The Pentagon has invested two decades of time and untold manpower to train Afghan security forces, while American taxpayers have spent tens of billions of dollars providing direct financial assistance and military equipment for the effort.
The radical Islamist Taliban insurgents have received no such help, yet the two sides now control about the same number of districts across Afghanistan. The Taliban are poised to capture even more territory as their fighters encircle provincial capitals and the U.S. completes its military withdrawal.
That troubling reality, critics say, is the flawed premise that undergirds a massive, multiagency program to train and equip foreign military forces around the world. Despite noble intentions, it has proved virtually impossible to transfer American war-fighting spirit and skill to foreign troops even with much of the same equipment, similar instruction and nearly identical physical regimens.
Beyond the questionable battlefield results in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. foreign military training occasionally rears its head elsewhere for the wrong reasons. At least six of the former Colombian soldiers involved in the assassination this month of Haitian President Jovenel Moise reportedly received U.S. military training as part of Washington’s support for the Latin American war on drugs.
State Department officials say it’s unfair to blame U.S. training programs for the actions of a handful of foreign soldiers. Also, in plenty of high-profile instances, U.S. service members have committed violent crimes using some of the tactics they learned in military training.
But specialists argue that programs for foreign militaries, on the whole, don’t produce the promised results and in many cases create far more problems than they solve.
“No one really examines the fundamental question, which is really important: How does this advance American national security? We’ve been doing it for so long, but what’s the payoff?” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the Washington foreign policy think tank Defense Priorities who worked on a military team that trained Iraqi forces after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“My personal experience? I saw literally no difference” in the foreign troops before or after U.S. training, he said. “From the time we got there to the time we left, it was like kids in a summer camp. … It was adventure training. They weren’t taking it seriously.
“It doesn’t work, so it needs to just stop because it’s a complete waste of time and money,” he said.
‘The capacity to fight’
The U.S. spent vast amounts of money training Iraqi security forces, but huge swaths of the country fell under the control of the Islamic State group after a major drawdown of American troops a decade ago under President Obama. The Pentagon also launched a nearly $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to battle ISIS fighters. The program produced its first batch of 54 graduates in 2015, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, then serving as the head of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged to Congress at the time that only four or five remained on the battlefield when the fighting began.
In Afghanistan, the price tag has been dramatically higher. Since its invasion in October 2001, the U.S. has spent at least $88 billion directly on training, equipping and funding Afghan military and police forces, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. Allied governments have also set up extensive training programs for Afghan security personnel to complement the U.S. effort.
The real dollar figure is likely much higher, and the costs will continue mounting after the U.S. exits. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces have taken part in the training.
Nevertheless, the Taliban have scored significant victories over Afghan security forces in recent months. Reports said some regular Afghan troops abandoned their posts and ceded U.S.-supplied weaponry and supplies to the advancing Taliban forces.
Pentagon leaders stand by the U.S. training and say the fight for Afghanistan‘s future is far from over. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that the Afghan troops should be ready to defend their country.
“The Afghan security forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country. And we will continue to support the Afghan security forces where necessary,” Gen. Milley said. “The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people.”
Afghan security forces have kept the Taliban from overrunning any provincial capitals, but insurgent fighters surround many key population centers. The Taliban are widely expected to launch a major, multipronged offensive against those cities once the U.S. withdrawal is fully complete, and many foreign policy analysts think much of the country will fall to the insurgents.
Despite Gen. Milley’s insistence that the Afghan forces are prepared to fight on their own, Pentagon officials confirmed Thursday that the U.S. in recent days launched a series of airstrikes against Taliban targets. A defense official told The Associated Press that at least two of the airstrikes targeted artillery and vehicles that the Taliban captured from Afghan forces.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. had provided that equipment.
Foreign training efforts in long-standing war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan receive most of the attention, but U.S. programs extend to virtually all corners of the world.
In fiscal year 2018, at least 62,700 students from 155 countries took part in U.S. training programs at a cost of $776.3 million, according to the most recent State Department report on the subject. In 2020, the Defense Department reportedly trained at least 31,000 foreign military students and had military advisers in more than a dozen foreign nations.
In more recent years, some foreign-based trainees have been caught in the middle of major geopolitical disputes. In 2019, the U.S. sent home Turkish students who were learning to fly the F-35 fighter jet. The U.S. kicked Turkey out of the lucrative program after Ankara bought the Russian-made S-400 missile system.
In other instances, military training programs have been connected with tragedy. Saudi aviation student Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani in 2019 opened fire at Florida’s Naval Air Station Pensacola, killing three people and wounding eight others. The incident sparked an outcry on Capitol Hill and led to a full-scale Pentagon review of all foreign military training programs.
Additional screening protocols of foreign military students are now in place.
That was hardly the first time U.S. policymakers imposed new rules on foreign training programs. In the late 1990s, Congress tightened foreign military training with the Leahy Law, named after Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. The law put more limits on which countries could work with the U.S. and prohibited nations with track records of human rights abuses from receiving training.
The legislation was aimed at training for Latin American countries. Colombian forces have received a great deal of U.S. military training for decades.
U.S. officials confirmed last week that at least six former Colombian soldiers with American military training were involved in the assassination of the Haitian president. Biden administration officials said there was no indication that U.S. assistance directly contributed to the killing.
“In accordance with U.S. law, we vet all individuals who attend U.S.-funded training based on available information and assess the proposed training against the background of the units and individuals involved, the context in which the training is sought, and U.S. national security interests,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times. “The actions an individual may take years or decades after attending a course is beyond the U.S. government’s ability to predict.
“With regards to these specific individuals, we do not believe there is any nexus between the U.S.-provided training they received in the past and their alleged actions in Haiti,” the spokesperson said. “On the contrary, all U.S. training emphasizes the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights.”