Make Allies, Not Kill Lists

Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing did little more than reveal the Senate Armed Services Committee's myopic obessions.

Hagel banner2.jpg
Larry Downing/Reuters

Viewers of Thursday's confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel can be forgiven for thinking they were watching a years-old C-SPAN rerun. The importance of America's intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated initial questioning. Then the war in Iraq was debated. In the end, the issue that most concerned senators from both parties was Hagel's loyalty to Israel.

During an eight-hour hearing, the difficult decisions that the U.S. military now faces received scant attention. Vast budget cuts loom. Suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are appallingly high. Diverse security threats ranging from Iran to cyber-attacks to al Qaeda in North Africa must be countered.

Overall, a more nimble, modern and smaller American military is needed, but you heard little of that in Thursday's marathon hearing.

The senators would have benefited from a conversation with a retired American Green Beret whom I interviewed earlier this week. After serving in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, he has a unique view on the strengths -- and limits -- of U.S. military power. His advice was simple. Long-term training of foreign military forces is more effective and less costly than deploying large numbers of American ground forces.

"It's the cheapest and the best solution in the long term," he told me.

Failures, of course, happen. Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, points out that billions of dollars have been spent on a largely failed effort to create a professional police force in Afghanistan. Peter Singer, an expert at the Brookings Institution, correctly argues that the key issue is our relationship with foreign governments, not how much military training we provide.

"We need to move beyond the assumption," Singer said in an email. "that training someone in our system somehow creates any perfect alignment between our geostrategic interests and their local political interests. It wasn't true during the Cold War and isn't true today."

I agree. But as Congress debates harsh Pentagon cuts, it is important to look at new forms of military power. In a December article in Foreign Affairs, journalist Linda Robinson described Washington's unprecedented reliance on Special Operations Forces. As identifying, locating and attacking suspected terrorists and insurgents has grown, U.S. Special Operations budgets have soared from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The number of Special Operations Forces fielded by the U.S. is 63,000 and rising.

Robinson argues that American policymakers have become too reliant on "kill and capture" raids and drone strikes known as "direct action." She said there is a "misperception" in Washington that pinpoint attacks "avoid prolonged, messy wars."

"In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States," Robinson wrote. "...special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy."

Robinson called for more training of local forces, known in military parlance as "indirect action." She cited long-term Special Operations Forces training missions in the Philippines and Colombia as success stories. In 2001, American Special Forces began training the Filipino soldiers who targeted the Abu Sayyaf militant group. American soldiers were barred from engaging in combat, but they played a central role in a raid that freed some kidnap victims and killed the group's leader.

Fifteen years after the Clinton administration launched its $7.5 billion "Plan Colombia," the effort has helped Bogota weaken the country's FARC guerrillas, who have forsworn kidnapping, released many prisoners and begun peace talks. Violence is down and cocaine production has dropped by 72 percent since 2001, according to Robinson. Today, Colombian commandos trained by U.S. forces are training counter-narcotics units in Central American and Mexico.

Some American training efforts, though, have gone badly wrong. Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report documenting systematic abuses of pro-democracy activists in Yemen by local security forces, some of whom had received U.S. training. The International Federation for Human Rights reported last week that soldiers from the Malian Army - which also received U.S. training - had executed at least 11 people in Sevare after retaking the town from Islamists forces.

More broadly, an American-trained Malian army captain carried out a coup last year that destabilized the country and opened the door for Islamists to gain control of the north. Skepticism of the Malian army's ability to gain public confidence or simply become an effective fighting force against militants is rampant.

The former Green Beret, who spent extensive time in Mali training local soldiers, said the training effort was too limited. He said U.S. Green Berets on average trained Malian units for six-week sessions. High turnover in the Malian units and lack of basic items for soldiers -- from vehicles to weapons to food -- made progress difficult.

In neighboring Chad, American Special Operations Forces lived with Chadian military units for six-month periods and achieved better results.

"You need that 365, 24-hour-a day presence if you want to make a difference," he said.

Robinson agreed in an email, arguing that the training was "episodic" in Mali. I agree with Robinson and the retired soldier, to an extent.

Training by U.S. Special Forces is not a cure-all. Unless local governments share American strategic goals and political values, training their forces is a waste of time and resources.

So was Thursday's Senate hearing. The United States faces serious questions about how, where and whether to wage war. The senators performed poorly. So did Hagel.

As the U.S. military shrinks, its training capacity is more important than its ICBM arsenal. The fact that more U.S. soldiers committed suicide  than died in combat last year is more important than re-litigating Iraq. While Israel is an important ally, the United States needs allies across the Middle East to counter a reduced but still real terrorist threat.

Technology is not a replacement for a committed ally. Investing in allies will lead them to invest in us.

This post also appears at, an Atlantic partner site.