A few months ago, it was reported that the United States, having expended billions of dollars in Syria, training forces to fight Islamic State, had very little to show for it. Reports I saw varied wildly, with the most extreme suggesting that the United States had no more than five loyalist fighters - or, somewhat more believable, that most of the fighters they’d trained had simply defected to Islamic State when they were asked to fight the Islamists, rather than the Syrian Government. Reactions varied too, with accusations that President Obama was secretly collaborating with Islamic State being merged with the suggestion that no Muslim could possibly be trusted to fight Islamists. In short, the entire program was a complete failure.
The United States has rarely enjoyed success in raising local formations to fight America’s wars. In Iraq, early attempts to create an Iraqi Army and National Guard produced very limited results. Some units simply disintegrated when they were asked to go into combat, most notably in Fallujah, while others were rapidly infiltrated by religious fundamentalists and became militias. Shia-dominated units, in particular, wound up as nothing more than enforcement arms of Shia politicians, helping to prolong the war. And yet, during the Surge, America enjoyed a wave of success that, alas, was not capitalised on. What was different then?
Consider, if you will, a thought experiment. You are floating in the air over the White House, Washington DC, turning slowly so you can look in all directions. To the north, you have a peaceful ally; to the south, you have a containable problem; to the east and west you have vast oceans, presenting an impassable barrier to anyone wanting to invade the American coastline. You appear to be in a largely invulnerable position. Now, repeat the thought experiment while floating over Paris. All of a sudden, your position looks a great deal less secure; your eastern neighbour is having considerable problems with migrants, your neighbours on the other side of the Mediterranean are dangerously unstable and the EU, which you see as a way to buttress your position, is stumbling and may yet fall. The world looks profoundly different if you look at it from Paris, rather than Washington.
And if that’s true of first-world nations, why would it not be true of small local factions?
The problem facing the United States - in both the Middle East and Afghanistan - is that the world looks profoundly different to the locals. They do not, for example, have much respect for borders, hence the United States’ refusal to chase Taliban fighters over the border to Pakistan merely gives the insurgents useful safe havens. Nor do they agree, always, with the Americans when it comes to pointing at the enemy. The United States may be more concerned with Islamic State than the Syrian Regime, but the local fighters may have different ideas. To them, Islamic State is a potential ally while the Syrian Regime is a deadly threat. And that’s why so many fighters defected when asked to fight Islamic State.
But there is a greater problem facing the United States - and anyone who wishes to build up a force of local sepoys. The United States has a nasty reputation as an untrustworthy ally, a force that expects its allies to be willing to commit suicide on its behalf. This tends to create distrust among the locals, who are quite happy to take all they can get from the United States, but less willing to commit themselves. Because the United States has this reputation, the locals are always watching for the moment the United States pulls out and abandons them to their enemies. The United States manages, somehow, to be a permanent presence in the Middle East while being viewed as a transient power, one that will not be present after a certain point.
American politics influence this on both a macro and micro scale. On the micro scale, rules of engagement that hamper American forces, for example, convince the locals that the United States isn't actually sincere when it comes to supporting them. The absurd American insistence that irregulars comport themselves with great decency - a luxury allowed by vast American resources and technological capabilities - makes the locals roll their eyes - and decide, again, that the United States is not serious.
On the macro scale, things are worse. It is impossible to simplify the politics of the Middle East, let alone track how hundreds of different factions might interact. But consider this - the Kurds, not to put too fine a point on it, are the most loyal allies in the Middle East for the United States. However, they (understandably) want independence from the other powers in the region. This alienates them from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria ... and gives the United States a major problem when it tries to maintain a balancing act. Unsurprisingly, the United States is simply incapable of maintaining the balance, because the Kurds - and their enemies - are at such odds. Thus, even the Kurds watch the United States for signs of betrayal.
The key that made the Surge work was two-fold. First, the United States expanded its operations within Iraq, both moving additional combat troops into the country and settling up smaller patrol bases that made it easier to keep in touch with the local population. Second, the United States deliberately sought out allies among the Iraqi Sunnis (who had been marginalised during the Occupation, which drove them into the hands of AQ) and offered to support them. This forced the Shia to come to terms with the fact that the United States might have had enough of their blatant power grab and attempt to forge a power-sharing agreement with the Sunnis and Kurds. In short, the United States made a major commitment to Iraq’s future.
But it didn't last. The United States chose to pull out of Iraq once it looked as though the country was on the way to recovery, thus weakening its commitment before Iraq was truly ready to stand on its own. And now the United States is seen, once again, as a betrayer.
Americans have a tendency to think in terms of presidential eras. The Bush Era replaced the Clinton Era, only to be replaced in turn by the Obama Era. But the rest of the world does not see it that way! Stabilising Iraq called for a far longer commitment than was actually made and, in the end, the task was only half-done. Whatever Obama’s motivations in abandoning Iraq actually were, they don’t matter to the locals. All that matters to them is, once again, that the United States abandoned people who depended on it.
This stands in interesting contrast to Britain’s experience in both India and Malaya. Why was the British Empire so successful in raising sepoy troops?
As I see it, there were three major advantages that the United States lacks. First, there was never any genuine belief, at least not before 1919, that the British Empire would eventually collapse. The Raj’s administrators didn't think of themselves as building and exploiting a temporary edifice; they thought they were building something for the ages. And this attitude was passed on to their subordinates.
This gave the British Empire a major advantage. The bureaucracy they built gave countless natives a stake in the system. They could and did call on thousands of native officials to keep the system running, eventually transferring the system to the natives upon independence. It was that bureaucracy that made the counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya such a success - and it was the lack of such a support structure that destroyed British efforts in Iraq.
Second, British officers assigned to sepoy troops were expected to go as close to native as possible. They spoke the language of their men, they understood their concerns and, to a very large extent, shared their lives as much as possible. Indeed, the British Empire was quite happy to make use of native races it had defeated in battle. (Sikhs and Ghurkhas were very welcome in the Indian Army, allowing them a chance to win honour.) But they didn’t have any illusions about their men either. They saw nothing wrong in soldiers taking gruesome trophies from the battlefield, if they wished.
They also had a degree of freedom of action that would be inconceivable to any modern-day American (or British) officer. In the days before the internet, before radio, before telegraph messages, it could take weeks or months to send a message to London and get a response, by which time the problem on the ground could have become a great deal worse. The officers on the spot had vast authority to handle problems, which they often did successfully before London knew what was going on. These days, politicians in Washington (few of whom have any real experience with the military) try to micromanage military operations. Even with the best of intentions, the need to keep the politicians in the loop imposes a time delay, delays that could easily become fatal.
Third, the loyalty of local sepoys was returned. British officers looked after their men who, when they retired, were sure of a pension and a place of honour in their community. (India never hunted for collaborators after independence, unlike many other colonised countries.) This was, intentionally or otherwise, an investment; the British Crown looked after its subjects, so the subjects returned its loyalty.
These days, both America and Britain have shown little loyalty to the incredibly brave men and women who risked everything to serve beside western troops. It was hard, very hard, for an Iraqi or Afghani interpreter to get a visa to emigrate to Britain or America, even though his life was in considerable danger at every moment. The failure to protect one’s allies ensured that one would wind up with few allies - why should they join you, if you could not protect them?
With all of this in mind, how might we move forward?
Truthfully, I have seen nothing in America (or Britain) that suggests the government, Republican or Democrat, is capable of the long-term thinking it needs to solve the growing chaos in the Middle East. The prospect of putting together a force capable of occupying the Middle East, from Tunisia to Pakistan, is a dream (or a nightmare) that will never be realised, certainly not with the current political realities. And yet, with the Middle East collapsing, we need to do something to stem the chaos. Putting together a force composed of local fighters may be the only way to keep Islamic State from growing into a far greater threat.
And yet, doing it may be impossible, because locals see the world differently from outsiders.
There are measures we can take to encourage locals to sign up with us. We can promise immigration rights to people who serve us faithfully, even to the point of taking their wives and children out of the country beforehand. We can provide training that is more suitable to their needs, provide weapons and equipment they can actually use and provide air cover and other measures without worrying about absurd ROE. And we can put officers on the ground with the authority to make whatever calls are necessary without reference to Washington.
And we can try to understand that they may not share our concerns.
But we will still have to overcome the problem of our reputation. Over the years, Washington has betrayed and abandoned too many foreigners who trusted it. (Right now, even America’s oldest allies are doubtful of anything that comes out of Obama’s mouth.) It would be grossly unwise for a Syrian, all too aware of just what Islamic State will do to his family if he takes up arms against him, to put his faith in the United States.
The problem with counterinsurgency - and nation-building - is that it takes decades. And, these days, the West wants everything at once, or it loses interest. And that, I suspect, is why so many of our counterinsurgency missions are doomed to fail.
Christopher G. Nuttall