Security Force Assistance: Creating a New Paradigm

Foreign Intrigue is pleased to provide an exceptional article on Security Force Assistance by guest contributor CPT (P) Chris Mercado. An Active Duty U.S. Army Infantry Officer, Chris will attend the Georgetown Security Studies Program as a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar of the Combating Terrorism Center, USMA. Captain Mercado served three combat deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat advisor, Provincial Reconstruction Team member, and as a Rifle & HHC company commander.

Eric Jones
Editor in Chief
Foreign Intrigue


In June 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) launched an audacious attack across the northern half of Iraq, seizing control of several large Iraqi cities and nearly causing the implosion of four Iraqi Army Divisions. Despite nine years of collaboration, training, and the investment of billions of dollars by the US and its allies, the Iraqi Army was unable to provide even a modest defense in the face of an apparently inferior adversary. At its core, the abysmal battlefield performance of the Iraqi Army reflects a failure of institutional capacity and degraded (non-existent) combat readiness.


Training and equipping foreign forces rarely offers a clean or simple solution to the problem of sub-state violence, particularly in those states already on the brink of failure. As evidenced by recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan, the task is expensive, fraught with risk, and requires a significant amount of political will and long term commitment. The United States invested billions training and equipping the Afghan mujahadeen to fight the Soviets during the Cold War, and the Afghans consistently achieved brilliant tactical battlefield victories, victories which ultimately led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Subsequent to the Soviet’s defeat, however, the United States lacked the political will to invest any further in Afghanistan, leaving the Afghans and their decimated state open to the influences of subversive actors. The failed state that emerged – run by the Taliban and open to hosting the international terrorist organization al Qaeda – eventually forced the United States to re-involve itself with Afghanistan, an attempt to address the mistakes of its past. With the United States now conducting a limited air campaign to support the Yazidis and halt the ISIS advance, as well as looking to arm Syrian rebels with $500 million in weapons and equipment, it is worth reevaluating our method of providing security force assistance.


A March 2013 report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) noted that the development of the Iraqi security forces cost in excess of $25 billion. The SIGIR report singles out the Iraq Security Forces Fund as worthy of special mention, having outperformed other funded efforts with regard to expectations. The report indicates that “the effort led by the U.S. military to improve Iraqi security forces produced the most lasting, positive impact of our reconstruction dollars,” and that this success was due to a “very robust U.S. led train-and-equip program.” How then, does a defense and security apparatus consisting of nearly one million personnel by late 2011 crumble in the face of a force estimated to be 1/100th its size?


Last month, in his article “Raising an Army: Ten Rules,” Dr. Sean McFate provides an excellent critique of the U.S. Army’s current “train and equip” model of security force assistance, asserting that it merely produces “better dressed soldiers that shoot straighter.” McFate, relying on his extremely successful experience raising an Army in Africa, asserts that the “train and equip” model focuses too narrowly on technical skills like training, tactics, and techniques at the expense of critical but intangible factors. Instead, McFate suggests that “engaging civil society, growing leaders, building institutions, and instilling professionalism” provide better outcomes in security force assistance.


McFate is not alone in his assessment. In a 14 July 2014 article on Defense One, retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard suggested that the major reason for the failure of the Iraqi Army was the lack of a “parallel effort to establish governing institutions capable of earning the loyalty and commitment of its soldiers.”In General Gard’s view, success in combat comes as a result of intangible qualities such as commitment and morale, and that the broken confidence of the Iraqi Security Forces in their government came as a result of failed government institutions, a corrupt authoritarian regime that was exclusive of its minorities, and a preference for personal loyalty to the prime minister over professional competence.


In January of 2013, while giving an address to students of the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course, Major General H.R. McMaster said “the only two worthy measures of success in small units are combat effectiveness and combat readiness.” General McMaster went on to explain how effectiveness in combat comes as a result of a unit’s readiness to perform its wartime mission. Inextricably linked, a unit’s potential performance in combat is limited by its society’s institutional capacity to keep a force ready.


Plagued by incompetent leaders, wanton corruption, and lacking the institutional capacity to maintain its equipment, conduct unit and organizational training, sustain its forces, or resupply its units, it should have come as no surprise that the Iraqi security forces would perform poorly on the battlefield. Despite nine years of partnership with the United States and $25 billion in security force assistance, thirty months of inattention was sufficient to degrade the combat readiness of the Iraqi Army to a point where a 10,000-person force completely overwhelmed its capabilities. Uncommitted to their men or the mission, Iraqi officers fled, leaving their men to fend for themselves.


In his report, McFate adds that security force assistance is also deeply political in nature, stating that “technical approaches that ignore the politics will fail.” A security force should possess a professional military ethos and must mirror civil society. Should it lack a “respect for the rule of law, human rights, and allegiance to the constitution” or exclude ethnicities, security forces can rapidly devolve into a “sectarian killing machine.” Maliki’s Shia government valued blind obedience in its security forces over professional competence. In my role as a combat advisor on a military transition team in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 I witnessed this personally. Highly successful and having earned extremely high praise from his American advisors, the Sunni battalion commander of the unit I advised was routinely and vigorously attacked at all angles by both senior Shia leaders and political rivals. More than simply capable, I have remarked to many of my peers that this Iraqi commander was so good that I would have been honored to serve under him as my battalion commander in the U.S. Army. Though he did advance and serve as a brigade commander in the Iraqi Army, I learned that after a series of groundless arrests, eventually the pressure proved too much and he left the Iraqi Army.


Readiness is a temporary condition. As McFate, Gard, and McMaster make clear, the institutions supporting and surrounding an armed force must provide additional sustainment training, professional education, effective administration, and the mechanisms to sustain both its personnel and its equipment. Absent these mechanisms, soldiers and police won’t be paid, promotions won’t be based on merit, equipment will fall apart, and the technical skills to shoot, move, communicate, and navigate will perish. This is clearly the case of the Iraqi Security Forces.


Security force assistance demands a new paradigm, one that recognizes and directly addresses the “critical but intangible” factors identified by McFate and others. The elements of this new paradigm include:


  • Focus on shaping the political institutions surrounding and supporting the states armed forces. This requires a cadre of advisors from the Department of State to embed into the recipient nation’s institutions, building capacity from within.


  • The effort to influence, shape, and grow support institutions must occur in parallel and be coordinated with the technical and tactical training and equipping of the states security services. This ensures that state development and security force development are not at odds, and efforts to build or strengthen both are in strategic alignment and reinforce one another.


  • Equipping the force should be limited to only that equipment that is widely available locally. This ensures that efforts to resupply can be independently sourced after security force assistance trainers withdraw, and that training in these tools is not attempt to leapfrog a security service beyond its level of expertise and competence.


  • A vigorous security force applicant vetting program must be developed and adhered to. Such a program ensures that unfit, criminal, or politically-appointed applicants are weeded out and not afforded the opportunity to corrupt or subvert the force from within. It also prevents human rights abuse, green-on-blue fratricide, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, and helps establish legitimacy in the eyes of fellow countrymen.


  • Training the security forces should be left to those units specifically trained to provide such training. Specifically, the Green Berets. This also limits the size of the security force assistance military commitment, increasing sustainability and limiting the degree to which any security force trainers could become directly involved in combat operations.


  • Expansion of officer’s training regimen to include qualities and capabilities beyond TTPs. All levels of an officer’s military education should include leadership development, critical thinking and decision making, professionalism, ethical conduct, service, and duty to the state, the mission, and the men.


Taken together, these efforts would seek to establish sustainable and stable mechanisms of readiness.


In Iraq, the US-led reconstruction effort trained, advised, armed, and equipped a security force that was, as of January 2012, capable of meeting its mission. Some thirty months later this same force was incapable of mustering any defense against ISIS’advance. While it may be tempting to use the Iraqi security forces’abysmal battlefield performance to call into question the effectiveness of security force assistance programs generally, to do so would confuse simultaneity with causality. The poor battlefield performance of the Iraqi Army is a result of a complex set of factors, including poor civilian and military leadership, pervasive corruption, lack of institutional capacity, and lack of political will. These factors, combined with the inherent shortcomings of the “train and equip”model of security force assistance, are what led to defeat on the battlefield.


Seen as wasteful and messy, there is a tendency to recoil and avoid security force assistance in favor of a military’s traditional mission of preparing for and engaging in combat operations. Despite the challenges, security force assistance can produce a credible, capable, and sustainable force that is ready to meet the security responsibilities of the civil society it is charged to protect. The urgency to master this task – to create effective security force assistance programs that produce consistent results – will only continue to grow.


The United States remains engaged in security force assistance operations globally, in countries like Afghanistan, Ukraine, Israel, as well as with the Palestinian Authority. The current training paradigm relies on the maligned “train and equip” model. To be successful, a new paradigm in security force assistance is needed, one that relies not only on the training tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) but, as outlined by McFate, on leadership development, developing professionalism and ethical conduct, and surrounded by a civilian leadership that supports its mission with the necessary institutions required to properly select, equip, and maintain a fighting force.

(Featured photo courtesy of CPT Mercado)



CPT Chris Mercado

CPT (P) Chris Mercado. an Active Duty U.S. Army Infantry Officer, will attend the Georgetown Security Studies Program as a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar of the Combating Terrorism Center, USMA. Captain Mercado served three combat deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat advisor, Provincial Reconstruction Team member, and as a Rifle & HHC company commander.  You can follow him on Twitter at @Christo96584430.