A program to train Syrian rebels is the most public failure in the multi-billion-dollar effort to advance U.S. interests through local militias, but far from the only one.
Starting with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan early last decade, the U.S. was determined to create and support anti-terrorist forces without committing troops indefinitely. Under President Barack Obama, The New York Times pointed out Saturday, the practice is now “at the center” of American military policy. (RELATED: Obama’s New Syria Strategy Is To Give More People More Guns)
After $500 million spent on the Syrian rebel program, U.S.-backed forces number in the single or double digits and face constant setbacks.
But post-occupation, Iraqi and Afghan forces have struggled to maintain control against Islamic State and the Taliban. In the case of Afghanistan, the past week has seen back-and-forth fighting over Kunduz, the first city U.S. forces captured from the Taliban in 2001. (RELATED: America’s First 2001 Foothold In Afghanistan Falls To Taliban)
Other revelations have raised questions about the U.S.’ long-term priorities in Afghanistan, including the recent dismissal of an officer for confronting a U.S.-trained warlord who kept underage boys as sex slaves.
The failures are also evident further afield: the Time highlights expensive U.S. training programs in Africa’s northwestern Sahel region and in Yemen. Projects “stretching from Morocco to Chad” have brought over $600 million in government funds with few clear results, at a time when Mali and other countries have become hotspots for African extremism, including outright competition for influence between Islamic State and al-Qaida.
And Yemen, once hailed as a “model” for U.S. counterterrorism, has descended into a messy Saudi-led and U.S.-supported bombing campaign that has killed over 1,000 civilians. Last week, Saudi Arabia successfully pressured the U.S. and its Western allies to drop an investigation into human rights violations in the six-month-old Yemeni war.
Writing in The Washington Post last week, former Army officer and military scholar Phillip Carter affirmed that the “security assistance” programs that have dominated U.S. counterterrorism policy rely on a flawed assumption: “that others will achieve what we want but will not do ourselves.” In efforts to minimize direct harm to U.S. troops and assets, he wrote, the military puts too much trust in the idea that equipment and training will establish the will to fight where it does not necessarily exist.
And in Foreign Policy, columnist Rosa Brooks laid out a set of taboos for future train-and-equip missions — don’t try to create a will to fight where none exists, don’t break existing social ties that bind, don’t simultaneously try to use corrupt networks while fighting the corruption that sustains them — and landed on a simple, bipartisan doctrine: “If our objectives differ significantly from those of our partners, either commit to using our own military forces to achieve them or find a non-military solution.”
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