Argument

I Built an African Army

Now here's what it will take to build Afghanistan's.

In May 2004, I was hired for an unusual job: The U.S. State Department contracted DynCorp International, a private military company, to build Liberia's army. I was tapped as an architect of this new force. Previously I had worked for both the U.S. military and Amnesty International. I was a rare bird -- an ex-paratrooper and human rights defender -- and thus a good fit for this unprecedented task.

When I arrived in Liberia in 2004, the country's army was, at best, a mess. After decades of civil war, soldiers' hands were as bloodied as any rebels'. The troops were undisciplined, unpaid, and undertrained. They were a motley crew that protected no one in a country where pretty much everyone was vulnerable to violence. And it was our job to turn them into a professional military.

Today, just five years later, Liberia's soldiers are among the best in the region. They have been vetted, trained, paid, and readied for action. The difference was the impact of that little-known U.S. initiative -- the first of its kind -- that literally rebuilt the Liberian army from scratch. Our goal was for the Liberian army to fill the role of U.N. peacekeepers as the latter were slowly phased out, and it worked astonishingly well.

Now that model might be of use again. President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan is predicated on creating Afghan security forces to replace coalition soldiers. The idea of training local troops to replace U.S. or international ones is not a new one; the United States famously tried to do it and failed in Vietnam. More recently, in 2005, then-President George W. Bush outlined his plan for Iraq and the aim that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Yet the United States' ability to raise foreign forces has been paltry. This is because raising an army is difficult and dangerous: Do it too well and it might turn into a Praetorian Guard or a vehicle for a coup d'état. Do the job poorly and it could terrorize the citizens it is sworn to protect and much worse.

Today the stage is Afghanistan -- a near-failed state controlled by a weak central government, essentially devoid of basic infrastructure. The lessons of Liberia may help. Both countries are relatively underdeveloped and have a war-ravaged modern history. What's more, Afghans and Liberians both lack a sense of national identity as such and often identify first by ethnic group and second as Afghan or Liberian. These factors are challenges for creating a national army in a place where the majority of the population is illiterate, tribal or local loyalties trump patriotic allegiance, and ethnic blood feuds are ancient and deep.

Here, then, is an account of some of the decisions and obstacles we wrestled with in Liberia -- an experience that taught me the challenges of creating soldiers and policemen whom children run toward for protection, rather than away from in fear.

Our starting point was to tackle the big-picture questions whose answers are far too often assumed: How big will the army be? What will it do? What are the threats? What should be done with the existing army, which was a perpetrator in the civil war? Few had ever disbanded a standing African army and lived to tell about it.

Understandably, American trainers tend to replicate the U.S. military model when they help train militaries abroad. But our team knew that the task would be less about "train and equip" than reimagine entirely. It meant transforming the security sector into a professional, effective, legitimate, and accountable pillar of society. It also meant creating civilian-led institutions to manage the soldiers, such as ministries of interior, defense, and justice. These forces and institutions had to be organized around a national security strategy that would address the root causes of conflict.

Our team also understood that the primary threats would not come from neighbors but from within. The country was less threatened by neighboring Sierra Leone blitzkrieging across the border than it was by domestic armed groups staging a coup, as occurred in 1980, 1989, and nearly again in 2003. Such armed groups had gained local support and legitimacy by capitalizing on public grievances: lack of social justice, political exclusion of minorities, economic hardship, unequal distribution of wealth, insecurity, and so forth. Accordingly, the primary role of the military we set out to build was not to repel foreign invaders but to develop and secure the country from within.

In Liberia, our team determined that protecting civilians was more important than protecting the state -- because that's where the threats aligned. Accordingly, we focused less on defending the borders and more on protecting civilian population areas. The army would be a simple, relatively small, and low-cost motorized infantry regiment. There would be no artillery, tanks, fighter or bomber aircraft, or navy ships, and limited special operations units. Few wanted a military so strong that it would provoke the neighbors, as West Africa is a tough geopolitical neighborhood.

Before the training even began, we knew we also had to find a way to pay the new Liberian forces because unpaid or underpaid troops are a recipe for pillaging and bribes. The military would have to shrink from its then-current size of 15,000 mostly unpaid soldiers to just 2,000 paid soldiers, as that was all the Defense Ministry could afford. And still, we ran into problems. When we tried to pay the first class of recruits, we discovered that the Finance Ministry was technically incapable of disbursing funds. It took patience and frantic effort to finally make those first payments.

Our force reimagined, we began to recruit for it.

First, we had to make sure that the new military did not end up like that last one: engaged in widespread human rights violations. This required extensive human rights vetting of each recruit, which is also mandated by the "Leahy Law," named after Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, which prohibits U.S. assistance to foreign militaries that abuse human rights. Perhaps needless to say, meeting this requirement is hard to do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is difficult for U.S. troops to know who is shady and who is clean. In both countries, insurgents have infiltrated the police and military, committing atrocities in uniform that quickly discredit the new security force in the eyes of the populace. It's a reputation not easily undone.

To avoid standing up a military full of bad actors, we knew we needed to vet all our incoming recruits. We formed investigative teams composed of one international and one Liberian investigator. Together they handled individual cases, traveling to a recruit's home village to verify data and garner character references. We compiled and assessed existing public records for accuracy and volume and ran candidates' names through the limited records that we found credible. To our surprise, some of the best records came not from the government but from local NGOs such as the West African Examination Council, which had administered and kept records of high school achievement tests for decades.

Then we conducted "public vetting" of the recruits. As each class of new soldiers was vetted, their pictures and names (including noms de guerre) were printed in newspapers and on fliers distributed at markets, bus stops, churches, and other areas of mass congregation. We invited anyone with knowledge of a human rights violation or crime committed by a recruit to anonymously contact our office. We received many calls. And though many offered bogus information or seemed to be attempts to settle old personal grudges, we also gained critical information that disqualified some recruits, possibly averting misfortune later.

Finally, we had to go back to retooling the very basics of basic training. Such preparation usually involves lots of shooting, hand-to-hand combat, and explosives. After 14 years of civil war, many of our recruits had more than enough experience with killing, but they often lacked literacy and respect for the rule of law, human rights norms, and international humanitarian law. We replaced some weapons training with literacy and civics classes. These classes were conceived and taught by Liberians for Liberians, and included: Military Code of Conduct, Liberian History, the Soldier's Role in a Democratic State, and the Rights of Women and Children. (Exercising the mind is as important as the body because some of the best weapons in places like Liberia and Afghanistan don't fire bullets.)

A lot more work than many realize went into recruiting, paying, and training Liberia's new professional army. Here are a few lessons learned from Liberia that might help in Afghanistan:

  • It might be necessary to start over. Security forces that are distrusted and feared by the population can be worse than no security at all. Disband corrupt units completely and invite soldiers or policemen to reapply individually so that they can be vetted. Also, ensure the public is involved in the vetting to help re-establish the force's credibility.
  • All institutions must rise together. It is dangerous to raise a capable army that the Finance Ministry cannot pay. This is a coup d'état in the waiting.
  • Modern warfare is more than shooting. Incorporate literacy and respect for the rule of law and human rights directly into basic training. Also, take every training opportunity to imbue a sense of national identity into the force to overcome parochial tribal allegiances, and don't let any one ethnic group dominate the ranks.
  • Don't create a force so strong it provokes the neighbors to build up their own militaries in response. In Afghanistan and Liberia, the AK-47 is the weapon of mass destruction, and arms races often lead to bloodshed.
  • Lastly, as foreigners, be humble. Afghanistan and Liberia are worlds away from the United States, yet the country still creates "mini-me" versions of the U.S. military and police abroad. Throw away the American playbook and think creatively, in partnership with Afghans, about what is truly needed to defend them from their threats. It won't look like Fort Bragg.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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