The U.S. military should stop being one of the best suppliers of tactical instruction to the bad guys

Friday, August 20th, 2021

The bad guys are getting better at basic tactics:

Consider Boko Haram. Having only launched its military campaign in 2009, it has already mastered the use of coordinated fire and maneuver elements at the tactical level to execute complex raids, ambushes, assaults, and even withdrawing by echelon when on the defensive. It even staged an amphibious assault that overran a Nigerien Army garrison on an island in Lake Chad. Another example is from much closer to the U.S. homeland. Utilizing tactics diffused through U.S. military training, drug cartels such as the infamous “Zetas” and “Jalisco New Generation” have institutionalized combat training that allows them to regularly wreak havoc on Mexican security forces. In the wake of a recent downing of a Mexican military helicopter through the employment of rocket-propelled grenades, the disturbing discovery was made of tactical gear emblazoned with “CJNG – High Command Special Forces” (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion). Further evidence comes from the Iraqi campaign to defeat ISIL. Conventional forces struggled mightily to eject ISIL from Iraq’s territory, and only succeeded due to the heavy use of Iraqi special operations forces and liberal American airpower. The battle of Mosul, for example, lasted for nine months despite significant material U.S. support and a 20:1 force ratio against the ISIL defenders. Afghan conventional military forces are often defeated by an increasingly competent Taliban. On the other side of the world, Filipino forces had to destroy much of the town of Marawi to liberate it from jihadist insurgents during a five-month siege last year. Furthermore, these enemies seem to be gravitating towards operations in urban areas. These environments hinder the United States and its partners from utilizing their high-tech advantages, resulting in a playing field that could get ever more level. Finally, given the ease with which such groups can infiltrate poorly vetted partner forces, the U.S. military has probably provided tactical instruction to the enemy directly and indirectly for a long time. As one U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan told one of us: “Sometimes a trainee just doesn’t show up right before graduation, and then – sure enough – you are fighting him on the next objective.”

In summary, rather than celebrating the (shockingly slow) destruction of the ISIL caliphate, the U.S. military should realize that one of its enemies just learned a whole lot about combat: basic infantry tactics, urban operations, and the clever blending of emerging technologies. These lessons will spread globally, and faster than many expect.

What should be done in response? First, the United States has to recognize that the bad guys will get better. Rather than perpetuating the comforting myth that enemy ranks are saturated with incompetent wackos, planners and policymakers must understand that these groups have highly motivated and – with the right training – potentially capable fighters.

Second, we need to remember that humans are more important than hardware. The welter of debate over high technology widgets has obscured the fact that technologies are leveraged by individuals and organizations. Biddle wrote a prescient article back in 1996 entitled “Victory Misunderstood” about the implications of the 1991 Gulf War in which he challenged the hypothesis that technology would be the deciding factor on 21st century battlefields. His analysis showed that basic soldiering skills were crucial to the lopsided victory over Iraqi forces. He argued that technology may simply “be magnifying the effects of skill differentials on the battlefield. If so, then a given skill imbalance may be much more important today than in the past”. We proposed a similar argument here. Therefore, the U.S. military needs to not only be wary of the changing skill sets of the enemies of the United States but also keep a similarly watchful eye over the maintenance of our own human capital. U.S. forces are only as good as the men and women they select, train, and develop.

As a consequence, the U.S. military should stop being one of the best suppliers of tactical instruction to the bad guys. Planners should be more discerning when it comes to building partner capacity. Additional scrutiny should be placed on which partner nation military units are being trained, what roles they will play in the fight, and how large and good they need to be. Most of these nations do not need a Western-style conventional military, but rather a politically reliable force dedicated to internal security and counter-terrorism. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, large (and probably unsustainable) conventional partner forces fight poorly (when they do fight) and, therefore, the specialized counter-terrorism and elite units U.S. mentors have carefully crafted are consistently overused as assault troops. In the words of another U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan, speaking of the country’s elite commando units: “Eight percent of the troops do 80 percent of the fighting.” Rather than choosing to train large numbers of poorly vetted partner conventional forces, the United States should probably choose to save such training (and resources) for smaller numbers of higher quality and better vetted forces. Such efforts will inevitably involve the diffusion of training and technology (and the risk of a future “Zetas” blowback). Therefore, the United States needs to be more mindful about who gets what, and for what purpose.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Like the Taliban, ISIS was originally our creation. We hoped to use it as a tool to evict. Assad. We are still supporting some other al-Qaeda groups that are fighting Assad.

    Once upon a time, ISIS had seized the Syrian oil fields and was exporting oil via long truck convoys running up the Euphrates Valley to a port on the Turkish coast. The US military was ordered to allow it. The Turks collected import/export fees from ISIS. This stopped only when the Russians showed up and started bombing the convoys.

    We didn’t oppose ISIS until they decided to form their own country in the Euphrates Valley and invaded Iraq.

    We are still supporting al-Qaeda groups. We might still be supporting a somewhat tamed ISIS.

  2. Adar says:

    “humans are more important than hardware.”

    Especially for the Islamic groups, “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

    Thank Napoleon for that observation and comment.

  3. Dan Kurt says:

    This article has been OVERTAKEN BY EVENTS.

  4. “After Agesilaus King of Sparta was wounded in one of his many battles against Thebes, Antalcidas remonstrated, ‘The Thebans pay you well for having taught them to fight, which they were neither willing nor able to do before’.” — Sayings of the Spartans

    We have trained our enemy, and now we have given them weaponry. What comes after this should not surprise us.

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “We have trained our enemy, and now we have given them weaponry. What comes after this should not surprise us.”

    I am not so concerned about the Taliban having some state-of-the-art weaponry which they will not be able to maintain. I am more concerned about the Taliban selling samples of that military equipment to China & Russia, who will take it apart, reverse engineer it, and find every possible weakness in sensors, communications gear, fuses, you name it. And then modify their own weapons & tactics accordingly.

    Of course, we peons will never learn of this. There will be some unreported crashes, equipment failures, misfires in US training exercises in various parts of the world. And then the US Political Class will realize that they can never afford to go head to head with a peer competitor. That leaves functional surrender as the only option.

    On the other hand, some people say not to worry about this. They assert China & Russia have already stolen the designs to every weapon the US has (or bought them from the Clintons). And China already supplies some of the key parts.

    The nuclear triad is a good shield against anyone messing with the US. But what practical value can the US get from the rest of the military in today’s world?

  6. Obaid says:

    When the lives of military troops are at danger, the citizens of the United States must examine their leaders’ policy decisions with more vigilance than usual. The days of forcing America’s will on others without consequence may be coming to an end. The spread of skills and technology, the increasing probability of messed-up urban operations, and the diminishing political desire for military adventurism should all serve as depressing reminders to our military commanders and policymakers. If the death of four soldiers shocks our country, we must reassess our willingness to put our troops in harm’s path and when we are willing to do so.

  7. Albion says:

    One of the solutions to all this, though our feckless and cheaply-bought politicians propped up by insanely stupid ‘experts’ would not agree, is to close the borders.

    If the US or UK or any NATO force for that matter has trained enemies to kill us, then it is necessary to withdraw from enemy zones and close our borders to these places and people. We aren’t going to do well fighting these trained (and now well-armed) terrorists on their land. On our land, it should be different as apart from the Quislings among our elite and marxist-media we have an advantage, and enough spine in the population to defend ourselves if allowed.

    This closing of borders is not to deny trade or the free flow of goods, because it is possible to find a way to co-exist but keep all these dodgy characters at arm’s length. If places like Afghanistan wish to buy our goods and they have something to sell we want, then we can find a way to trade that doesn’t involve training and arming their trouble-makers, and then opening our doors to them to live among us.

    Of course our weak leaders won’t like it. They like open borders, because they and their greedy entourages make money from importing tens of thousands (soon to be millions) of low IQ immigrants into which it is easy for these trained enemies to insert fifth-columnists. This way war can be brought to our doorsteps.

    Naturally our great and good ‘leaders’ would soon flee to some (temporarily) safe haven when trouble explodes, leaving we peasants behind to suffer. First our troops are cannon-fodder, and then us at home.

    Bring the troops home to defend our borders, stop fighting handicapped police action on their patch of earth and all the while imagining we are helping them embrace that clown-event called democracy when these people have no intention of allowing it in their own backyard anyway.

  8. vxxc says:

    “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

    It’s morale.

    Nothing to do with morals. A full belly, good supply, good boots, the presence of the Emperor on the Battlefield, or for that matter drink and whores all raise morale, as would a sack of loot.

    But it’s not moral, none of it is moral.

  9. VXXC says:

    The training of your enemies at your hands, or us being trained at their hands is unavoidable in war, regardless of the “technology” involved.

  10. VXXC says:

    The real question is: What did we learn from fighting them?

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