Our High-Priced Mercenaries in Syria
September 24, 2015
Robin Wright / The New Yorker
The cost of US military operations against the Islamic State -- in both Iraq and Syria -- has reached about $4 billion, or more than $10 million a day. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's New Syrian Force barely exists and has done nothing. After spending $500 million to train 15,000 anti-Assad rebel fighters, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Central Command chief General Lloyd J. Austin III how many men had been trained. He replied: "We're talking four or five."
(September 20, 2015) -- The US campaign to create a new ground force to fight the Islamic State appears to be a flop. The program, designed to train some 15,000 Syrians in the course of three years -- at a cost of $500 million -- has only a handful of fighters in Syria. "We're talking four or five," General Lloyd J. Austin III told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Austin heads Central Command, which runs US military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, a position made famous by former General David Petraeus. Austin conceded that the rebel program is "off to a slow start."
"That's a joke," Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican, responded.
"This certainly isn't 'Charlie Wilson's War,'" Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me after he testified, at a separate hearing, for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Wilson was the Texas congressman who helped to mobilize covert funds to arm and train more than a hundred thousand Afghan rebels to successfully oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson in the 2007 movie.)
Exactly a year ago, President Obama announced a new "comprehensive and sustained" strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, which became known as Operation Inherent Resolve. In Syria, the operation centered on a train-and-equip program for rebels in a "New Syrian Force" to fight on the ground, complemented by American air strikes on ISIS weaponry, facilities, and leaders, and by a social-media campaign to counter ISIS propaganda.
A US-led coalition has now carried out more than twenty-five hundred air strikes on Syria, according to Central Command data, and another four thousand in Iraq. But US officials acknowledge that air power cannot alone destroy ISIS. The cost of all US military operations against the Islamic State -- in both countries -- has reached about $4 billion, or more than $10 million a day, the Pentagon said last month. The New Syrian Force, meanwhile, barely exists -- and has done nothing.
"So we're counting on our fingers and toes at this point -- when we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year," Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, said, referring to the rebel fighters. She seemed astounded. "It's time for a new plan."*
The Pentagon claims some success in halting the pace of the blitz that took the world by surprise in June, 2014. ISIS has since been forced into defensive combat. Central Command now hopes to "capitalize on lessons learned" about how to deploy its new rebel allies, Austin told the committee.
But both Democrats and Republicans expressed distress about the US program. "I've been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years, and I've never heard testimony like this -- never," John McCain said. "Basically, General, what you're telling us is that everything's fine, as we see hundreds of thousands of refugees leave and flood Europe, as we're seeing now 250,000 Syrians slaughtered."
In the past year, McCain noted, the Islamic State has also expanded globally, with operations or alliances in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Somalia. "One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and that we are winning," he said.
The hearing took place amid reports that a whistle-blower within Central Command filed a formal complaint this summer charging senior officers with skewing intelligence data to portray false progress. The Islamic State still holds roughly a third of both Syria and Iraq.
Last week, General Martin Dempsey, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the war against the Islamic State is "tactically stalemated," with no dramatic gains on either side.
The rebel training program has been troubled from the start. Recruiting has been hard, as has vetting for past political and family connections. US plans have been clumsy. The recruits, who trained in Turkey, were not always reliable or fully committed. A number of them left without completing the course.
In July, shortly after returning to Syria, many of the program's fifty-four graduates were killed or captured by an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Others simply fled, leaving only the handful in the fight. Another class that is currently training has just more than a hundred new recruits, the Pentagon policy chief Christine Wormuth told the Senate hearing.
The failure reflects a pervasive flaw in US efforts across the Middle East and South Asia -- many involving US Central Command -- to create friendly forces to fight its causes on the ground. For many Syrians, the US-trained rebels are perceived as little more than guns-for-hire, Robert Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria, told me. "American mercenaries, that's what I'd call them. They're trained by Americans. They're paid by Americans. They're supposed to fight for American goals -- which are out of synch with local priorities."
The mandate of Operation Inherent Resolve is to confront the Islamic State, but the Syrian opposition wants, first and foremost, to oust President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are far deadlier. In the first six months of this year, they killed more than six times the numbers of Syrians killed by the Islamic State, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain.
"In Syria specifically, there's no convergence on who the enemy is," Fred Hof, a former State Department Syria specialist in the Obama Administration, told me. "There's a general tendency to come up with ideas that may sound good in an inter-agency meeting, that check every box, and that scratch everybody's itch, but then have no bearing to what's going on on the ground."
Hof left the government out of frustration in 2012 and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "As a rule, you can't create a foreign army to carry out your own mission," he said.
The Bush Administration faced a similar problem when it tried to create the Free Iraqi Forces before its 2003 invasion. Congress allocated $95 million for a training program by US troops at Camp Freedom, in Hungary. The Iraqi opposition, led by Ahmed Chalabi, pledged to recruit thousands of exiles.
In the end, it mustered about 95 men. Some US officials nicknamed it the "million-dollar-a-man army," and acknowledged that it would probably be insignificant in the war against Saddam Hussein. In one class of twenty-one recruits, many had paunches and gray hairs in their mustaches; the average age was forty-two.
The United States failed on a much bigger scale in rebuilding the Iraqi military after Saddam's ouster. In 2004, Petraeus boasted of US progress in recreating the Iraqi Army from scratch to confront extremists.
"Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously in the face of an enemy that has shown a willingness to do anything to disrupt the establishment of the new Iraq," he wrote in the Washington Post. But that army disintegrated overnight after the Islamic State invaded, in 2014.
"We witnessed the collapse of the Iraqi security forces, in which the United States invested twenty-five billion dollars over an eight-to-ten-year period," Katulis said. Billions of dollars' worth of US military equipment was abandoned on the battlefield and became instrumental to subsequent ISIS military gains.
"Now we're back to square one," Katulis added. "And the same thing has happened with the Afghan Army, and rebuilding it in fits and starts." (Similar programs, to train the Vietnamese military, in the seventies, and the Lebanese Army, in the eighties, also failed. The United States was forced to hurriedly withdraw its forces from both countries.) "Much of our debate on the Middle East, about what tools will be effective, has failed," Katulis said. "We have not produced sustainable solutions."
All this comes at a time when Syria's future borders, and viability, are at stake. Under the pressure of its multifaceted war, the country, widely considered to be the strategic center of the Middle East, has all but disintegrated. Eighty per cent of Syrians now live in poverty.
Life expectancy has plummeted by twenty years. Unemployment is nearly sixty per cent. Syria's economic infrastructure and institutions have been "obliterated," the Syrian Center for Policy Research reported earlier this year.
The humanitarian crisis is the gravest since the Second World War. Seven million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and their sources of income inside the country, according to the United Nations.
More than four million refugees have fled Syria altogether, straining resources in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. And now, with some three hundred and fifty thousand refugees fleeing to the West, the Syrian crisis has become Europe's crisis, too.
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