Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
President Obama recently announced that an additional 250 Special Operations forces will be sent to Syria to stem the spread of the Islamic State. It won’t work. By now, “too little, too late” has become the moniker of the administration’s Middle East policy. To be fair, the policy of Obama’s predecessor wasn’t effective either. What is needed is a new piece on the chessboard: an American Foreign Legion.
As a former paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and a former military contractor, I have seen that there is no substitute for boots on the ground. You cannot control territory from the air, and ground forces are needed to root out the Islamic State where it lives and festers. The United States has traditionally had four options. The first is isolationism: Do nothing. This means ceding the battle to the terrorists and watching them grow from a distance until they reach our shores. Few would want this.
The second strategy is to send in Special Operations forces, as Obama is doing. While such forces are an incredible fighting machine, their main mission will be to build indigenous forces on the ground. We are terrible at this. The United States spent billions on the Iraqi and Afghan security forces, but what did taxpayers get? In 2014, Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons, peeled off their uniforms and ran away at the sight of an inferior enemy in Mosul. The Afghan military and police are mostly ghosts collecting salaries. The Pentagon and the CIA created Syrian militias to fight the Islamic State, only to have those militias join another terrorist group or even fight each other. Conducting a strategy like this over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
The third option is Iraq War III. We could mount another “surge” of U.S. troops, as we did in 2007 to turn the tide of the war we launched in 2003, in hopes of winning hearts and minds. But the surge and the counterinsurgency strategy failed. Once U.S. troops leave, terrorists take over again, as the Islamic State has proved. Few Americans would like us to get sucked into another long war in the Middle East.
The fourth option is relying on military contractors. In Iraq and Afghanistan, during the height of those wars, at least 50 percent of the U.S. force was contracted. In World War II, that figure was about 12 percent. Some wonder whether contracting is the new American way of war. But there are ethical and safety concerns with linking killing to the profit motive, as mercenaries are incentivized to elongate (and perhaps start) conflicts. There is also fraud, waste and abuse, since contracting in war zones comes with accountability difficulties. Then there is the loyalty problem. Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, now works to help China’s largest state-owned conglomerate operate in Africa. Lastly, the United States’ heavy use of contractors has spawned a global mercenary market. In 2015, we saw mercenaries fighting in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Yemen. Mercenaries are back, after being in the shadows for centuries.
There is a fifth, more acceptable option: Create an American Foreign Legion. When people think of foreign legions, they think of French mercenaries. But the French Foreign Legion is a part of the French military, is led by French officers, takes its orders exclusively from Paris, offers its legionnaires the opportunity to apply for French citizenship and serves only the French government. It’s like a French army unit, except that its enlisted members come from all over the world.
It’s time for an American Foreign Legion. It would be a part of the Defense Department, but its enlisted members would be recruited globally. This encompasses the best of option three (sending more troops to the Middle East) without the pitfalls of option four (relying on private contractors and mercenaries).
An American Foreign Legion would solve many problems that have plagued us in the past decade of war. First, it would provide a publicly acceptable, truly volunteer force for long-term operations in the Middle East. Second, training and vetting standards could be maintained in a transparent manner, unlike with today’s contractors. Third, legionnaires could be held accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Today, when contractors do something wrong, such as commit murder, they typically get sent home with minimal punishment. As Prince put it, they get a choice: “window or aisle.” Fourth, it solves the loyalty problem. The American Foreign Legion would be a path to citizenship in exchange for service to our cause. This is not a radical idea; we do this to a limited extent in our military. Fifth, a long-term Foreign Legion would be cheaper than contracting. In fiscal 2014, the Pentagon spent $131 billion on contractors — more than twice Britain’s entire defense budget. Lastly, it would help stem the growth of the mercenary industry worldwide. The United States is the biggest consumer of private military services, but we have limited control. When we no longer wish to pay military contractors, they will find someone who will.
We should stop outsourcing war. Nor should we have a Vietnam War-esque draft. An all-volunteer force is core to our values, so let’s extend that opportunity to the rest of the world. An American Foreign Legion would create many solutions, including a viable Middle East strategy.