WASHINGTON — With alarming frequency in recent years, thousands of US-trained security forces in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia have collapsed, stalled, or defected.
The results have called into question the effectiveness of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States on foreign military training programs, as well as a central tenet of the Obama administration’s approach to combating insurgencies.
The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries that present the administration with some of its biggest challenges.
The Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar province, the heartland of the Islamic State militant group, have barely engaged its forces, while several thousand US-backed government forces and militia in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province were forced to retreat last week when attacked by several hundred Taliban fighters.
And in Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers.
US-trained forces face different problems in each place, some of which are out of the United States’ control. But what many of them have in common, US military and counterterrorism officials say, is poor leadership, a lack of will, and the need to function in the face of intractable political problems with little support. Without their US advisers, many local forces have repeatedly shown an inability to fight.
“Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a former military commander and US ambassador in Afghanistan.
The US military has trained soldiers in scores of countries for decades. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that mission increased, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the ultimate goal was to replace the large US armies deployed there.
The push to rebuild the Iraqi army that the United States disbanded after the 2003 invasion had largely succeeded by the time US troops withdrew eight years later. But that $25 billion effort quickly crumbled after the Americans left, when the politicization of the army leadership under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki eroded the military’s effectiveness at all levels, US officials said.
In Afghanistan, basic training typically included marksmanship, ambush drills, and other counterterrorism skills. Before they could begin that, most new Afghan recruits also needed time-consuming literacy training so they could read the serial numbers on their weapons, or lessons on proper hygiene to prevent illnesses that would reduce their effectiveness in combat.
Still, there were notable successes: Afghan special forces trained and advised by their US counterparts proved to be especially capable fighters.
Then, in a commencement speech at the US Military Academy in May 2014, President Obama put the training of foreign troops at the center of his strategy for combating militant groups that threatened US interests.
The United States, he said, would no longer send large armies to fight those wars and, in the case of Afghanistan, would continue to withdraw the forces that are there. Instead, it would send small numbers of military trainers and advisers to help local forces, providing them with logistical, intelligence and other support.
“We have to develop a strategy,” Obama said, “that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments. We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”
Obama’s approach has already endured several setbacks, but with no political appetite among most Republicans or Democrats to send in large numbers of US troops, the administration is adjusting its strategy, often turning to regional allies for help in supporting local forces.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the military campaigns against the Taliban and Islamic State made little headway.
After acknowledging that only four or five US-trained Syrian rebels were actually in the fight there, Pentagon officials said last week that they were suspending the movement of new recruits from Syria to Turkey and Jordan for training.
The program suffered from a shortage of recruits willing to fight the Islamic State instead of the army of President Bashar Assad, a problem Obama noted at a news conference on Friday.