|"Don't point this at me."|
Security cooperation and security force assistance are important aspects of our quest to transition Iraq and Afghanistan, and to set the world up to combat its demons more broadly. One of the buzzwords is "building partner capacity," which many take to mean building forces that look and act like ours and can take care of business on our behalf, or in our absence. We realize that few forces will match the capacity of the US military, but we want to march them in that direction. In some cases, this is a worthy effort. In others, it is a hopeless task. This is not to say that some cultures are incapable of soldiering, but that we must realize what factors impact forces and soldiers and that some of these forces passively or actively block the route we want them to take.
In the military's perennial 1-3 year turnover, each cadre thinks they are starting the campaign to do task X anew. In this environment, it is easy to forget that there are few truly new militaries out there. When we imagine that we are going to "crawl-walk-run" or take a "building block approach" that will greatly change things in the course of a 5-year plan, we forget that people have been making similar plans in many cases for years or decades and the walk and run phase has not yet been attained. "Well, we have to try," comes the retort to any jaded naysayer. No, we really don't. We don't have to try to do the building block approach and build unattainable plans for everyone. We need to approach the problem by first understanding the problem, what is attainable, and what we can get out of it. We do this for us, after all.
It is important to understand what drives the performance of military forces. While there is often a group that conforms to some notion of a stereotype in most cultures, we cannot ascribe military performance to culture alone. Generally, when there is an imperative to perform, people find a way to perform. A lack of performance may point to a missing imperative, or to a logic that does not meet our preconceptions, but is nonetheless compelling. Misunderstanding leads to tragedy, especially when our aims reach beyond destroying an enemy to recreating societies in our image. Neil Sheehan, journalist and author of the landmark Vietnam War book, A Bright and Shining Lie, wrote, “Only the Americans knew neither the Vietnamese they were depending on to work their will, nor the Vietnamese enemy they faced.” The military’s attempts to understand its enemies are often confounded by preconceptions, oversimplification, reductionist approaches, and the poisonous effect of ideology. In the nation-building exercises we have drawn ourselves into, however, we remain largely ignorant about our partners and the society we seek to reshape. This lack of understanding was not unique to Vietnam. The senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Major General Michael Flynn, admitted in 2010 that “our intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade,” while Marine Captain Brad Fultz argued that ten years into the conflict, units have failed to “bring the voice of the Afghans to the staff decision-making process.” It would seem that these shortcomings would have been resolved sometime earlier in the conflict.
The reality is that many in the military have been trying, but it is incredibly challenging to break the bounds of the black and white mental world we build and understand alternate viewpoints. By projecting our rationality onto others, we invite failures from the tactical level to the strategic. Sheehan offers an illustrative example from Vietnam. Advisors were frustrated with the seeming cowardice of officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), a feebleness that was sometimes dismissed as part of the “Oriental mind.” The calculus was far more rational, Sheehan explained. “The Americans saw the ARVN as an army with which to defend South Vietnam. The Ngo Dinhs, on the other hand, saw the ARVN primarily as a force-in-being to safe guard their regime. The first priority of the Ngo Dinhs was the survival of their rule.” Risking this force in operations against the Viet Cong risked their downfall.
This example illustrates more than a casual misunderstanding of another culture. The societies that we have aimed to remake in our image over the past half-century operate on an entirely different political, social, and economic calculus than we do today in the west. Yet, if we think back to Charles Tilly’s description of state making as organized crime and consider the history of war and nation-state creation in Europe, we should recognize that western rulers followed a very similar logic not so long ago. Furthermore, the exploitation that elites like those in Vietnam lived on was honed by if not learned from the legacy of colonialism and mercantilism imported by the west. We forget our own recent past while assuming that our present mores and institutions can be quickly imposed on blank slates in the developing world. Inexplicably, however, we express dismay and disgust when we realize that our erstwhile partners are more interested in their own sources of rent and the protection of their position than in the birth or rebirth of their nation. We are boggled by levels of corruption in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq that are little worse than that found in some parts of America less than a century ago.
These points resound in security cooperation, too. Many militaries are designed as several concentric rings. The inner rings are for regime protection and internal policing. The outer rings are jobs programs. None of the rings are really concerned with defense against external enemies. Why would they be? That is what the U.S. and the heavy hand of international norms is for. So, the regimes build up their inner rings, but have an active interest in making sure that the outer rings are not nearly as capable. Why invite a coup? Even in regimes less concerned with their own protection, the outer ring as a jobs program still holds true. While these regimes may not actively work to keep these outer rings incapable of mounting an insurrection, the tyranny of scarce resources does the trick anyway. They only have enough money to make a small, capable force while spreading the rest around to soldiers who show up for a paycheck, but little else. It is an alternative to welfare. In countries facing these sorts of challenges, security cooperation with the outer rings is not going to be very productive.
What is more, while we may be concerned with capabilities such as amphibious assault and expeditionary warfare, almost no one else in the world is. Thus, when we look for like partner forces, the Marines especially find poor analogs. This is fine, as long as we are happy to work with these forces as they are, and not to make them into something they need not and cannot be. If we are not going to make them significantly better, then why bother? A similar line of reasoning underlies the "train-the-trainer" concept (we train trainers, that can spread the wealth to the rest of their force). We want to make them better and to make that capability self-sustaining. This is well and good with some forces, but others have little interest. As a friend said, each unit wants to get the American "thumbprint": it is a badge of credibility to have been trained by the U.S. If this is what they want, we should give it to them. These forces are more concerned with the interface with Americans than real capability, so we should be honest with ourselves and give them the face time they want, but with economy of force and with the clear guidance to the engagement teams that they are there to spread a positive image of America to as many troops as possible, not to make an elite fighting force. To imagine that we can do something else only wastes resources and leads to mutual frustration.