The swift collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces—despite receiving more than $83 billion in weapons, equipment, and training from the United States over the better part of two decades—has raised hard questions about the Pentagon’s persistent struggle to build stronger militaries in partner states.

By now, most scholars and practitioners recognize that the fundamental barrier to effective security force assistance (SFA) is insufficient local will to fight. Combat effectiveness depends on patterns of decisions political and military leaders make around personnel, command structures, training, and corruption. Recipients of SFA who are not interested in building better militaries will take US assistance while simultaneously implementing policies that keep their militaries weak.

Fundamentally, then, the challenge of SFA is influence. The effectiveness of large-scale US SFA projects depends less on the amount of assistance the United States pours into recipient nations than on the decisions of recipient leaders about what to do with US assistance. The United States builds better militaries when it successfully influences recipient leaders. It fails when US influence fails.

Washington tends to delegate large-scale SFA projects almost entirely to the US military. The US military relies largely on rapport-based persuasion to coax and cajole recipient leaders to build better militaries. But personal diplomacy has failed to move local leaders to build professional militaries in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan. Today, the US military has three choices: it can persist with persuasion, pouring resources into partner militaries whose political and military leaders implement policies that undermine the effort; it can combine persuasion with the systematic application of carrots and sticks to incentivize cooperation; or it can abandon security assistance with uncooperative partners and conserve its energies for more productive projects.

The Limits of Personal Diplomacy

US military advising doctrine and training encourages advisors to develop trust and rapport with partner leaders, to inspire them to emulate the American approach through the power of their example, and to convince them to implement US advice on the strength of their logic. Advisors are actively discouraged from using carrots and sticks to incentivize their counterparts to follow their advice.

This preference for persuasion has hardened into institutional ideology. Within the military, teaching and persuasion are considered the appropriate strategies of influence to shape the behavior of allies and partners. This belief is accompanied by a corresponding distaste for incentives, or what the military views as “bribery,” “transactionality,” and “coercion”—influence strategies that it ascribes to US competitors and adversaries. The strength of the norm against using incentives within the military is puzzling. For one thing, incentives are a standard tool of alliance diplomacy, and yet in the context of security assistance partnerships, the military has recoded conditionality as bullying. For another, the aversion to coercion has crowded out other worthy ethical considerations, such as preventing partners’ misuse of American funds to fuel corruption, perpetrate human rights abuses, and persecute political opponents.

The ideology of persuasion that governs US military advising is also characterized by several causal myths. US military advisors generally believe that rapport-based persuasion is an effective strategy of influence, and that an incentives-based approach would undermine the advisory mission.

But rapport-based persuasion alone cannot overcome the motivation problem stymieing US advisory missions. Advisors do often develop genuine rapport with their counterparts. It is difficult to understand, however, why local military officers would decide to strike ghost soldiers from the rolls and pocket less money for themselves and their families, simply because their American friends asked nicely. This might sound facetious, but this is the causal logic currently underpinning American military advising. The logic is all the more problematic given that the advisors, coached to prioritize rapport above actual cooperation, quickly teach their counterparts that they can implement policies that undermine the advisory mission without losing their friendship.

The results of US advising in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan illustrate the ineffectiveness of an approach to advising reliant on personal diplomacy. From commanding generals down to tactical advisors, US military advisors relied almost exclusively on rapport-based persuasion to influence their counterparts to heed their advice. Local leaders generally ignored them, continuing to place politically loyal rather than competent officers in key commands, sell American equipment on the black market, neglect training, ignore the chain of command, and implement a variety of other policies that kept their militaries weak. Every once in a while, an advisor’s counterpart might make a small concession or two, such as agreeing to discipline soldiers for smoking on the job or for failing to wear their helmets. These trivial concessions, irrelevant to the fundamental rot within the partner militaries, give advisors understandably eager for signs of progress something to point at—and something to reinforce the ideology governing their approach.

The military hammers its advisors with the importance of establishing and maintaining interpersonal rapport with their counterparts. If advisors fail to coax and cajole their counterparts to follow their advice, they are taught to prioritize the relationship above actual cooperation, and above the improvement of the unit to which they are attached. Little wonder, then, that many advisors have come to view relationships with partners as the very goal of advising, rather than a tool of influence through which to improve partner military units.

Just as personal diplomacy failed to move the leaders of the government of Vietnam to build a professional Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or to move Iraqi leaders to build a professional Iraqi Army, US military advisors could not persuade Afghan leaders to build a professional military. Over decades of assistance, US advisors embedded in Afghan units observed as their counterparts placed corrupt, incompetent, and apathetic officers in key commands. They watched those officers siphon contracts to friends and family, neglect training, and ignore the ostensible chain of command. They tried to build trust and rapport, and to coax and cajole. When their advice fell on deaf ears, the advisors changed their advice, but not their strategy of influence. They changed the goalposts, looked for small victories, and coded as a success any small step they managed to persuade their counterparts to take, no matter how marginal. They gave up on addressing the rot at the core. Few of them were surprised by the fall of Saigon, the fall of Mosul, or the fall of Kabul.

Return Incentives to the Toolkit

The US military’s ideology of advising preaches the myth that an influence strategy combining persuasion with incentives won’t work. The myth has two main strands. The first strand argues that the United States lacks the bargaining power necessary to incentivize partners to follow US advice. This argument assumes away US agency and mistakes the US military’s doctrinal aversion to bargaining for a lack of bargaining power. It is difficult to think of an alliance or partnership dynamic that affords the United States more leverage than security force assistance. Recipients are highly dependent on the United States, the United States can withdraw without existential risk, and the United States can manipulate a variety of carrots and sticks to increase the credibility of its threats and promises over a long-term relationship—if it chooses to do so.

The second strand argues that the bureaucratic machinery of US military advising is too big and cumbersome for the finely tuned manipulation of incentives. But individual advisors do, from time to time, decide to break the institutional norm and manipulate the bureaucracy to incentivize cooperation. Examples of US military advisors effectively manipulating carrots and sticks to incentivize compliance illustrate that the bureaucracy does not preclude the use of incentives. In Iraq, General David Petraeus broke from the institutional norm, successfully using a threat to cut assistance to the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service to dissuade interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi from placing the elite units under his personal authority. Later, together with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General James Dubik, Petraeus withheld logistical support from Iraqi National Police units led by sectarian commanders until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to replace them.  These small successes—too few and far between to have systematic, lasting effects on the Iraqi Security Forces on the whole—illustrate the potential of combining persuasion with conditionality. The fact that Petraeus’s successors returned to the norm of exclusive reliance on persuasion illustrates the imperviousness of the institutional ideology to evidence that could have sparked innovation.

More fundamentally, the structure of the bureaucratic machinery of advising lies within the military’s control. It is up to the military to design its bureaucracy in such a way as to empower advisors to manipulate levers and incentivize their counterparts to follow their direction. The approach taken by the US Eighth Army and the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) to build the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army during the Korean War provides another example of effective advising. The US Eighth Army commander, General James Van Fleet, worked hard to build interpersonal rapport with ROK President Syngman Rhee and his most senior military leaders. But he also took direct command of the ROK Army, dissolved the entire ROK III Corps when it performed miserably in the Chinese Spring Offensive, and controlled ROK Army personnel appointments. KMAG advisors were taught to build trust and rapport, but they were also taught that it was their responsibility to secure the cooperation of ROK Army officers and the improvement of ROK Army units. They were taught to exercise their control of ROK Army unit supplies and their ability to recommend officers for promotion or relief as necessary to incentivize ROK Army officers to follow their direction. By 1952, the US Eighth Army and the KMAG secured the almost full cooperation of ROK leadership with respect to the development of the ROK Army, and the ROK Army transformed into an effective fighting force by the summer of 1953.

To be clear, none of this is to argue that the United States should continue its Sisyphean efforts to build large national armies in stateless nations in the midst of civil war. Had the US military combined rapport-based persuasion with incentives and direct command in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (as it did in Korea), the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Iraqi Army, and Afghan National Army would likely have done better, but they would probably still have fallen far short of the United States’ ambitious objectives. Better, however, might still have been enough.

Strategy begins with clear objectives. First and foremost, Washington needs to evaluate threats in the context of the United States’ wider global priorities, and (with the military’s input) develop realistic expectations about what different tools of power can accomplish in a given theater. Washington would be wise to reserve military assistance for states with strong national institutions whose leaders are interested in building better militaries. In practice, this would amount to the cessation of US security assistance projects in most states and a reliance on other tools to manage the threats that come from them. Alternatively, depending on the situation, Washington might accept the limitations of state institutions and weigh the merits of focusing on the development of small elite units that operate with US enablers, as opposed to entire militaries that are ostensibly designed to operate independently. Some of the few success stories of contemporary security assistance can be found in the Iraqi and Afghan special operations forces. In each case, the US military used every tool in the influence strategy toolkit (teaching, persuasion, incentives, and direct command) to create cohesive, highly motivated units insulated from politicization and capable of operating effectively, albeit with American enablers. Depending on the nature of the local government and the threat the United States aims to develop local capacity to combat, this option may be both feasible and sufficient.

To the extent that the US military does continue to engage in SFA, whether to build national militaries or elite units, it should return carrots and sticks to the influence strategy toolkit. Advisor training should make clear that relationships are not the goal. Rather, relationships are a means to an end, and they are just one tool of influence among many. Conditionality is not the strawman constructed by its opponents—a blunt instrument of total cooperation or total abandonment. As the KMAG chiefs taught their advisors in Korea, the US military should teach its advisors today that their job is to secure the cooperation of their counterparts and to improve the military effectiveness of their assigned units. If persuasion fails, advisors should be encouraged and empowered to systematically exercise US leverage to incentivize cooperation. If the US military is unwilling to incentivize recipients of security assistance to use that assistance well, it should get out of the business.

Rachel Tecott (@racheltecott) is an assistant professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Naval War College, Departments of the Army or Navy, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Blair Neelands, US Army