spring offensive of 2015. We've been down this path before, outside Seoul in June 1950, Xuan Loc in April 1975, and Mosul in June 2013. The outcome is tragically predictable, no matter how hard our politicians try to convince us otherwise.