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The CIA Is Better Than the U.S. Military at Creating Foreign Armies

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The disintegration of the Afghan army—trained and equipped by the U.S. military for the past two decades—has once again raised questions about the efficacy of the Defense Department’s advise-and-assist programs with foreign partner militaries. The United States spent more than $83 billion trying to build up the Afghan force only to see it collapse in a matter of 11 days following a Taliban onslaught, itself triggered by the U.S. military withdrawal from the country.

One U.S. government organization that has been generally more effective than the Pentagon in improving some capacities and capabilities of foreign partners, and at decidedly less cost in blood and treasure, is the CIA. And that’s even when considering those costs against substantial CIA casualties over 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Lebanon and Vietnam.

But first, it’s important not to compare apples to oranges. For a start, CIA programs are much more modest in scale and limited in mission than those of the U.S. military. It’s one thing to train and equip a smallish group of fighters and another altogether to build a national army from scratch.

Second, not all friends of Washington, and especially in the Middle East, want to work with the CIA. It’s already challenging for some governments and armies in the region to establish stronger ties with the U.S. military due to accusations by anti-U.S. domestic actors of undermining sovereignty and independence. It’s a lot more challenging to partner with the CIA, which in most quarters of the region has a terrible reputation.

Third, because it has fewer resources than the U.S. military, the CIA often runs the risk of recruiting foreign sources that aren’t properly vetted and end up engaging in illegal or unethical tradecraft. The often poor record of foreign partners working with the CIA on human rights is of particular concern to Congress and various rights organizations in the United States.

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. We know about all the flops of the Defense Department in this field because executive and legislative oversight mechanisms are numerous and oftentimes effective. That’s not the case with the CIA, though.

These limitations notwithstanding, there are considerable benefits to the CIA’s ability to establish vital connections with foreign assets. The key differences between the CIA and the Defense Department are cultural and procedural. Unlike the Pentagon’s enormous, overly bureaucratic, and inflexible security cooperation enterprise, the CIA doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all blueprint.


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.

While it’s necessary to reemphasize that the CIA’s small size and unique intelligence collection authorities and responsibilities (set forth in the 1947 National Security Act, the 1949 CIA Act, Executive Order 12333, or other applicable provisions of law or presidential directives) provide it with far greater flexibility than the U.S. defense establishment in spending and acquisition, it tends to be more frugal and efficient when freed of the obligation to use U.S. vendors and equipment.


There’s no debate over the prowess of U.S.-made weapons. The problem is some of those whom the United States trains are illiterate in their own languages, let alone speak English or any common language with comrades with whom they might share a fighting hole, and lack the education found among U.S. troops. Although some specialized units and conventional formations in the Lebanese army and the Iraqi army are capable of incorporating combined arms, they are largely organized as light infantry, and they are forced to adapt predominantly to U.S. tactics. CIA programs leverage local strengths and modularly blend in more sophisticated tactics to build on rather than replace that which makes the locals effective.

The basic weapon of choice for those units that the CIA has historically supported tends to be the cheaper and easier-to-use Kalashnikov rifle, with heavier weapons including machine guns and anti-armor being likewise from Russian-made inventories. Another advantage is that the weapons and their ammunition are equally almost always compatible with those being fielded by their enemies, should rounds or replacements need to be found on the battlefield. Even light artillery and aviation assets (generally, rotary wing) derived from Russian models are likely to be cheaper and easier to maintain. Yes, U.S. tools are better, but as witnessed in Afghanistan, they are useless if they can’t function or be operated—or if their pilots and crew members are left unprotected from assassination when out of uniform.

Equipping such units is exponentially cheaper when not burdened with U.S. requirements and materials, making it easier to keep them well armed, supplied, and cared for. As the SIGAR report illustrates, and as press coverage of the ANDSF’s collapse has likewise reflected, Afghan units were suffering from a lack of ammunition and food, with soldiers often unpaid for long periods of time. Meanwhile, some commanders and senior officers were too frequently siphoning off funds intended to support their units or drawing the salaries of nonexistent so-called ghost soldiers they fabricated to secure additional funding.

The CIA regularly audits and adapts the materials and tactics being used to offset the threats faced by the units it advises, assists, trains, and equips, with the agility to move quickly in adjusting to the fluidity of the battlefield. It can innovate and identify equipment that could be improvised, procured, and fielded without the extensive, often congressionally mandated timelines and bid process faced by the U.S. military. Perhaps more importantly, CIA-trained fighters were paid handsomely and more reliably compared with the ANDSF and, equally important, with those fighting, often only seasonally, for the Taliban.

CIA-supported fighters were also better fed and lodged than their ANDSF counterparts or Taliban opponents. Battlefield medics and sustained medical care for casualties have been key elements in CIA programs that have ensured such capabilities could be learned and fielded by their charges. The golden hour of critical medical care for life-threatening battlefield injuries is required in planning operations not only for U.S. forces but those the CIA has supported, and facilities were built to tend to those discharged owing to combat injury or retirement.

But for all of the above, nothing has been more important to the CIA’s success than organizing units along tribal, ethnic, and clan lines. Whether the Hmong hill tribesmen of Vietnam or in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighters came from the same communities with obligation and a code of honor to the elders or relatives already in such units who screened and vouched for them.

The U.S. intelligence community had long cautioned policymakers that assessing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s longevity following a U.S. withdrawal could not be divined from either the 1989-92 experience of the Soviet-supported regime of Mohammad Najibullah or the 1996-2001 chapter of Taliban rule, when, in both cases, the capabilities and loyalties of regional warlords were enabled by the delegation of money and authority. The U.S. commitment to re-creating Afghanistan along American lines with a strong central government and integrated national army, and Ghani’s unwillingness to yield  a measure of power or authority to the end when he fled the country, defanged the country’s ethnic minorities and regional players.

The cost to the CIA’s approach, of course, is that in many cases the organization funded predatory warlords and strongmen who worked against the interests of the Kabul government, leading to a decrease in national unity and even insecurity. For example, when the Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban soon after 9/11, their militias attacked Pashtun villages, raping women and girls, executing civilians, and stealing goods and lands.

The CIA model is hardly a panacea nor is it a perfect fit for broad, national programs the U.S. military is charged to administer. Even the CIA suffered from the hubris of some U.S. leaders who wanted to be part of the action and take on problems well beyond those of the organization’s actual mandate. But there is ample merit in the CIA’s security assistance method. Its focus on cultures, people, relationships, intelligence, and agility should in many ways guide America’s efforts to cultivate foreign partners in the future.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.