The CIA is better at creating foreign armies

Sunday, September 5th, 2021

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies than the U.S. military:

Since the days of its Office of Strategic Services forebearers, the CIA has been able to get two core principles of covert training and support missions right: Politics is local, and people fight for their families, beliefs, and survival. Obligation to community — or for many, religion — trumps flags and oaths to relatively new constitutions of artificial states ratified by distant strangers to whom these soldiers have no personal or communal loyalty. Training and support, therefore, isn’t an off-the-shelf solution but rather a custom fit.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Lebanese Armed Forces in the early to mid-1980s and billions building national armies in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, only to see these forces collapse in the face of what Americans perceived to be their enemies. The reality, of course, was that these national armies comprised soldiers who were being ordered to face opposing forces, in some cases from their own communities, or to sacrifice their lives in contests that had no meaning for themselves, their families, or their clans. And they were often led by officers to whom they felt no loyalty or connection apart from a common uniform.

Politically, bureaucratically, and logistically, the U.S. military blueprint tends to assume an integrated force in which the fighters are loyal to the central government and the officers under whom they serve, regardless of their superiors’ ethnicity, religion, or clan. Order of battle, strategy, and tactics are likewise aligned to U.S. strengths and norms, rather than tailored to cultural, historic, geographic, educational, or topographic local realities. Washington then proceeds to arm such troops with weapons too complex and expensive for their use and often unsuitable for the terrain or the enemy’s tactics (for example, Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the Lebanese army or MD 530 helicopters to the Afghan army). Furthermore, there is often no way to measure effectiveness or monitor corruption.

In 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) acknowledged to Congress that, in many cases, “U.S. funding dedicated to the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] was wasted, whether inefficiently spent on worthwhile endeavors or squandered on activities that delivered no apparent benefit.” Moreover, SIGAR listed five major challenges confronting U.S. efforts to develop the ANDSF that were never overcome: 1) limited oversight visibility; 2) questionable force strength numbers; 3) unreliable capability assessments; 4) limited on-budget assistance capacity; and 5) uncertain long-term sustainability.

The CIA is by its own culture focused on people and relationships. Whereas the U.S. defense establishment is replete with unrivaled experts in their vocational fields, the CIA assigns people to such programs who blend technical prowess with interest and depth in the local history and culture and whose approach is informed by intelligence. The drawback of this approach is that there aren’t enough personnel with Arabic- and other foreign-language skills to scale the program. Nevertheless, CIA officers work more intimately with their foreign counterparts and often remain in such programs, rotating repeatedly with the units they support. Rather than being separated in distant fortresses, CIA teams are more typically collocated with their partners without walls or other barriers between them.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    From the article: “Fourth, because its officers operate in secrecy, with Congress exercising little oversight over their activities, the CIA’s failures in building foreign partner capacity are hard to assess.”

    That is probably the heart of the matter. The CIA fails in secret, whereas the Joint Chiefs of Staff fail in public.

    About the only reference to a CIA success in the article was a mention of the Hmong in Vietnam. How do the Hmong think about that “success”?

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, ISIS…

  3. VXXC says:

    Watch how good they get at creating Al-Ameriki, aka American militias. To fight their other creations, yes…here.

    The last card they’ve got is to finish the Color Revolution and start war here. As it happens the alternative is the destruction of DC. As it happens they are really good at making Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine happen.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    When they say “army” they mean irregulars. Easier to do than a conventional army. Logistics becomes a much smaller concern.

  5. McChuck says:

    Most of the high level “military” strategies lampooned here are, in fact, orders from the State Department.

    People do realize that 90% of the CIA “operatives” are really Special Forces soldiers, right?

  6. Isegoria says:

    I think the key take-away is that those same SF soldiers can train up a small, effective fighting force when they’re delegated the authority to do just that, without interference from well-meaning officers and bureaucrats.

  7. VXXC says:

    “orders from the State Department” — Which usually having sucked us into the war to begin with [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq] then crafts strategy to make sure it fails, disgracing the President, weakening the elected vs the unelected, and dragging their actual foe the Defense Department into disrepute and defeat.

    Also, our actual government domestic now runs on “orders from the State Department.” Expect similar results to what happens overseas.

  8. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Isegoria: “…those same SF soldiers can train up a small, effective fighting force when they’re delegated the authority to do just that…”

    Key word there is “small”. A small fighting force can accomplish small objectives. Why should the US taxpayer care about small objectives in far-off foreign countries?

    The missing element here is the list of CIA successes. The only one that comes to mind is levelling the playing field in the Afghan vs. Soviet conflict, by providing Stinger missiles to the Afghans to neutralize Soviet helicopter gunships.

  9. VXXC says:

    The CIA succeeded because we say it succeeded dammit. Oh, and DOD always takes the blame like the Chumps they are.

    Meanwhile: Lithuania is better armed than we are, BTW.

    Better IFV Infantry fighting vehicles: Boxer Vilkas.
    Better anti tank missiles: Spike.
    Better IFV protection: Raphael.
    Better self propelled artillery: PZH 2000, which has over triple the rate of fire of the M109.

    And they are getting JTLV’s [MRAP light] before most of us.

  10. Altitude Zero says:

    The real base-level problem with us training foreign armies is that we want them to fight for what WE want them to fight for, rather than what they actually want to fight for. Most Afghans didn’t particularly care for the Taliban, and would have probably fought against them for a traditional government led by the king. They had no desire to fight for a kleptocrat “President”, gay rights, and St. George Floyd. And who, really can blame them?

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