The spectacle of Iraqi troops stripping off their uniforms and ditching U.S. materiel worth millions of dollars in their headlong flight out of Mosul, leaving much of Iraq’s north and east in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, casts doubt on a main tenet of U.S. security strategy: its heavy focus on host-nation militaries, irrespective of the governments they serve.

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
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Yet the latest formulation of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, outlined by President Barack Obama at West Point late last month, is built around that very tenet. It is time to take stock of the hard lessons from America’s inglorious history of dealing with local proxies and revise the approach.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States poured prodigious resources into building and partnering with local forces, while officials turned a blind eye to the toxic sectarianism and corruption (respectively) of the two countries’ governments. Events in Iraq show the fundamental bankruptcy of this approach.

ISIS’s lightning advance across Iraq’s Sunni heartland had less to do with its strategic acumen or compelling vision than with how Iraqi security institutions have come to embody the sectarianism, corruption and nepotism of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Even back in 2008, the Iraqi security forces stubbornly blocked the reintegration of American-backed “Sons of Iraq” that had fought against al Qaeda.

Some have suggested that more sustained U.S. mentoring and advising—a residual force after the main withdrawal—could have averted the current catastrophe by making the Iraqi Army more competent and less partisan. But such notions vastly overstate U.S. leverage and influence.

It’s important to understand the limits of U.S. assistance: It can help build security institutions, but it cannot shape how those institutions are commandeered for personal, political or communal aims. Nor can it substitute for a government seen as reasonably equitable and legitimate.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.

Although cases of mass desertion have been rare in Afghanistan, and Afghan soldiers and police have stood their ground and borne a terrible toll in the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign—losing more than 100 men per week during last year’s most intense period of fighting—more than a third of the force trickles away each year through attrition. Today’s events in Iraq bode ill for what will happen when the last U.S. forces leave in 2016.

In the meantime, units that receive U.S. training and support have committed blood-chilling depredations against local civilians. The chief of police of Kandahar province, a key U.S. ally during the 2010 troop surge into the Afghan south, is notorious for having his men take members of a rival tribe into the desert and shoot them. A spike in the number of internally displaced persons beginning 2011 has been attributed not to Taliban excesses, but to those of the undisciplined local militias organized by U.S. Special Forces.

Yet, in spite of these object lessons, the counterterrorism approach Obama outlined at West Point would essentially subcontract America’s war on al Qaeda to the armed forces of governments that are just as counterproductive as Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s. As ISIS’s advance demonstrates, this strategy runs the risk of exacerbating terrorist threats instead of containing them.

At the National Defense University a year ago, Obama himself recognized the limits of any exclusively military approach to jihadism. “In the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism,” he emphasized then, “a perpetual war … will prove self-defeating.” And yet, apart from his vaguely worded insistence that Iraqis be “prepared to work together,” no subsequent speech has unveiled such a concerted strategy. And, despite his laudable reservations about rushing to the aid of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki without some sign of political reform, Obama still envisions a perpetual war—just fought by others.

In his West Point speech, the president called for a new “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund” – on top of at least $26 billion the United States already earmarks for foreign security forces – “to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”

In this war, the United States will be aligned with the armies and security services of governments—Obama mentioned Yemen’s and Somalia’s—that are no more legitimate in the eyes of their people than those of Maliki in Iraq or Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. And the likelihood that such allies will either collapse at the first serious military challenge or prove actively counterproductive is high.

Military support, when lent to armies in repressive, authoritarian states, tends to reinforce unpopular government and enable practices that nourish extremism. In Egypt, under former dictator Hosni Mubarak, or Nigeria today, for example, heavy-handed and rapacious police forces have preyed upon ordinary people, shaking them down at market stalls or in public transportation, arresting them on invented charges or descending on their neighborhoods in vicious sweeps. The judicial system offers no recourse. In prison, indignant men easily fall prey to terrorist propaganda and initial training. Under the guise of “counterterrorism,” such regimes crack down on political opponents.

To provide U.S. military equipment and training to governments like these—even if the assistance is not directly used in physical repression—still reinforces those governments and identifies the United States with the abuses.

Consider U.S. military support to the Mubarak regime: More than $1.5 billion in U.S. aid per year for the last three decades has yielded few personal relationships or influence over military officers, but served as an important source of funding and prestige, the equivalent of a U.S. imprimatur for regime excesses. It is perhaps no wonder that Egyptians occupy the top ranks of al Qaeda leadership, including the position left vacant by Osama Bin Laden.

When U.S. support is provided to fragile, fractured states with weak central authority—such as those with nominal sway over ungoverned swathes of the Sahara and Sahel, Yemen or Afghanistan—it can contribute to warlordism or the rise of sectarian or ethnic-based forces, as it has done in Iraq. Their depredations fuel internal strife that can rapidly spin out of control.

In Libya, the United States is training elite counterterrorism forces and is planning to train the larger Libyan army. But the country’s political landscape is so fractured that no single national army exists. Entire air force and special operations units—the focus of a planned U.S. assistance effort—have now defected to a retired general who has vowed to “cleanse” Libya of Islamists. Any future U.S. support will be in de facto partnership not with the state, but with one of many armed factions now vying for control. In such a fractured landscape, outside military assistance will lead to one of two equally undesirable outcomes: a strengthening of the militias or a drift toward praetorianism or a possible coup.

A previous U.S. effort to train a Libyan counterterrorism unit collapsed last year when its camp was raided by competing tribal militias—resulting, before Mosul, in a massive transfer of U.S. military materiel into the attackers’ hands. That unit, one of us discovered in interviews, was drawn almost exclusively from western mountain tribes, rather than representing Libya’s diverse regions and political affiliations.

Without careful effort to avoid such pitfalls, the new counterterrorism approach – which largely expands past practices – will likely produce the opposite of its intended effect. Holding the United States responsible for colluding with local powers, what were originally local groups with local aims might set their sights on U.S. interests, as they have already, in some cases, done.

Nevertheless, even within what may be the least bad in a range of imperfect options, there are ways U.S. assistance to local counterterrorism forces can avoid inadvertently contributing to the very extremism it seeks to curb.

First, where at all possible, law-enforcement approaches to extremist violence are preferable to military ones. Any counterterrorism support should be linked to a reform of local law enforcement agencies and local judiciaries. Police and judicial officials need salaries they can live on so as to reduce the pretext for corruption. Rules of evidence and procedure should be tightened, and, when detainees are released, local communities should be engaged to serve as guarantees for their ongoing good behavior, as was piloted in Afghanistan in 2011.

Before a decision to work with local military units is made, secondly, they and their prospective recruits must be carefully evaluated. Is the unit a mainstay of an authoritarian, kleptocratic government, or of a particular political leader? Is a single tribe, sect, ethnic group or other network overrepresented in its ranks? Is U.S. support being used as a revenue stream to enrich corrupt networks, or relieve the local government’s own responsibility to provide for national defense? Have they refused to take remedial measures when large-scale abuses have been documented? Any of these factors are warning signs that U.S. counterterrorism support can be bent to ulterior purposes, and might end up fueling popular grievances.

In cases where vetted units are judged to be appropriate partners, America should not issue a blank check. Rigorous conditions and oversight should govern military assistance and training. Indications of financial irregularity, of gross recruiting bias or of inappropriate targeting or other serious wrongdoing on the part of supported units should trigger an automatic suspension of aid while an investigation is launched. Current U.S. law provides for such procedures. Substantiated abuses should result in termination of assistance and reimbursement of expenditures.

Finally, it is time for President Obama to back up his proposition that force alone is not a sufficient response to extremist violence. After two major counterterrorism speeches devoted to varieties of military action, the president should unveil a civilian strategy that helps push America’s allies in the fight against terrorism to undertake meaningful political, economic and judicial reforms—in other words, to address the well-springs of extremism—before insurgents are baying at the gates of the capital city.

This article was originally published in Politico Magazine.