How well can a Kurd do a jumping jack? It might sound facetious, but the jumping jack is actually a good yardstick for how disciplined a group of soldiers are—a relatively simple physical exercise that pretty much anybody can be trained to perform, but which requires some modicum of motivation and uniformity: if you aren’t motivated enough to do jumping jacks in cadence, you probably aren’t motivated enough to brave enemy fire. Compare the struggles of the Afghan police to do jumping jacks against any American unit and the value of the jumping jack test is evident. On a recent trip to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq I had the opportunity to observe training at two separate locations, one just outside of Erbil and a second near the Mosul Dam. While their jumping jacks weren’t perfect, they were pretty good, and corresponded to how they conducted themselves on the front lines.

In the West, there has been a recent wave of fretting about the United States’ alleged inability to train foreign militaries; one attempt to address this has been the establishment of new “Advise and Assist” brigades. Most veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have some horror stories about their host nation counterparts: for example, during my time in Sangin, Afghanistan, an Afghan National Civil Order Police unit rotated into our AO and replaced an Afghan National Army unit. On their first night, the new unit got jumpy and, sensing a threat that was not there, opened fire with a “death blossom” on our village. The next day they asked us for RPGs so that they would feel safer, a request that seemed unwise for us to grant. With the Iraqi Security Forces currently testing their American training on the streets of Mosul, it seems like a good time to ask what makes partner militaries effective, and how we can facilitate that.

An orientation to the literature might first be in order. “Security sector reform” generally refers to the building of a military that is subordinate to civilian authorities and respectful of human rights. “Building Partner Capacity” is used by agencies who are more concerned with military effectiveness. The library at the Army War College has put together a good bibliography on the subject; while it is slightly dated, it provides a wealth of references to anyone who wants to know more about the literature.

A few common themes emerge from the literature on building partner capacity. There are some characteristics of the partner nation that make training more effective: good governance, shared security interests with the United States, and others. The choice of partner, however, is made at a high level; what can policy implementers do to improve training?

A focus on the needs of the partner rather than our own capabilities is one key element of successful partner capacity-building. There is often a temptation to “mirror-image” and try to build a miniature American military. This was one of the principal criticisms of our effort to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The American military is very “tail heavy,” with a high ratio of support elements to combat elements, because we have a highly trained and well-equipped force. Rather than fielding 10,000 soldiers with a small amount of training and equipped with only small arms, we field 1,000 well-trained, well-supplied soldiers in mechanized units with fire support. This requires an industrial and educational base, however, that most of our partners will not have. Furthermore, it is oriented on fighting the highest level of warfare, a state-on-state war, rather than on the occupation and administration of a large territory; the latter, however, is what our partners often need to accomplish, not the former. So how do our current efforts line up with these facts?

The camp in Erbil I visited has been one of the main sites for the Western allies training the Peshmerga in the fight against ISIS. While the allied training program was initially conducted in a very ad hoc manner following the shock of ISIS’s 2014 summer advance, they now have a ten-week basic training course with a regimented curriculum of instruction. The compound had firing ranges, a mock village to practice patrolling, and a wonderfully designed urban training site.

Tens of thousands of Peshmerga have gone through the course in the past year, with many also receiving specialized follow-on training for crew-served weapons or logistics. While this might seem basic to anyone who is only familiar with the American military, it is, in the broader scheme of things, very impressive. Many members of American partner militaries receive no such training, or at best receive some on-the-job training.

Just as the literature emphasizes, the allied effort also features sustainability training. Every so often, units rotate back through for a two-week refresher course. This is particularly important since it’s unclear how much training the Peshmerga does at the unit level. Americans emphasize constant unit-level training in garrison, continuing even when deployed in a combat environment; in many of the militaries American forces partner with, however, there is usually very limited training after basic training, if that even exists. Instilling a “training mindset” is just as important as doing the training itself, although this is easier said than done.

As important as what was happening in the Peshmerga training camps is what was not happening. Despite being ten weeks long, like the US Army basic combat training, the training in the KRG differs by being more focused on marksmanship, small-unit tactics, and close-order drill, and less on indoctrination. There were no yelling drill instructors in evidence, which makes sense given that the primary instructors were from another country and culture. The Kurds have been rightfully lauded for their high morale and esprit de corps, so indoctrination might not be as important for them as for, say, the Iraqi Security Forces. The focus on skills, rather than indoctrination, was an example of a good adaptation to the different needs of the partner.

At times, however, the needs of the partner can be frustrating: in the KRG, for example, there was some emphasis on training that provided good visuals, particularly close-order drill, but has little impact on battlefield performance. While I beg forgiveness from any sergeant majors reading this, I still do not see the point of spending dozens of hours practicing for graduation. Instead of aiming at instilling conformity, as it is often justified in the American military, I got the sense that the Kurds practiced close-order drill in order to produce good visuals for a nation that was proud of its military (you can see elements from the graduation in these music videos, which are admittedly an acquired taste). If the Europeans felt the way that I did, they had wisely chosen not to fight with the Kurds over the issue in order to preserve a good relationship.

Another feature of Kurdish military training that was absent was the use of sophisticated weaponry. The American government was initially slow to provide arms to the KRG after ISIS’s offensive; part of this might have been a resolution to avoid becoming heavily involved until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki left, but another part was probably caused by requests for a smorgasbord of hardware that would not have been sustainable. For example, some well-intentioned friends of the Kurds requested that the United States supply the KRG with attack helicopters. Attack helicopters are a perfect example of a logistically demanding force multiplier that the United States can field but that we should almost never give to partners. They require expensive fuel, maintenance, ammunition, trained pilots, trained ground crews, and maintained bases; if any one of those elements is missing, they are useless. One wonders how long the Afghan Air Force will last after the withdrawal of international assistance.

The tactical leaders of the KRG recognize this; for instance, Lahur Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s Counter-Terrorism Group, asked for winter clothes and supplies from coalition partners rather than fancy equipment that can’t be maintained. To counter ISIS’s use of suicide car bombs, which have been devastating against Iraqi forces in Mosul, the Kurds’ most effective weapons have been the French-made, German-supplied MILAN missiles. They are the perfect weapon for a partner force; relatively simple to use, no logistical tail, and well suited to the threat that they’re facing.

Another important aspect of training foreign militaries is the quality of the personnel who are coming into the system. In the American military the primary metric of quality for enlistees is the Armed Forces Qualifying Test score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This has been the case for good reason: low-aptitude individuals are harder to train and typically don’t do as well over the course of their careers as higher-aptitude enlistees. The lack of a comparable standard for officers has, I believe, become problematic. But returning back to building partner capacity, we should expect a similar dynamic to be at play: the aptitude of recruits will have a significant impact on their success in training and on the battlefield.

One solution is to educate new recruits, as the United States did in Afghanistan by implementing literacy courses on the front end of soldier and police training. In the case of the KRG, literacy is widespread enough, and motivation to serve is high enough, that such a dramatic step is not needed. In fact their services are able to select recruits using the level of their education as a proxy for aptitude: in the general forces, recruits are required to have primary schooling, while in more elite formations like the Zeravani they are required to have secondary education. Recruits with college degrees can become officers, just as in our military. Screening and assigning recruits to different units based on aptitude or educational achievement is a low-cost but highly effective way to improve the quality of the partner force that we’re building.

How much should we balance quality versus mass, however? One reform to our training approach, as championed by Rebecca Zimmerman, is to emphasize quality over quantity. Rather than attempting to build a large mass of troops who will run away at the first sign of trouble, she argues, the United States should focus on training smaller, elite units. She rightly points out the potential downsides in this approach: that the elite units might become praetorian guards or that the short-term risks facing the country might be so great that long-term training is not an option.

While Zimmerman makes a good argument, the problem is that elite units can’t be everywhere. In the US military, special operations forces are certainly a force multiplier, but they can’t be leaned on to hold ground; rather, they are often shuttled around from site to site to accomplish specific missions. Indeed, this division between low-quality, high-mass territorial forces and high-quality, low-mass special operations forces appears to be the tacit philosophy that has guided American training efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Focusing on special operations forces without the massed territorial force risks ceding territory to the enemy and allowing them to simply decline combat when the special operations forces come back to clean out the area. Thinking of the American experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, when units “commuted to work” the enemy faded away; when the Americans left, the enemy simply infiltrated back in and nothing was accomplished. An exclusive focus on special operations forces when building partner capacity risks achieving a similarly unproductive outcome.

The KRG seems to have organically arrived at this split, with many “mass” units who can hold territory and some “quality” units who can launch attacks. The average unit can hold its ground and deploy small arms reasonably competently in the defense, even if they are poorly equipped. When the KRG needs to launch an attack, it has a few specialized units that can use tanks and fire support and conduct an attack that would make an American commander proud. Increasing overall quality through better screening, particularly with educational achievement, could help to increase the quality of both forces and help to sort new recruits into the correct bin. The balance between mass and quality units is hard, and maybe Zimmerman is right that we should be focused more on quality units. Still, the division evolves organically for a reason: it is effective.

What are the final takeaways from this discussion of building partner capacity? First, a little bit of training can go a long way with a motivated ally like the KRG; with unmotivated allies, like the Afghan government, a lot of training can be ineffective. Second, programs need to be tailored to allied capacity and not based on mirror-imaging; giving an ally a weapon system that won’t have ammunition in six months (or will be surrendered to the enemy) does no one any good. Third, recruits should be screened for quality just as they are in the United States. This is necessarily complicated by low access to education in some partner countries and the lack of a translated testing instrument; still, aptitude and educational screening can be a powerful tool for our partners, just as it is for us.

Specific to the KRG, the allied training program there has been very successful, although there is always more work to be done. “They’re really motivated and most have been trained,” a foreign volunteer told me of his Kurdish Peshmerga comrades at Mosul Dam. “Still, sometimes you get some of this,” he said, pantomiming the firing of an assault rifle raised ineffectively over the head. As a veteran of a Western military, he knew that shooting in this manner has no chance of being effective on the modern battlefield; it functions more as a psychic salve for the panicked, giving the illusion of action while allowing the soldier to remain in cover. Watching the Peshmerga in action, it’s easy to see that the breakdown in basic warrior skills is the exception, however, not the rule. It also demonstrates, though, that even in the best-case scenario, when we train our partners, one of the most important tools we bring to the task should be a realistic set of expectations—especially if the initial force quality leaves something to be desired.


Matthew Cancian is a PhD student in Security Studies and International Relations at MIT. He formerly served as an artillery officer in the Marine Corps, deploying to Sangin, Afghanistan as a forward observer.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Sgt. Kalie Jones, US Army