When the invasion of Iraq sparked an insurgency, civil war and the collapse of social order, Colin Powell coined the “Pottery Barn rule” on military intervention: “You break it, you break it. own. “Following President Obama’s October 15 announcement that 5,500 US troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of their term, I hereby proclaim the” California Hotel Rule “after the last line from the Eagles song: “You can check anytime you like it, but you can never leave.” “*
Obama’s decision – a reversal of a previous plan to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency – came long before the Taliban assault on the northern city of Kunduz. , which has raised doubts about the ability of the Afghan army to defend the country on its own. .
Senior administration officials said that in March Obama ordered the Pentagon to conduct a review of the number of US troops needed to support counterterrorism operations in the region. The answer turned out to be 5,500, spread over three bases (in Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar), a calculation that Obama approved before the Taliban took Kunduz, although this attack (and the eventual resumption of the city by the Afghan army, with American assistance) sealed the deal.
Three factors shaped the decision. First, in September 2014, a day after being sworn in, the new Afghan president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, signed a “bilateral security agreement” allowing US and NATO forces to remain in his country after the expiration of the international combat mission at the end of this year. (Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had refused to sign the deal.) On a subsequent trip to Washington in March, Ghani asked Obama to keep the troops there even longer and vowed to form a more inclusive and less corrupt government in Kabul.
Second, with Ghani’s assurances in mind, Obama ordered the Pentagon’s review of the US military presence, asking those who lead it to look at Afghanistan not so much as this country where we have been waging a war for 13 years. years but, more, as one of several partners in a global counterterrorism strategy – in this case, against the Taliban, the remnants of Al Qaeda and the jihadists of the Islamic State who had started to appear in the region.
Once a foreign military engagement is made, it doesn’t take much to get troop levels up to around 5,000. An officer of the Pentagon, experienced in special operations forces, calculates that it would take a few thousand for counterterrorism operations, a few thousand to continue to train and advise the Afghan army, a thousand to staff a headquarters and nearly ‘one thousand for “protection of force”, that is, for the armed forces whose job it is to defend other American servicemen.
The third factor, which hangs over the nearly 14-year war in Afghanistan (and which plays a big part in the “Hotel California rule”), is that the US military is not very good at train the native armies. in countries facing threats from within and without. (See also South Vietnam and Iraq, among others.)
Military training is more complicated than many realize. Granted, the Taliban, al-Qaida, and ISIS do not require advanced training for its recruits, so one often wonders, why should the Afghan or Iraqi military do this? But the two tasks are different. Insurgents can attack when and where they choose; if faced with force, they can withdraw and attack elsewhere. On the other hand, the armies defending the government must be strong and ready everywhere, or they must have the means to move quickly from one place to another.
So training is not just about teaching soldiers how to shoot straight and maneuver on a battlefield (which American trainers do well). While the goal is to leave the fighting entirely to the local armed forces, training should also include teaching them how to conduct and call air strikes, collect intelligence and apply it to tactical operations, quickly move soldiers from zone to zone (which involves piloting helicopters or small transport planes), supplying soldiers with supplies when deployed away from the base (logistics) and planning operations at the strategic level or at the theater scale.
Doing all of these things is beyond the capabilities of the US infantry or special operations forces assigned to a training mission. In other words, the way we train now, it may never be possible to make our client-armies completely self-sufficient.
John Nagl, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, has long called for the creation of a special advisory body, units whose sole task would be to advise, train and assist foreign military forces. These advisers would come to a war zone not only with combat skills but also with a mastery of the local language and culture. They would help local senior officers set up and operate a headquarters. They would help senior officials to do the same in the defense ministry. And, as Nagl envisions, not only would they train troops on a base, but they would also integrate small units of those troops on the battlefield.
Nagl’s idea never found favor with his military or political superiors when he first pushed it 10 to 15 years ago. The generals opposed it because they did not want to distract good soldiers from traditional combat missions, especially since the ranks of the army were already shrinking. Some politicians pretended to be up to the idea, but in the end they bought into the brass – and those who looked closer were uncomfortable with the fine print. The idea of embedding American advisers with local troops brought up dark memories of Vietnam – and Nagl explicitly recognized that in the types of unstable countries where these advisers were likely to be deployed, they would have to stay on board and advise for a long, long time.
Few politicians, officers or ordinary American citizens want to integrate the current teams of American advisers alongside Afghan troops (or Iraqi troops or Syrian rebels) in combat, and for good reason. But Nagl may be right: It is very difficult – it could be almost impossible – for the local troops to win, if the advice and assistance stop halfway.
Again, there are other reasons for the training failure, and they have little to do with the lack of a specialized US advisory body. In many of the wars of insurgency we have fought in over the past decades, the local elites – who sign up to be our allies – are corrupt or incompetent to rule their countries. Local soldiers feel little loyalty to their commanders or leaders, while insurgent rebels are highly motivated by their cause. No matter how well Americans – or foreigners – might train and advise such soldiers, they are unlikely to win because they have no desire to risk dying while fighting.
This was certainly the case when the Iraqi soldiers – trained by the best Americans at a cost of billions – fled after the first shot when they were attacked by ISIS marauders in Mosul. Likewise, the fate of the Afghan National Army will depend less on the thoroughness of American training than on the degree to which President Ghani cleans up Karzai’s corruption. In late 2009, when President Obama sent more troops to fight in Afghanistan, senior American officers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, who was commanding officer at the time, testified that if the corruption persisted, the Taliban would win, regardless of how many American troops joined the fight. The same is true now.
For all these reasons, President Obama is wary of military adventures. He sent more troops to Afghanistan, giving his commanders a chance to try out a new war strategy; when it didn’t work out as quickly as they said it would, he withdrew the troops and ended the combat mission. He has decided to keep 5,500 coaches, advisers and counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan longer than he originally planned because the new Afghan president wants them there, has signed a treaty to keep them there and is committed to leading an inclusive government – and because the Afghan military is not ready to go it alone. The principle is to leave it to the next American president to decide whether the commitment is still worth it. But we should not be deluded on one point: the Afghan army will not be ready to go it alone for a long time and the United States is not ready to do otherwise.
Correction, October 20, 2015: This article originally misquoted the last line of the Eagles song “Hotel California”. It’s’ You can check whenever you want, but you can never leave ‘, not’ You can check when you want. ” (To return to.)