As President Obama and his national security team debate strategy for the war in Afghanistan, some of the options on the table involve a greater focus on training and strengthening the Afghan security forces. To an American public — and an administration — that may be reluctant to send more troops to a faltering, eight-year war, the notion of helping the Afghans fight for themselves could seem particularly attractive.
But it's an appeal that should be tempered. In a recent essay published by the security-focused Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., Robert Haddick, managing editor of the Small Wars Journal, reviews American experiences helping foreign security forces. Though he believes such initiatives will be a "growth business" in the years ahead, Haddick contends that if U.S. policymakers hope such foreign forces can be a "competent and reliable substitute" for U.S. military personnel, they will "frequently find themselves disappointed."
In the essay, titled "The Promise and Perils of Security Force Assistance," Haddick outlines three critical obstacles. First, the government happily receiving the help may not necessarily support Washington's goals. For example, until recently, "Pakistan steered billions in U.S. security assistance to guard against India rather than to suppress Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border as the U.S. sought," Haddick writes.
Second, building and maintaining national security forces is expensive, and there is no guarantee that the governments in question can maintain those forces over time. Military education is essential to developing a competent and confident cadre of officers, but building such institutions takes "decades of sustained effort and funding," Haddick writes. In Afghanistan, he cautions, "government revenues are a fraction of what will be needed" to pay for expanded security forces, meaning that Afghanistan could become "a permanent ward of the U.S. long after U.S. combat forces have departed."
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Haddick, a former Marine Corps officer, also notes that today's security partner could become tomorrow's rival. He recalls how the United States indirectly assisted Afghan militias fighting the Soviets in the 1980s — only to see some of the same groups fighting against U.S. forces today.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recent assessment of the Afghan war included a call for boosting the Afghan army from 92,000 to 134,000 troops within a year and expanding it more in the future, and for doubling the police force. But even shifting to a support, training and advising mission wouldn't significantly reduce the combat risk to U.S. forces, Haddick said in an e-mail. "Training occurs on both bases and in the field, followed by long 'apprenticeships' in combat. U.S. trainers, advisers, support personnel and partner units will need to be with Afghans for all of these steps, which will be nearly indistinguishable from direct combat by U.S. forces."
So in the end, training may be just another fighting word.