Why the Afghan Army Folded

America has historically struggled to train foreign militaries.

Afghan soldiers train at a military-training center outside Kabul.
Shah Marai / AFP / Getty

The United States has spent $83 billion training, equipping, and even paying Afghanistan’s security forces since 2001, a mammoth amount. As the events of the past few days make clear, despite all that assistance, Afghanistan’s military and police have proved incapable of securing the country. Many analysts of the war anticipated the government failing to withstand Taliban assaults, but were surprised by the speed of the collapse, which is both a terrible tragedy for Afghanistan and a failure of American military training programs.

The U.S. history of training foreign militaries isn’t particularly impressive. Reconstruction of the German and Japanese militaries during the Cold War was a great success, but those countries had military traditions as well as recent experiences of military excellence. Other cases were not so straightforward. Some took a protracted period to exhibit progress; South Korea’s military struggled to root out corruption before becoming the superb fighting force it now is. Some, such as Plan Colombia, which assisted Colombian government forces in controlling an insurgency, were very positive. Programs in the Balkans during the wars of Yugoslav succession, in the 1990s, have a more mixed track record. A few have been disastrous: The School of the Americas, a training facility in Georgia for Latin American soldiers, became notorious for producing dictators and militaries that committed war crimes.

Why is it so difficult for the U.S. to train foreign military forces?

First, American soldiers training counterparts abroad operate in very different political and social conditions than does the U.S. military. As the retired General Michael Nagata, the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command-Central, recently told me, “We don’t have to teach American soldiers to obey the law, not to take bribes, to respect human rights; they come into our force having internalized those things already.” We try to create militaries in our image, and that’s often not congruent with the political and social circumstances in which those forces are operating.

Second, many of the leaders of the forces we’re training have different objectives for their militaries than we do. As the political scientist Rachel Tecott has argued, “Leaders facing societal upheaval, insurgency and civil war often prioritize preventing coups, consolidating political power, personal enrichment or personal survival above the strength of their nation’s military.” That can lead to higher rates of corruption within the force, as political leaders seek to encourage military officers (and society at large) not to revolt. As the work of the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson demonstrates, corruption is a rational political as well as economic choice in many societies, even though it delegitimizes the government to its own people.

All that’s even before you get to the challenges of training soldiers, many of whom are illiterate or surmounting divisive ethnic, religious, or tribal distinctions.

In sum, the degree of difficulty is extraordinarily high. We ought perhaps to marvel that such programs ever succeed, not that they mostly fail.

But our efforts to train foreign militaries also fail because of shortcomings particular to American policy choices. The U.S. tends to undertake large-scale train-and-equip programs when we don’t want to do the fighting ourselves; that has been the story in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sending that signal heartens adversaries and weakens the very forces we’re attempting to help. We convey the limits of our intentions.

The same message is transmitted by assigning the training task solely to the military. The surges of military forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to have civilian counterparts. Remember General Stanley McChrystal claiming that we were bringing “government in a box” to Afghanistan when he took over command of allied forces there? Neither surge, in Iraq or Afghanistan, delivered on its aims to strengthen civilian governance, which is essential for military training programs not to outpace and thereby undermine their civilian counterparts.

Many U.S. training programs are also unsuccessful because we engage in short-term deployments that make it difficult to establish long-term influence. American military leaders seldom have tours longer than two years, and it’s been common for many units to have six-to-nine-month rotations in Afghanistan. By contrast, Iran—a country very good at training foreign forces, having successfully done so in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, to name a few—has relationships spanning decades. About the only time the U.S. even begins to get traction on longer-term partnerships is when military students participate in American command and staff colleges, and those are few in number.

Many experts on security assistance argue for making U.S. military assistance conditional, denying further support unless the policies we advocate are taken up. This approach has three drawbacks. The first is that militaries we might want to influence would refuse. We’re not doing other countries a favor in providing assistance; we’re doing it so that we don’t have to fight their wars.

The second is that denying assistance has consequences for us: We want other militaries to be strong enough to control their own territory and contribute to international missions. They will be less capable of doing so without U.S. military training and assistance. If you think the Afghan security forces are showing weakness now, imagine how they would have fared without years of American tutelage. (Moreover, those militaries cut off from U.S. assistance are likely to get the help they need from other sources, creating relationships detrimental to our interests. Pakistan’s military is deeply anti-American in part because of us cutting off assistance after Islamabad’s nuclear test. They sought help elsewhere, and we’re still reaping the consequences of it.)

The third problem with conditionality is that scared people rarely make brave choices. American assistance gives them the heart and confidence to stand their ground. Baghdad strikes deals with Iranian-backed militias because it believes it has no better choice than to accommodate the threat in Iraq’s midst. Afghan forces are compromising with the Taliban or surrendering because they think they have no other option.

And before castigating Afghan forces for those choices, remember that more than 69,000 Afghan police and soldiers have already been killed by the Taliban. We shouldn’t be surprised that many think the situation is hopeless after our abandonment and are surrendering. We should be amazed and respectful that any have volunteered to fight.