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House to Review US Programs to Train and Equip Foreign Forces

Afghan National Army and U.S. soldiers, and Taylor, a U.S. service dog trained to find explosives, wait in a security formation at the start of a partnered air assault mission to Mirugal Kalay, Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2014. (U.S. Army photo/Brock Jones)
Afghan National Army and U.S. soldiers, and Taylor, a U.S. service dog trained to find explosives, wait in a security formation at the start of a partnered air assault mission to Mirugal Kalay, Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2014. (U.S. Army photo/Brock Jones)

WASHINGTON -- The United States’ long and often troubled effort to train and equip foreign forces against terrorist groups was thrust back into the spotlight Thursday, when House lawmakers weary of the Afghanistan war pushed back against calls to keep troops there. The White House might abandon plans to end the war next year and maintain current forces beyond 2016 after top commander Gen. John Campbell deemed Afghanistan’s army and police unable to fully protect the country. Members of the House Armed Services Committee, many of them Democrats, said they are frustrated by a lack of progress in producing a capable army and police force after nearly a decade of train-and-equip efforts by the U.S. military. Concerns about such programs have spiked as similar efforts to train forces against the Islamic State have suffered setbacks. The House committee said Thursday it will hold a series of hearings later this month looking at why train-and-equip programs in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have faltered or failed. “We have phantom people on the rosters, we have 60-year-old men uneducated [and] signed up for these Afghan forces, we have tons of people we are paying that aren’t even showing up for work. This has been going on and on and on,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said. Campbell urged the committee to have patience with the security forces, saying they are comprised of “warriors” willing to fight the Taliban and still hold promise for creating a stable, independent Afghanistan. However, in his testimony to the House and Senate this week, Campbell said Afghan security forces were “uneven and inconsistent” in their first fighting season unaided by the large U.S. forces of the past following recent drawdowns. For example, Afghan commanders hastily deployed forces in a haphazard and uncoordinated campaign in the Helmand province, where U.S. troops waged a hard, bloody offensive earlier in the war. “They have repeatedly shown that without key enablers and competent, operational-level leaders, they cannot handle the fight alone in this stage of development,” Campbell said. “Ultimately, I am convinced that improved leadership and accountability will address most of their deficiencies but it will take time for them to build their human capital.” Sanchez shot back during her questioning of the general. “I’ve heard this for 14 years, we’re going to get better, it’s going to be more efficient, we’re getting there,” she said. “The reality is that we’re not.” The United States began its training effort in 2002 with plans to train tens of thousands of troops and police to protect the capital Kabul. In the years that followed, the plan shifted as the Taliban threat grew and the money pumped into the train-and-equip programs grew into the billions. This year, the U.S. and coalition partners have spent $4.1 billion on the Afghan forces and the country now has about 156,000 national police and 173,000 army soldiers, according to the general. Campbell said the cost is declining each year, partly due to completed facilities projects. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a rare Republican opposing continued intervention, said the United States has spent $686 billion since its invasion in 2001 and wasted billions of dollars on rebuilding the country, despite an $18-trillion national debt. “The American taxpayer has got to know at some point in time there is going to be an end in this investment. Money, blood, there has got to be an end to it,” he said. The inability of Afghans to command forces, collect intelligence and effectively battle the Taliban -- evidenced in the surprise siege of Kunduz city last week -- is now likely to draw out the 14-year war, now the longest in American history. Meanwhile, train-and-equip programs in Syria and Iraq to fight the Islamic State have either failed or are riddled with problems. Congress approved $500 million last year to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. But last month, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, told the Senate only about four or five fighters were left on the battlefield after the first group trained by the United States was immediately routed by other rebel forces. Furthermore, a commander of the allied Syrian forces turned over supplied vehicles and weapons to an al-Qaida affiliate, the Pentagon said. On Sept. 30, the Defense Department inspector general issued an audit that showed deficiencies in the U.S. training mission in Iraq. After the fall of northern Iraq to the Islamic State in 2014, the military launched an air campaign and a new mission to retrain the country’s security forces at four sites in the country. The United States spent about $25 billion between 2003 and 2011 to train the Iraqi security forces, though they quickly folded under the onslaught and now are struggling to take back key cities such as Ramadi and Mosul. The IG audit found uncertainty about the mission, equipment that was incomplete, inaccurate supply inventories and inadequate housing. A classified index of the report identified leadership issues in the effort. “In some cases, even the Iraqi Army personnel did not know what supplies were present,” the IG wrote. The numerous shortcomings also have attracted the attention of Republicans in the House, who otherwise widely support keeping troops in Afghanistan and a more robust military approach in Iraq and Syria. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said there are “legitimate frustrations” with the programs, which will be the subject of a series of hearings the week of Oct. 19. “So, that is the reason we are going to spend a whole week on this subject … not just Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan but historically in a broader context,” he said. “What are the lessons? Is it always hard or are there particular circumstances? Is every country beyond our control, or are there lessons we can apply more broadly?”

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