Washington’s Helicopter Parenting Leaves U.S. Partners Without Their Own Skills | #parenting


An Oct. 3, 2021, Foreign Policy article by Bret Devereaux argued the United States should change the way it builds partnered militaries and create them as “auxiliaries” along the lines of imperial Rome. Devereaux is a capable historian of ancient Rome, but the techniques of around 2,000 years ago no longer work. In fact, the United States has an unfortunate tendency to follow the Roman model when building host nation security forces, albeit unconsciously—with disappointing results.

In its most vital and heavily resourced overseas endeavors, the United States creates partner forces as appendages of its own military and intelligence services rather than as independent and capable structures able to stand on their own. Like the proverbial “helicopter parent”—and indeed, sometimes literally by using helicopters—the United States often sees situations as too important not to do the hard things itself and doesn’t allow its partners the opportunity to learn from failure. That produces partners that find themselves unable to stand on their own when the United States eventually pulls out. Instead, they become dependent on Washington—whether it’s for air support, logistics, communications, or other critical enablers—and incapable of achieving the autonomy they will inevitably need in the long run.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, the mood in the United States is strongly against nation building elsewhere. But this attitude is cyclical and likely to change in the future given the scale of the United States’ global commitments and increasing temperature of its competition with China and Russia. There will be another time when strategic countries need strengthening—whether because they were the source of another damaging terrorist attack or to help them stand as important bulwarks against competitors.

An Oct. 3, 2021, Foreign Policy article by Bret Devereaux argued the United States should change the way it builds partnered militaries and create them as “auxiliaries” along the lines of imperial Rome. Devereaux is a capable historian of ancient Rome, but the techniques of around 2,000 years ago no longer work. In fact, the United States has an unfortunate tendency to follow the Roman model when building host nation security forces, albeit unconsciously—with disappointing results.

In its most vital and heavily resourced overseas endeavors, the United States creates partner forces as appendages of its own military and intelligence services rather than as independent and capable structures able to stand on their own. Like the proverbial “helicopter parent”—and indeed, sometimes literally by using helicopters—the United States often sees situations as too important not to do the hard things itself and doesn’t allow its partners the opportunity to learn from failure. That produces partners that find themselves unable to stand on their own when the United States eventually pulls out. Instead, they become dependent on Washington—whether it’s for air support, logistics, communications, or other critical enablers—and incapable of achieving the autonomy they will inevitably need in the long run.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, the mood in the United States is strongly against nation building elsewhere. But this attitude is cyclical and likely to change in the future given the scale of the United States’ global commitments and increasing temperature of its competition with China and Russia. There will be another time when strategic countries need strengthening—whether because they were the source of another damaging terrorist attack or to help them stand as important bulwarks against competitors.

When (not if) Washington again finds itself developing a partner military in a fragile state, the United States should develop these militaries as stand-alone forces that are not dependent on its exquisite capabilities. Rather than waiting until U.S. forces are about to leave and then wishing their partners luck on their way out the door, U.S. partners must be developed as fully autonomous entities and given the opportunity to fail right from the start so they can correct necessary deficiencies while the United States is still there to dust them off and help them move ahead.

In three major endeavors over the last half century—Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Vietnam—the United States and its first world allies have largely chosen to bear the brunt of major combat operations on their own and only assign battlefield responsibilities to host nation partners very late in those conflicts. Although regular forces have lagged behind, each of these conflicts has seen the development of small numbers of elite, highly effective forces—including Afghan commandos, Iraqi counterterrorism forces, and South Vietnamese Rangers, respectively. These often exist under their own largely independent structure with highly trained troops and specially selected officers. These special forces serve two purposes. For the United States, these are the perfect auxiliaries—excellent appendages to support its own elite forces. For the leaders of fragile partner states, these are also politically palatable as countercoup forces to protect national leaders.

For both of these reasons, these elite units aren’t integrated into the normal military structure; hence, the rest of the force doesn’t really improve from cross-fertilization with these more highly trained personnel. As with the rest of their military structures, these elite forces also tend to be heavily dependent on U.S. support—often even more so since they are used to operating as valuable components closely integrated with the U.S. military. Once U.S. forces are withdrawn, these forces are often tactically superior to the rest of their militaries, which have seen far less operational experience since they were less valuable to the U.S. effort. Unfortunately, rather than being able to continue to contribute their specialized functions, they end up being used as “fire brigades” to fix problems regular units should normally be expected to handle, suffering inordinately heavy (and hard to replace) losses that would otherwise be spread across the force.

Americans are hardwired to want results fast. They know they can do things right with their own highly effective military, so they create the minimum partner force structure necessary to allow the U.S. military to tackle the hard problems. U.S. partners are left to provide static forces to hold ground while more capable U.S. forces conduct the more difficult tasks.

Small unit infantry forces can be trained and fielded easier and much faster than effective logistics and command and control capabilities can, which create the sinews necessary to support and enable truly independent operations. If the United States does the logistics and command and control itself, it doesn’t need to worry about accomplishing these more complicated tasks. And the United States needs partner forces to accompany its own forces and hold ground anyway, so it’s easier to push the development of essential logistics and support functions until later in the conflict.

The United States regularly does better with this in smaller commitments because, under those circumstances, it is unable to do everything for its partners and has to allow them to do things themselves. For example, in Plan Colombia in the early 2000s, the United States provided the necessary equipment (particularly helicopters) and enablers, such as training and intelligence, while the Colombians carried the responsibility for major combat operations. Some argue such “small footprint” commitments are the best way to approach future efforts to build partner capacity. Sometimes, however, standing up a new military requires a much greater commitment of U.S. forces because there are so many things wrong or the threat is so large that small commitments will not be enough. Larger problems require larger footprints.

But even for larger, higher priorities and heavily resourced endeavors, the United States has been capable of doing better. During the Korean War, South Korean forces were given battle space of their own. Although they operated as part of an integrated joint command system, South Korean divisions and later corps had their own responsibilities and fought alongside United Nations forces. Even as their entire organizational structure was massively reformed and reorganized by the United States during the conflict, these forces continued to fight and dramatically improved their capabilities by the 1953 cease-fire. Today, South Korea’s military stands as a shining success of U.S. efforts to build competent partners. That success can be repeated—if attitudes change.

More than a century ago, British officer T.E. Lawrence provided “27 Articles” on how to advise foreign forces—in his case, an Arab force fighting against the declining Ottoman Empire. His 15th article remains a fitting coda to U.S. advisory efforts in Afghanistan: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

Lawrence’s advice still applies to future operations to assist the building or rebuilding of host nation security forces in failed or failing states. Critical lessons include:

  • Make creating all the supporting components for independent operations an immediate priority. It takes much longer to build intelligence forces, logistics units, and maintenance capabilities than it does to stand up infantry battalions. Start with the hardest tasks first.
  • Give partners their own battle space and important tasks right from the beginning. Have them use their own critical enablers and support themselves. Don’t do things for them. Allow them the opportunity to fail. This provides the political impetus for the United States’ own advisory personnel to help push change. This may be challenging for a domestic audience. There will be political and institutional pressure for immediate success. Additionally, U.S. military culture has a very low tolerance for failure. However, it’s much better to suffer small challenges early on than to face gut-wrenching collapse at the end. U.S. military and political leaders need to be frank about this process from the start and prepare the American population as a whole—and U.S. military in particular—for the hard but necessary requirement of partners growing by doing it themselves.
  • Provide resources to advisory personnel from front-line units all the way to the top. It took the United States more than a decade to create the Security Force Assistance Brigades, standing units dedicated to training and advising foreign security forces, which were critical to the United States’ exit strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States never focused enough on building advisors for their national ministries. As it saw in Afghanistan, even good combat units will fail if the Afghan Ministry of Defense in the capital collapses.
  • Create a unified military structure. Put their commanders and staff alongside the United States’. It takes longer to train and develop senior leaders and staff, so give them control of increasingly larger areas as their confidence and capabilities improve.
  • Be prepared for a long commitment, but that doesn’t have to equate to a higher cost of U.S. casualties. In fact, it can have the opposite outcome. The earlier and more energetically the United States develops its partners’ capacities, the more those partners can shoulder the burden of major combat operations.

In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States struggled to build capable security forces that could maintain stability after its departure; it is clear there is a critical flaw in its approach. But that doesn’t mean these problems are unsolvable. The United States succeeded in South Korea and Colombia and even had tactical successes in both Iraq and Afghanistan—though too late and after many mistakes and missed opportunities.

In a world of increasing strategic competition, the costs of failure could be much higher, so it is vital the United States learns from its experiences. Americans must pull back on their strategic culture of helicopter parenting and doing things themselves. If they instead empower U.S. partners from the beginning, the United States can build forces that are able to stand and fight after its departure—to provide not just a decent interval after its departure but a capable regional partner for decades to come.

The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official positions of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or U.S. Defense Department.



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