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Right and Wrong Ways to “Train-and-Equip” Foreign Forces

Rosa Brooks : “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… 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.”  

“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.”

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