Building Armies: A Historical Reflection

As America prepares to send an additional 1,000 trainers to train and equip the Free Syrian Army, and in the aftermath of American forces assisting the Iraqi Army coming under fire, many questions about the correct “Building Partner Capacity” method will begin to emerge from an impatient public. Still unsure why exactly the Iraqi Army America built suddenly disintegrated in front of Mosul six months ago, and now questioning if the brave, but small Afghan National Army can halt Taliban aggression in the southern provinces, Americans, especially those of the “War on Terror by proxy” strategy, will have to question whether states like Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. can restore the sovereignty of their governments and neutralize their insurgencies with state armies American spends millions, if not billions, to train and equip. For that matter it is also unclear whether America can create a Syrian Army capable of not only overthrowing President Assad, but also chucking out Jabhat al Nusra and Daesh from the restored borders of Syria.

Historically speaking, the examples of successfully creating an victorious military are few and far between. The best example that comes to mind is the sudden and overwhelming Croatian-Bosnian counteroffensives of summer 1995, Operations Storm and Mistral II in particular, which broke the Bosnian-Serb hold on Northwestern Bosnia and demolished the Serbian Krajina in Croatia, dramatically overturning the fortunes of the besieged Croatian and Bosnian forces. Croatian forces, after suffering defeat at the hands of Serbian insurgents in 1991, had been given breathing space by a truce between Croatia and the rest of Yugoslavia as the fighting shifted into a contest for Bosnia, while the lifting of a western ban on arms sales to independent Croatia radically improved their arsenal. More vital, however, was the impact of a private military firm, Military Professional Resources Inc. or MPRI, which was dispatched by the United States to aid in the military development of the Croatian forces, and which provided tactical and operational planning and logistics training throughout 1994-1995. The Croatian offensives of that summer crushed the formerly-unbested Serbian forces (themselves many former Yugoslav Army professionals) in what was termed “an A+” offensive by the standards of the NATO War College.  Additional factors, including Serbian exhaustion, concurrent NATO airstrikes, and resurgent Bosnian forces certainly played a part as well.

This indeed might prove the exception rather than the rule. America has seen too many allies deflate under prolonged pressure from internal and external opponents, a factor due mostly to the requirements of building forces in post-colonial states ruled often by unpopular groups or elites that had prospered under colonial regimes. That these forces inherited some degree of European-inspired discipline, structure, and equipment from departing colonial masters seems a good start, but this pre-existing structure often creates more problems then it solves. Even with what seems like years of capability-building, there are limitations to what forces you cannot completely structure can do and cannot do, especially when it comes to leadership and personnel. If the unit commanders are selling their weapons, exaggerating their unit counts and pocketing personal profits, or soldiers feel as if they have no stake in the future, then it seems doubtful such forces will remain cogent for long.

Vietnam is a case in point: despite sometimes popular dismissal of the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (ARVN) by historians, the ARVN, as noted in Lewis Sorely’s A Better War did make some significant operational strides in traditional counter-insurgency, ending rocket attacks on Saigon and successfully repulsing (with American air support) the massive Easter 1972 Offensive. Yet, with the end of American involvement, South Vietnamese troops still faced many problems of command hierarchy: too many bad officers, who the United States could not remove, meant that planning, command and control, and intelligence faltered because of internal rivalries and failures of political confidence in the leadership. While arguably the continued presence of American assets and arms aid might have turned the tide, the South Vietnamese Army remained politically split and its commanders demonstrated mixed competence in the face of the renewed North Vietnamese attacks which led to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Tactical improvement by South Vietnamese forces could do much to halt the North Vietnamese in the short term, but operational support and planning, as well as strategic vision, failed.

Echoes of this were felt in Iraq last summer, when a corrupt and over-politicized Army, even with the best gear available, collapsed when attacked by a smaller, but politically motivated force. Institutional culture which stresses professional ethics, to use Huntington’s phrase, cannot be replaced even by the appearance of modernity: an army’s whole is greater then the sum of its gear.

The ethnic homogeneity of Croatian forces, along with their improved operational capabilities, made them the more lethal then the divided and unwieldy conception of Iraqi nationhood in a country with deep social clefts struggling to simply hold together. The goal of Croatian forces was to liberate the krajina from Serbian rule and restore it to Croatian sovereignty, while the goal of the Iraqi Army was to act as a stabilizing force to civilian rule in a country that had recently seen occupation and a civil war. Yet as civilian rule teetered due to internal division and Maliki’s increasing autocracy, the divided Army fell back to religious, ethnic, and tribal loyalties while acting as a vehicle for racketeering.

Those forces that have had greater successes against Daesh represent a sectional interest: Peshmerga forces have the unifying goal and support of the resources of an autonomous Kurdish region, and are more unified due to their cultural affinity. That they and their counterparts in Syria have been viewed favorably in the west has much to do with their resilience and resistance when it appeared that Maliki’s forces were crumbling. Then again, as we feed the Peshmerga, an ethnic militia, so then does Iranian Revolutionary Qods soldiers build up Shi’a Sadrist “Peace Brigades” which are opposing Daesh in the Baghdad belts and around the road to Samarra. The Iraqi Army, the supposedly pan-national defender of the collective good, has likely been a recent focus of training efforts in order to shut out further Iranian influence and enable the Army to act independent of the Peace Brigades, who augur political agendas beyond defending the Sh’ia holy sites.

It is perhaps unsurprising that entire Iraqi divisions simply evaporated, but then again the recent monopoly on violence by state-administered armies is something of a historical anomaly; the Iraqi Army’s internal corruption, military entrepreneurship (selling commissions), and false on-paper strengths was common in European militaries before the conception of ethnic or territorial nationalism inspired the armies of Revolutionary France, or institutional loyalties were cemented in professional soldiers by state pensions, staff colleges, and meritocratic promotion systems (or at least their semblance).  Most of this is fairly recent (200 years) in “western” military culture, and harder still in areas where nationalism has had mixed results. The pan-religious “Arab” nationalism of both Iraqi and Syrian Ba’athism increasingly died in favor of the rule of the dictator of a minority ethnic or tribal group, bolstered by an army led and comprised almost totally by that same minority. Ethnic homogeneity has it’s benefits where institutions do not, as perhaps blood is thicker than water, in terms of trust and loyalty needed to sustain tactical discipline and then operational command.

This emphasizes an important point: an “national” army, especially composed of various ethnic components, has to know what it is fighting for, from Generals down to Privates, and to have a strong moral or institutional cause to keep it together. While, to quote Tennyson, their’s may not be “to reason why”, the whole of the military has to be conscious of both duty to their military institution (with the disciplines inherent and the rewards it will bring) and/or the purpose and virtue of their cause. To lack one is bad, but to lack both is fatal. It is the essential illness leads to the symptoms of collapse, including poor discipline, corruption, faulty logistics, desertion, and unprofessional rivalries in the leadership. If there isn’t something concrete enough to fight for (or a strong institutional discipline or loyalty), why should an army stick around to be killed? Throughout history, from Sun Tzu to Patton, a unifying spirit throughout the leadership and the whole of the army (and iron discipline, punishments, and exhortation to reinforce it) has consistently proven to be vital to success against great odds.

This remains to me the most troubling unanswered question of the Coalition train and equip program for Syria. To what “national” end are we creating this “moderate” Syrian army? To defeat and edge out the jihadists (destroying Daesh’s rear areas in Eastern Syria)? To decisively defeat the Assad regime? To counterbalance Iranian and Hezbollah’s influence? Some combination of all three? All of these things are good strategic reasons for the United States and its allies, but what about for the Free Syrian Army leadership? What is their first priority (and will they be willing to ally with radicals to achieve it)? What will FSA soldiers fight for and will be willing to die for? Will they be able to accomplish their aims without considerable aid from the west (a no-fly zone for one)? Will they be able to not only defeat their opponents but lay the foundations for a successful post-war government?

This would be hard enough to do organically, but harder still when fabricated from abroad. Either we seek to instill an alien system which is not feasible resource-wise or is culturally unfamiliar or we build the cadres as they already exist and then have to suffer them good or bad. Both will take time and resources to see them through. We do not seek a replay of the Bay of Pigs, nor do we seek to indiscreetly export violence as we did to Afghanistan in the 1980s, but finding a line between the two is difficult, especially as pressure is mounting to do something decisive to end the stalemate. Yet, it is important to remember that in prolonged Civil Wars, victory historically has gone to the resilient, not the explosive.

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