Small Wars Journal

What if the Military Has Been Focusing on the Wrong Thing the Whole Time?

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 10:54am

What if the Military Has Been Focusing on the Wrong Thing the Whole Time?

Yinon Weiss

The author, Yinon Weiss, meeting with Sheiks in Iraq

For over a decade, and ever since the United States began the endeavor of creating a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, the dogmatic military view has essentially been “We will train our allies until they are able to secure their own nation.” With conflict in Afghanistan lasting over 13 years, and with the recent tragic losses of momentum, equipment, and territory in Iraq, it is apparent that things are not going as was hoped by many. Going back to my time training Iraqi Commandos as a US Special Forces officer, I have had one question that always lingered in the back of my mind:

“We are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in training our allies, so how is our enemy able to achieve so much success when no major power is training them?”

In other words, despite the seemingly successful training of the Iraqi Army, why are they unable to stand up to forces like ISIS, who are not trained by any major power? Similarly, why is training the Afghan Army considered the yardstick of success, when there is no major power similarly training the Taliban? If training is the key to success, how is the other side surviving and even thriving when we have been training our allies for over a decade?

The problem may be rooted in the fact that the US military, and even its Special Forces, has largely been focused on tactical and technical training. We measure our allies’ capabilities through the lens of traditional American military metrics; whether they can organize at the squad, platoon, company, or battalion level, etc. As has been recently shown in Iraq, where the Iraqi Army has surrendered despite outnumbering and outgunning their enemies, these metrics have been a failure. Is it possible we have been focusing on the wrong thing this whole time?

Evans Carlson was the first commander of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion in World War II, charged with leading early guerilla operations against the Japanese while the US was still building up its conventional force in response to Pearl Harbor. So important was his mission that his second in command was James Roosevelt, the sitting President’s oldest son. Evans studied guerilla warfare during his time as a liaison to the Chinese Communist Army in the 1930s, and through his previous experience in Nicaragua. Evans believed that the key to his men’s success was “a broad and deep political education system designed to give men something to fight for, live for, and if necessary, die for.” This belief system is something the US military instills in all of its members. Each year thousand of young Americans volunteer to serve overseas, to be far away from their families, ready to fight for our nation’s causes, and to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. Teamwork, purpose, and a belief in something bigger than yourself is instilled in our young service members during basic training, and throughout the course of their military careers. It is this complete commitment to success, and to each other, not our GPS guided bombs, which makes the American military such a formidable force. Yet, when it comes to building our allies military, we do almost none of this. We have failed to impart in them the very element which has made us so successful. Instead, we focus on the important but somewhat superficial measures of how well they can organize in a formation, how well they can patrol in a street, and how well they can write an operations order.

We continue to measure progress by how well trained our allies are, but no amount of training can replace the determination and the willingness to fight for a cause. That determination is something our enemies have. It's also something the US Armed Forces have. However, it's something we have failed to give to our allies.

In Iraq I trained a crack commando Iraqi unit. Every day we trained for hours on end, teaching them to shoot better, to maintain their equipment better, and to plan and communicate their operations better. All basic tenets of a functional combat unit. When we did missions together, they performed well. Years after we left, would they hold up to an aggressive and determined enemy? Recent history shows that it's unlikely. Even when Iraqis significantly outnumbered their enemy, were better equipped, and were better "trained,” they were not prepared to fight.

Perhaps "training" is an easy political concept for our leaders to sell to the American people of what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I would argue that no amount of training, no matter how well we train our foreign allies to aim their AK-47, will be enough to defeat an enemy if there is no fundamental and cultural trust and commitment to that cause. To defeat such a determined enemy, we must indoctrinate our allies with the same will and desire that we have in our own US military, or at least on par with their enemy. These are qualities much more difficult to measure than whether one can operate at a platoon, company, or battalion levels - metrics the U.S. Army loves to measure.

Even special operations training of our allies has focused on tactical skills such as raids, ambushes, and surgical strikes. Those are important skills, but there is no equivalent body teaching that to ISIS and they regularly outpower and overwhelm the forces trained by the United States. We need to acknowledge that tactical training of a force will never, by itself, prepare them for combat effectiveness. If we ever want our allies to truly be in charge of their own defense, we need to focus on building forces with the desire to win, and with the willingness to die. This is not just about “winning hearts and minds” – this is shaping them. That kind of training happens through years of communication and cultural investment at all levels, and not by spending even more time shooting paper targets at a flat range.

To be successful, we must not only train our allies on how to aim their rifles, but also develop their willingness to employ that weapon. The former is much easier to measure, but the latter is much more important for success.

About the Author(s)

Yinon Weiss is the CEO & Board Member of RallyPoint. Yinon served 10 years on active duty, serving first as a Marine Corps Scout/Sniper Platoon Commander, and then as an Army Special Forces officer, deploying overseas multiple times throughout his military career. Before co-founding RallyPoint, he worked as Director of Product Marketing at a VC-backed technology startup, and he is also the founder of While at Harvard Business School, Yinon worked at Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group, and decided to build upon his private sector experience and deep passion for empowering and improving the lives of military personnel by co-founding RallyPoint. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor of Science from UC Berkeley where he majored in Bioengineering and minored in Chemical Engineering. Yinon grew up in Palo Alto, CA.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:10am

And yet we wonder why IS is successful--why is it we must be reminded of it over and over and yet we never learn?

From The Financial times 16 Dec

- See more at:…

By Riyadh Mohammed,
The Fiscal Times

December 16, 2014

Although the Iraqi government’s 50,000 "ghost soldiers" have been exposed — forcing the government to deal with corruption in the military — Iraq is still playing fast and loose by using soldiers who are on duty for questionable assignments.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, part of the military has been transformed into an ever-growing regiment of bodyguards. The bodyguards protecting government officials are among the most despised among common citizens. Blocking the streets with their long convoys or firing in the air to clear crowds with seemingly no reason is a daily frustration. Few really know how many are assigned to these security roles, and how much money they are costing the Iraqi state.

“Bodyguards reflect the personality of the official they protect. Since we have so many bad officials, their bodyguards are worse,” said Ahmed Hussein, a 35-year old computer technician from Baghdad.

The United States has spent $26 billion over the last decade on arming and training Iraqi security forces, including those now in bodyguard posts. Yet, Iraq’s security forces collapsed and lost one third of Iraq to ISIS in June. Still, the U.S. just approved another $5 billion in training, some of which will inevitably be spent on unnecessary protection for minor bureaucrats at the expense of an army desperately in need of proper training. Once again, corruption, mismanagement and waste has characterized Iraqi security forces.

Bodyguards’ Second Job: Kidnapping
Over the last few weeks, Baghdad was hit by a series of kidnappings, with demands for hefty ransoms. This continues an epidemic that has spread since the 2003 war. But while kidnappings usually takes place for sectarian reasons or in unsafe neighborhoods, it is now happening in some of Baghdad’s most secured areas.

In Northwestern and Northeastern Baghdad, several notable physicians and businessmen were recently kidnapped and released after paying ransom. The Iraqi government, while struggling to cope with the war against ISIS, has been forced to redirect military assets and establish a special unit to arrest members of kidnapping gangs.

After the increase in cases of kidnapping, a cell [unit] was formed…. All the kidnapping gangs will be investigated,” said Lieutenant General Abdul Ameer al-Shamari, the commander of Baghdad operations, in a press conference in Baghdad about two weeks ago.

So far, the anti-kidnapping forces have been successful. Several gangs were dismantled and their members were arrested. To reassure an anxious public, five of the gangs confessed their crimes on camera and the video of their confession was played in a press conference in Baghdad.

One leader testified, “Our first kidnapping operation was in Zyouna. It was a cellophane shop. We took $20,000 and we released the guy. The second kidnapping operation was in the Jamila neighborhood. He was a businessman. We took $40,000 for his release. The third one was in al-Shaab neighborhood where we were arrested….”

While the testimony was meant to reassure citizens, the process gave way when news came suggesting that some of those crimes were by bodyguards of influential government officials.

Personal bodyguards have never had a good record in Iraq. One glaring example is the July 2009 bank robbery in Baghdad that claimed the lives of eight bank guards. Bodyguards of the then Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, now Minister of Finance, were involved in the robbery.

In December 2011, former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi fled Iraq to Turkey to avoid being arrested for murder. Later his bodyguards confessed on TV of their roles in killing judges and planting bombs. In March, an officer working as former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s bodyguard killed the Baghdad bureau chief of Radio Free Europe.

Battalions of Bodyguards
While these incidents were covered extensively by the media, many don’t know the real size of the veritable army of bodyguards in Iraq. As a former Iraqi government official and a journalist, I have worked with several ranking Iraqi officials. The Iraqi president and his vice presidents are protected by the presidential brigade, which assigns a full army battalion of 1,000 soldiers to each of them. A second brigade was established in the last few years just in case there would be more than two vice presidents at a time, which is the case now. I was embedded several times with former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi as a journalist, and I counted no less than 60 vehicles accompanying him.

The prime minister is protected by yet another brigade of 3,000 or more soldiers. The Speaker of the Parliament is protected by a battalion. A recent video showed the convoy of the current Iraqi Speaker of Parliament while visiting the city of Najaf. By the time the camera stopped filming, 50 vehicles had passed. More arrived off camera. Some Iraqi NGO activists have demanded that he list his convoy with the Guinness Book of World Records.

The ministers of defense and interior are also each protected by a battalion with no less than 60 vehicles protecting them. Even lower-ranking ministers are protected by about 60 bodyguards, moving with an average of 15 vehicles. Members of Parliament typically have half of this.

Yet because Iraq has 328 members of Parliament, even this group requires the size of an army division, or no less than 10,000 soldiers. Another division is protecting five people: the president and his vice president and the prime minister. Including the governors of Iraqi provinces – who are protected by as many bodyguards as ministers, if not more — and the deputy ministers, and the coddled upper-division staff of the ministries and local offices, the numbers for these protection details are astronomical.

Many bodyguards are hired simply because they are relatives of the official they are protecting. They are all part of the staff of the Defense and Interior Ministries. Most of the government officials also have expensive armored cars as well. The only reasonable estimate for personal protection for Iraqi government officials was last week’s statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji that the cost of protecting government officials is $1 billion.

While Iraq is struggling to fund its war with ISIS after a sharp drop in oil prices – Iraq’s main source of income – from $100 per barrel to $60 per barrel, perhaps it is time for professional thugs to go… or at a minimum, turn a better profit.


Tue, 12/23/2014 - 9:25am

I agree with Mr Weiss with respect to his comments on tactical training however I recommend the SWJ article "After Mosul: The Collapse of the Iraqi Military and What it Says About Iraq" by Jeff Collins SWJ Blog Post | July 20, 2014 as an excellent post-mortem. By the time ISIS arrived in Mosul, the Iraqi Army had become nothing more than a corrupt militia. No American trainer could have stopped that.


Sun, 11/30/2014 - 8:03pm

It seems as if you are making an argument for empire because our allies cannot motivate their people to stand up to and defeat the bad guys that challenge their societies. Granted we need them to be able to create stable societies or we will forever be at war. Rome was in the same predicament and their solution was to take over and impose the will to fight onto their allies via Roman rule. I wonder if we will come up with a better solution. Whatever we do we need to make a plan and execute it quickly, time is not on our side.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 6:15am

Taken from LTC Moore's after action report from his IaDrang fight---and now compare it to the total failure of the US Army trained ISF.

Key difference---the NVA/VC fought for their country, were well motivated/well trained for that fight and followed their flag into combat---and what about the ISF?

Of the Vietnamese regulars he wrote ,

(1) He appeared well trained. He was aggressive. He was equipped with a preponderance of automatic weapon and plenty of ammunition. He carried 3 – 5 Chinese potato masher hand grenades. He carried a softball-sized wad of cooked rice, most of them carried a bed roll of a piece of waterproof plastic and a hammock. His weapons were well maintained.

(2) he was an expert in camouflage and used every bit of cover and concealment to perfection. With only small arms, mortars, and anti-tank weapons he obviously sought to close with us in strength quickly-before we could discover him – possibly to render our fire support less effective and certainly to overwhelm us and to fight us on our terms. Without much overhead fore support, he probably has to fall back on expert camouflage techniques, attacks in mass, infiltrators and stay-behind killer parties.

(3) He was a deadly shot. In caring for my men who had been killed or wounded, I was struck by the great number who had been shot in the head and upper part of the body—particularly in the head. He definitely went for the leaders—the men who were shouting, pointing talking on radios. He also aimed for the men carrying the radios…….

(5) When met by heavy ground fire or by mortar, artillery, TAC air or ARA he becomes less organized,. However, he did not quit……

(7) He fought to the death. When wounded, he continued fighting with his small arms and grenades. He appeared fanatical; when wounded and had to be approached with extreme care. Many friendly were shot by wounded PAVN.

It was and is our national leaders -- not our military -- that, in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc., got the "cart" (invasion, regime change, nation-building) before the "horse" (the populations desire for western reforms). This failure by our national leaders, I suggest, is what causes the training of indigenous personnel today to be questioned. Consider:

a. Our national leaders believed that, at the dawn of the 21st Century, virtually everyone, everywhere, wished to organize, order and orient their lives more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

b. Likewise our national leaders believed that, post-the Cold War, that nearly everyone, everywhere, was willing to fight and die to achieve these "universally" desired ends.

If our national leaders had been correct in their such assumptions, then the indigenous personnel that our military forces trained -- and the vast populations that supported them -- these would have been both more willing and more able to stand against the few remaining "dead-enders"/"losers" that they might encounter.

The fact that our national leaders, however, were horribly incorrect in their such assumptions (see "a" and "b" above); this, I suggest, explains why we have been unable to rely on either (1) these populations generally or (2) the members, thereof, that our military forces have trained.

So its back to the drawing board, I suggest, for our national leaders.

They -- not our military -- are the one's responsible for (1) nurturing the requisite "fire in the belly" for western reforms and for (2) recognizing whether such a "fire" is present -- before invasion, regime change, nation-building and/or the training of indigenous personnel toward such ends.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 10:28am

Are boots on the ground the only way to think about human intelligence? (In relation to my comment below. Something isn't right with the larger conversation, although I am straying from the main point of this very excellent article):

<blockquote>Vickers said that geospatial intelligence and drone-based surveillance are in many ways more important than human intelligence in the fight against the Islamic State. “Boots on the ground have operational advantages, but how well you do form an intelligence point of view?” Vickers said “it depends.”</blockquote>…

So boots on the ground is the only way to think about human versus technical intelligence? Well, there is a lot more money to be made in cyber and high-tech gadgetry.

I mean, if there was a way to think better about training troops, isn't that in the realm of human intelligence and understanding the strengths and weakness of your trainees versus who they will fight?

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 10:33am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

What did Saddam's military men learn about during our time in Iraq, what might they have picked up watching the Iranians agains us in Iraq, and Pakistan in Afghanistan?

Is it so that we are dealing entirely in the realm of non-state actors?Then too, there are the "protective" shields various European nations and the UK inadvertently serve as when they think about how their citizens travel back and forth and raise money. This is the hybrid stuff you all keep talking about, right? When you train, can you help with this, or does this already happen and I just don't get it as a civilian?

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 10:23am

From the article:

<blockquote>“We are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in training our allies, so how is our enemy able to achieve so much success when no major power is training them?”</blockquote>

Is that entirely so? Either in Iraq, or Afghanistan when viewed in its entirety?

<blockquote>He had a preference for military men, and so his leadership team includes many officers from Saddam Hussein’s long-disbanded army.

They include former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq, who once served Mr. Hussein as a lieutenant colonel, and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who now heads the group’s military council.</blockquote>…

There is no one we've had contact with in any way that is part of this? How about the training we have given them while fighting us for the past so many years.

Corruption in the Iraqi Army (and Afghan and Ukraine) is one reason there are morale problems, at least, from some reports. So it is what people are fighting for, and it's corruption in the system which we can't fix. Something doesn't seem right about focusing entirely on the non-state aspect of all of this.

State actors include:

1. Former military members in the opposition.
2. Support given by states toward various forces that then spin out of control (Saudi/Qatar/the US toward factions in Syria).
3. Logistics and borders in relation to Turkey.

But those are different things than training people.

The main points of the article are well-taken.

Who did we train within the anti-Assad coalition in Saudi that is now part of ISIS? Guess the we-need-cyber-not-human-intelligence Vickers types aren't interested.

Sgt.Major C

Sun, 11/23/2014 - 6:06pm

Western assumptions about other cultures invariably turn out to be wrong. History shows that we rarely spend time questioning our own assumptions. Failure to do so often has negative, cascading effects. As most comments here relate, people living in their culture must have a will to fight an enemy, yet must do so according to their own cultural norms. They will not adopt our own unless we are present to lead it. In that context, tribal cultures are very different than western views of democracy. In tribal cultures, issues of personal respect first carry more weight than battlefield tactics. When respect is given, respect is gained. Both sides can learn from each other. Yet, we typically assume we will gain respect simply by showing up and "showing them". Those rare souls who worked side by side to earn their spurs with foreign allies earn mutual respect. We will be wise to give them much greater support; to listen to their wisdom and advice; to work through them instead of requiring them to work through us. For the person on the ground, who lives, and eats, and sleeps and bleeds among the people will always have a place in the hearts of the people in a way that a rear echelon will never know.

It never fails to amaze me that our "leadership" doesn't seem to get it. The way they measure success (senior military/political) is not the way success should be measured. You cannot instill "want to".
I recall discussing with a fellow TT counterpart in 2007 how to motivate the Iraqis he was embedded with.
He related how he emphasized that his ancestors built the ziggurats etc...
I told him "no those guys either left or we killed them -what we have left are the laborers".
To get them to want to means a shift in cultural mores and values. That is where this is rooted, the very essence of how our "allies" are brought up.
I was involved with the assessing and training of the Georgians who went to Afghanistan to work with the Marine Corps.
One area we centered on was leadership training, that is developing the leadership of their Army from the lowest level up. We realized without this, the Georgians would never be able to operate as an independent force and would be FOB locked like many of our "allies".
Weapons systems are nice but focus on the man rather than the machinery. In the end training the "man" is harder to measure than simply training systems.

Thomas Doherty

Sun, 11/23/2014 - 11:39am

I was watching a hearing for congress on the Iraq situation a couple of months ago. A couple of congressmen were asking how with all the training etc the Iraq army fell apart. Both the State Department and the Pentagon rep danced around it and refused to say it. I think the congressmen were trying to get them to say it.
They are scared and lack 'juevos'.
Then I thought tell any American unit they are going to be in a straight up fight without a massive logistics trail, Air MEDEVAC (never mind the 1 hour ring), air support, 24/7 SAT COMs, and limited if any body armor. Every single 1 of those things is an automatic 'NO GO' mission criteria for US units AKA we currently do not have the 'juevos' to go on the offense in the same situation.
The one difference is we will hold our ground if forced to against those odds and worse, even though it is not our country.
What is true is the Taliban, ISIS etc believe in their cause. Our allies the IA and ANA as a whole do not. The reason the Kurds hold is they do believe in their cause.


Sat, 11/22/2014 - 8:35pm

Listening to WWII vets fresh from the war as a child and observing active combatants far in the rear (Europe) during Vietnam, I would add that otherwise unmotivated soldiers can choose to fight if they believe that things will get much worse for themselves and their families if the other side wins. This was true in WWII, not so much for Vietnam.

In the case of an Iraqi Shia soldier facing ISIS, initially there was no reason to believe that things would get worse. There was actually good reason for substantial doubt that anything would change either way. However, to our great good fortune, ISIS has done everything it can to convince them that things would indeed get much worse if they win. Sounds like motivation to me.


Sat, 11/22/2014 - 4:17pm

I think it's clear there are three important reasons people will fight in combat: 1) For the guy next to him; 2) for the cause he believes in; 3) for the money. It's probably a best practice to bring all three to bear. But, this is motivation, not competence. I think we should recognize that the Taliban (and ISIS) have all three.

Bill M.

Sat, 11/22/2014 - 11:26am

In reply to by The Universal …

True as far as it goes, but you can create elite fighting groups that will fight for their identity as a fighting group. This isn't ideal since we seek a security force that will be loyal to the government we're trying to promote. We may have to accept to less in many cases.

It certainly isn't worthwhile to spend billions of dollars on training and equipping foreign forces when their interests are not aligned with ours. We seem to have this view point that every nation in the world is our surrogate, and we can work through them to achieve our ends. It is a false assumption when we apply it globally. It works where it works, and we can't make it work where it doesn't. We will always have to have the means to do unilateral actions to protect our core interests.

I read a comment from a State Department rep last night that said even if takes many years, we are better off acting through our partners than doing it ourselves. I have to wave the BS flag on that one. It obviously depends, case in point if a terrorist cell is planning on target a key U.S. interest, and the partner can't or won't act, then it isn't in our interest to wait.

We have developed policies and strategies based on hope.

The Universal …

Sat, 11/22/2014 - 2:07am

As many have said, getting other people to fight for your values is almost impossible - especially if they don't subscribe to your values and you haven't the foggiest idea of what their values are and why they subscribe to them.

You can train them to be "efficient fighters" but you cannot train them to be "effective fighters" because the only people who are "effective fighters" are fighting for THEIR values.

In Afghanistan, the Afghans are fighting to preserve THEIR "tribal/clan" structure and power (and to have the central government [such as it is] leave them alone).

In Iraq the Iraqis are fighting to preserve THEIR "tribal/clan" structure and power (and to have the central government [which they see as a creation of "foreigners"] leave them alone.

Both are (relatively) "low tech" wars (as was the war that the Vietnamese were fighting). The US isn't very good at "low tech" wars and never has been. Where the US has been successful (not counting WWI and WWII) is in fighting "high tech" wars which it follows quickly with the establishment of a powerful national government that will do what it is told to do (and, hopefully, won't allow the graft, corruption, and repression to be too obvious).

In short, if you train people who aren't fighting for what you want them to fight for well, then they will fight for something that you don't want even better - but they won't fight for what you want them to fight for.

Pol-Mil FSO

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 10:26pm

The comment by Beko is exactly right. Our glaring blind spot is that we think that the solution to every problem is to have others be like us. And in our weaker moments we think that everyone wants to be like us. This hubris explains why we expend so much effort in trying to export our values, and why we are surprised when other cultures react violently to our efforts to impose our values. We cannot provide the will and motivation for foreign security forces to stand and fight, it has to come from their own culture and values.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 12:56pm

Aren't there former military members in ISIS, or helping? Isn't that a common theme, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, we train someone, we then fight the people we trained or are getting training from someone we trained? How well would they be doing without this sort of formal military training, do they have their own "advisors" working the untrained vs. trained? Or is that misinformation? It happened in the 90s--and after--in Afghanistan. How good could a local Taliban insurgency have been without the formal training and advisors? So too with ISIS on some level?


Fri, 11/21/2014 - 12:37pm

It’s ironic how no one sees the truth! The bottom line is the PRICE OF OIL. We paid for all the terrorist attacks against us by agreeing to pay upwards of $100 per barrel. We paid for insurgence, we paid for IS, and we paid for Putin’s bullying. Anyone else wants our money?

If the price of oil goes back-down to $10 per barrel, we won’t need to train our enemies. Moreover, Venezuela will learn to play nice, and Russia will kiss our #$%, as they should.

ER Gatlin

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 12:26pm

Excellent article. It raises important points and is a reminder of counterinsurgency lessons we should have learned since Vietnam as documented by Lewis Sorley (A Better War). In the context of culture and values, Samuel Huntington (Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress)makes it clear that changing traditional, non-Western cultures, (such as the ones we have attempted to reshape by means of tactical training in the Middle East and Asia) is no easy feat. Peter Hopkins (The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia) makes the point crystal clear: the struggle of Britain in the 19th century repeats itself today throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, and parts of Africa. We live in a "VUCA" world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). To win, we need vision, agility, and adaptability. Expecting different outcomes when we design the same strategy and execute the same tactics over and over again, is non- sequitur.

Don't beat yourself up, they learned more than you think.

No one else seems to want to say it, but thousands of the Islamic State fighters were trained by the US. Their gains reflect on the quality of training they received. It is tough to admit, but the US created the hospitable environment for the rise of IS and trained and equipped many if not most of its future fighters.

What is it they say about good intentions?

Roger Erickson

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 11:48am

Logic 101:
Why to fight ... motivation ... eventually always trumps how to fight. Since motivation drives continued innovation.

David Flynn

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 11:12am

Great article and spot on. Our enemies advantage is that they are largely driven by a galvanizing ideology based upon Islamic extremism. This topic has been generally taboo for our political leaders and military to study, leverage and exploit. The forces we have trained do not have commensurate motivation and are often let down by their governments who cannot or will not support them. Will supercedes skill in unconventional warfare. We'd do well to call a spade a spade and leverage Islam, through the host nations, in the forces that we train in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, HoA, North Africa, etc.

Interesting. He's 1/2 right. The problem is you can't go to another culture and give them YOUR will to fight. They will fight, just not for what we want them to fight for. They will fight for their clan, their religious sect, the honor of their family, at the drop of a hat. What they won't do is fight for OUR values. i.e. women's rights, democracy, their country (which they don't identify with even remotely like we do), or apple pie. It's no different than if a foreign military came to the U.S. and tried to get us to reverse our value system. i.e. identify yourself as a Republican or a Floridian MORE than an American. Our collective identity as American's FIRST, and everything else second, is the true source of our strength. It is why we fight for ANY American regardless of where they're from or what they believe. Here's what you don't hear in the U.S. Mil after an order is given "But isn't he from the South, isn't he a Baptist, etc., we're not going to help". No. It's "they're AMERICANS, roger that". What we haven't been able to admit to ourselves because of the politically correct shackles we've imposed on our thought process is THEY DON'T WANT WHAT WE WANT! THEY'RE NOT LIKE US! When we think pure tactics we don't concern ourselves with such p.c. bs and that's why we win. When we think strategy, for example the disastrous concept of "nation building" that we've been embarked on for 15 years, we fail because our logic is flawed. Our strategy is to get them to fight for our values and it will never work because they don't want our values, they have their own.


Fri, 11/21/2014 - 8:48am

I commend Yinon Weiss for presenting a clear and concise article on this matter. The trouble is, this is nothing new! Many former operators, military trainers, and distinguished writers were and are able to attest to this. Go back to the works of Lawrence of Arabia. He noted that without unity and purpose, the Arabs would remain nothing more than backward, petty tribes scattered throughout the Arabian desert, exploited and conquered by all. The same was said during and after Vietnam about the South Vietnamese (and to some degree, that Laotians and Cambodians). We saw how that worked out in the end. So, it should come to no surprise that once again, we are seeing this dysfunctional way of thinking driving policy and action in the Middle East. Add in the West's inability to truly understand the dynamics of tribal social, cultural, religious, economic, and political constructs, you create a recipe for disaster. Just remember the old Pogo comic strip comment...."we met the enemy and the enemy are us."


Fri, 11/21/2014 - 8:31am

“God helps those that help themselves
He will help only those who help themselves
He cannot help those who do not help themselves
Outsiders can contribute but cannot win an unconventional war by themselves.”
Douglas Pike

We have been through three wars - Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous conflicts and still have not internalized the lessons we learned in Vietnam. It only took us 5 months - April to August 1965 - to figure out that we MUST train, equip and mentor host nation troops to take up the fight. The Maine Combined Action Program which we set in in Phu Bai in August 1965 proved to be one of the most successful counterinsurgency programs of the war despite the criticism by Westmoreland. Part of that task is instilling a will to fight which starts at the government/national level a level of trust and confidence in their government, thereby garnering the support of the population. With the implementation of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, we finally had a central coordination of intel, development, military operation and government advisory efforts. Another worthwhile lesson is the counter-guerrilla operations in the Philippines as documented by Napolean Valeriano and Charles Bohannan. Success starts with an honest central government.

Bill M.

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 10:49pm


I posted on this very issue a few times, and think it is absolutely critical to the success of our training efforts. Historically, in many cases, units that SOF trained performed well when SOF accompanied them in battle, and not so well when advisors were not present. There are a lot a factors that you have to look at to determine why this may be the case. One factor is the soldiers we trained don't trust or respect their officers. Another factor is that they have become dependent upon U.S. assistance ranging from fires, medevac, ISR, etc. When we took that away the risk factor increased exponentially. A resistance fighter on the other hand is motivated to resist an occupier, and believes his cause to be righteous. He didn't enjoy the luxury of U.S. enablers (fires, ISR, and medevac), so there was no sudden change in risk for him. Instead it remained, same as it ever was. The other factor, and one we can influence if we can escape our legalistic system is identity and an associated code that goes with that identity. Think of biker gangs, organized criminal organizations, U.S. marines, SOF, etc. where their members take an oath of loyalty and agree to follow a code. Identity groups and their associated codes, if a warrior code, provide one with the will to fight. I don't think we need a RAND study on this, for the most part it is common sense. Common sense we don't apply in practice.


Thu, 11/20/2014 - 7:12pm


A very interesting comment and the questions within.

Insurgents motivations vary and have many aspects. From my "armchair" the one constant is they are ANGRY and MOTIVATED to fight. Yes they may seek revenge and fight in fear of their comrades and leaders.

Can an external partner create, develop and sustain 'will' to fight? Yes, it can sometimes, even if today we doubt we can.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 2:14pm

We cannot develop their will to fight. We cannot train them in our image and expect them to develop our will to fight. However, a thorough and on going area assessment done objectively may reveal that the force we are being told to train may never be able to develop the necessary will to fight and then we can make the appropriate strategic decision (assuming strategists and policy makers would be willing to accept objective assessments from those with boots on the ground rather than base policies, strategies, and campaign plans on fairy tale assumptions.)