Battlefield reverses in Iraq and the stepped-up tempo of terrorist strikes in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital in recent days are raising fresh questions about whether U.S. efforts to stand up and train both countries’ armed forces will ever pay off militarily.
Military experts say the Islamic State’s ability to drive Iraqi Security Forces out of Ramadi shows that Iraqis are not yet effective enough to defend their own country, despite billions of dollars spent by U.S. taxpayers to prepare them for the task.
And while U.S. officials anticipated this year’s Taliban “spring offensive” would prove a major challenge in Afghanistan, the frequency and fierceness of attacks has grown so intense in Kabul that analysts are beginning to question whether Afghan security forces would be able to fend off an all-out assault on the city in the coming years.
A suicide car bombing Tuesday outside the Afghan Ministry of Justice — the third major strike in the capital in barely a week — rattled windows across the Afghan capital. The massive blast came just days after a similar suicide attack on a European Union Police Mission convoy and roughly a week after Taliban gunmen killed 14 people — including an American — at a guesthouse popular with foreigners.
“What makes this year different from past spring offensives,” said Michael Kugelman, an analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, is that “Afghan security forces are for the first time fighting on their own without significant support from U.S. or other foreign troops.”
“The Taliban wants to take advantage of that vulnerability and push harder,” he added.
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In both countries, clashes between the Obama administration and the leaders in power at the time — Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan — undercut efforts to forge professional military forces that could take the fight to the enemy.
Sean McFate, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said Mr. al-Maliki, who stepped down in 2014 after eight years in office, “severely crippled” the Iraqi army after Mr. Obama withdrew all U.S. combat troops, removing a lot of the top-level commanders whom he felt threatened by, and appointing political allies who didn’t have the experience to lead troops. U.S. money and U.S. advisers couldn’t create an army that could fight.
“We just basically gave out uniforms, gave out weapons and said you’re now Iraqi soldiers,” he said. “That’s simply insufficient to create a security force, which is why they crumbled.”
Mr. Kugelman said Afghan national troops are similarly being tested by the Taliban this spring now that most U.S. and international combat troops have been withdrawn. And despite some $60.7 billion appropriated by Congress to equip, train and pay salaries for the Afghan army and police force over the past decade, Mr. Kugelman said it’s clear the Afghan forces are struggling.
“They’ve improved in many ways over the years in terms of their ability to fight, but, at the same time, it’s still an extremely troubled group of fighters,” Mr. Kugelman said. “Many are suffering from drug abuse. There is rampant illiteracy among them and high desertion rates.”
The U.S. has spent more than $400 million to train and equip Iraqi forces since returning to the country in late 2014, Cmdr. Elissa Smith, Pentagon spokeswoman, said. That’s in addition to the $25 billion the U.S. spent during the Iraq War to train Iraqi soldiers before pulling out of the country in 2011, according to a New York Times report.
Ramadi, the site of a hard-won victory for American forces in the Iraq War, fell to the Islamic State over the weekend as Iraqi forces fled the city, leaving behind about 100 wheeled vehicles and dozens of tracked vehicles, including some artillery, Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said.
Col. Warren acknowledged a lack of leadership among Iraqi forces is at least partly to blame for the rout in Ramadi.
“It was a failure of a lot of things, leadership being one of them, tactics being one of them. It’s important to note that war is a fluid thing,” he told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
It’s not the first time Iraqi troops have failed to perform on the battlefield. Iraqi Security Forces collapsed in June when the Islamic State seized Mosul, which they continue to hold nearly a year later. And while Iraqi soldiers ultimately succeeded in reclaiming Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, the battle lasted longer and was more difficult than many anticipated.
Col. Warren said the Iraqi forces that were previously trained by U.S. troops “deteriorated significantly” between when American troops left the country and the Islamic State’s rise last year. Despite that, he insisted that renewed U.S.-led training has helped troops get better.
“We have seen an improvement. We have seen the Iraqi Security Forces conduct several very successful operations over the course of the last six months throughout Iraq,” he said. “The capabilities are increasing, but they still have a ways to go, there’s no question about it.”
The U.S. has trained about 7,000 Iraqis, with between 3,000 to 4,000 currently going through the training program. Col. Warren said the U.S. does not track where the graduates go and could not say if any of the trained forces were at Ramadi.
Shiite militias, some backed by Iran, are now heading to Ramadi to help retake the city, despite concerns that could spark further sectarian conflict in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also vowed Tuesday to arm Sunni tribesmen to help retake Ramadi, a plan the United States has encouraged, though the pledge met skepticism from Sunnis after similar promises last summer were barely implemented, The Associated Press reported.
In the short term, the U.S. can either rely on foreign militaries like Iran to take over the fight for Iraq or put its own boots on the ground — both “less than ideal” options for the U.S., Mr. McFate said.
Another Afghan spring offensive
A Taliban military offensive as Afghanistan’s winter snows melt has been an annual feature of the guerrilla war, but the front-line role of Afghanistan’s own forces makes the 2015 clashes particularly noteworthy.
“In the vacuum of all this military leaving, I’m not surprised the Taliban is making trouble,” said Claude Rakisits, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Away from Kabul, they’ve basically got open-pitched battles going on with tanks on the Taliban side.”
“It’s really serious,” he added. “The bottom line — and I’m sure the Obama administration doesn’t want to hear this, because psychologically they want out of Afghanistan — is that 100,000 international troops weren’t able to defeat the Taliban for more than 10 years, so how do you expect 10,000 advisory troops can make a difference in terms of the Afghan military’s capability in that fight today?”
President Obama made headlines in March by slowing U.S. troop pullout plans — saying he will keep roughly 10,000 American forces on the ground into 2016. But the troops, along with a smaller contingent from NATO, are there in a purely advisory role, not for combat.
The withdrawal of Western forces prompted increased maneuvering by regional powers, with Pakistan and China leading the charge.
Islamabad, which once backed the Afghan Taliban and is seen to retain influence over the group, is now seeking tighter relations with the Afghan government of new Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani. Spy agencies from the two nations signed a memorandum Tuesday to begin joint intelligence operations against militants along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But it remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s long-term goal is to help Afghan security forces fight against the Afghan Taliban or make peace with the group. Analysts say China is pushing for the latter approach.
China has significant economic investments in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there were reports in January that Chinese officials had gone so far as to invite Taliban representatives to Beijing in hopes of spurring a peace process in Kabul.
But the surge in violence gripping the city this month makes such prospects seem out of reach. At a minimum, the suicide bombings are bedeviling Mr. Ghani’s new government, which came to power last year calling for peace talks with the Taliban as U.S. and other foreign troops pull out of the nation.
While Mr. Kugelman said the current attacks show the Taliban remains “very much a force to be reckoned with,” he argued that the specter of an all-out assault to take Kabul is unlikely in the near term.
“We should not mistake all these suicide attacks that have been going on as a sign that the Taliban is about to sweep back into power,” he said. “You could argue that these attacks are more an indication of weakness than strength — that the Taliban knows it’s not in a position to seize large amounts of land. So it is instead relying on these one-off, media-attracting suicide attacks to convey the impression that it can operate with impunity.”
A true Taliban siege would likely take years to unfold, added Mr. Rakisits.
“Things are not looking that great, and the nightmare scenario could see the Taliban eventually take over Kabul, let’s say in two or three years,” he said. “That would mean the Pakistani Taliban would have a friendly government in Kabul, from where they can launch attacks back into Pakistan. That’s why Islamabad wants to try to make all this fighting stop.
“There are a lot of moving parts to this.”