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America’s Foreign Legion

How could the United States outsource military operations in Iraq to keep human and monetary costs manageable?

January 29, 2004

How could the United States outsource military operations in Iraq to keep human and monetary costs manageable?

Currently, U.S. troops are directly involved in fighting low-level insurgencies in two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this is only the tip of an iceberg.

American soldiers are stationed in some 100 countries around the globe, where they are involved in a wide range of tasks, including training and advising in anti-guerilla campaigns.

Not surprisingly, the all-volunteer U.S. Army finds itself overstretched. There are simply not enough troops to handle all these responsibilities. The Pentagon has had to announce unpopular measures — for example extending tours of duty for reservists.

Moreover, many servicemen and women in Iraq are reservists, who signed up without realizing they would be spending ever-lengthening tours of duty fighting nasty insurgencies. Getting new recruits for the U.S. military may not be easy.

Not surprisingly, Washington is desperate to get other nations to contribute their troops to peacekeeping duty in Iraq. It has gone back to the United Nations, and also announced a speedy transition of power in Iraq to the Governing Council

However, even if the UN is persuaded to commit peacekeepers, the problem of overburdened U.S. military forces is not going away.

On the one hand, the United States needs to have foreign troops patrolling Baghdad and the restive Sunni triangle.

On the other hand, it also wants to retain authority and substantial command. The question is how to square that circle.

A little-known fact is that some 30,000 non-citizens are already serving in the U.S. armed forces. Although they mostly come from developing countries, they are legal immigrants to the United States, have legal papers — and, for all intents and purposes, are little different from American-born soldiers.

They are trained the same way, they get the same generous wages benefits and, importantly, when they are killed or wounded in action, they are viewed just like other U.S. military personnel.

How about recruiting foreign nationals living in foreign countries to expand the ranks of America's military? To be sure, there are plenty of tough, dedicated and already professionally trained men and women in the developing world who would jump at an opportunity to earn even a fraction of what American soldiers are paid.

And, of course, at the completion of their tour of duty, they may be eligible to get the coveted Green Card, giving them the right to reside in the United States.

This incentive will cost U.S. taxpayers nothing — and given the energy of new immigrants, will likely benefit the U.S. economy.

Of course, soldiers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ukraine and dozens of other countries are already used in peacekeeping around the world. The problem is that the Pentagon does not control them — and has little say in their deployment.

On the other hand, putting more effective, well-trained U.S. soldiers under the command of the United Nations is something Washington has been adamantly opposed to. Creating a foreign corps under the command of the United States would resolve this issue.

If history is any guide, the Pentagon should look at other nations that used foreign troops to administer their empires. The British had their Indian corps, which had native troops — but British officers.

The troops were used not only in India, but in other parts of the "Empire over which the Sun never sets." Indian soldiers and Gurkhas even fought in the trenches of World War I and participated in many World War II battles as well.

To those who would oppose the deployment of such a foreign force, it should be pointed out that the United States already used similar troops in its own history.

For example, entire units comprised of Irish volunteers fought on both sides of the American Civil War.

In fact, training and employing foreign soldiers would merely mean applying in the armed forces the same principle that has ruled the global economy over the past two decades.

Call it an outsourcing strategy for the U.S. military, something that U.S. manufacturers already practice extensively. In short, the idea would be not to double hat U.S. commanders — as is often debated.

Rather, the solution would lie in borrowing, paying for (and hence double-hatting — or double-flagging) foreign soldiers into U.S. troop structures. That would preserve what the Pentagon treasures so much — the unity of command.

Importantly, from the point of view of any U.S. administration, the political fallout from using such troops — and taking casualties — would be far smaller than in the case of hometown boys and girls.

This would have major implications — not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world, as well. Washington policymakers would enjoy far greater flexibility in conducting foreign policy.

Even the notoriously gun-shy Clinton Administration probably would have intervened a lot sooner in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. An earlier intervention could have saved thousands of innocent lives that were lost because Washington feared the domestic political cost of sending its own soldiers.

And U.S.-flagged soldiers likely would have stuck it out in Lebanon and Somalia — rather than turning tail when American lives were lost.

Moreover, concern with taking U.S. casualties has not only hampered America's troop deployments, but it has been a major impediment for Washington in winning the hearts and minds of people in those countries where they carry out military operations.

U.S. Air Force planes bombed Yugoslavia from a very safe height, invulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground. But this lead to targeting mistakes and the loss of life among the civilian population, which has won Americans lasting enmity in Serbia and Montenegro.

In fact, the U.S. role model for the outsourcing model ought to be the French, whom Americans now love to accuse of being wimpy and accommodating.

In reality, they have been extremely tough in administering their empire and retaining their influence in many of their former colonies in the post-World War II decades.

They figured out a very long time ago — in fact, in the mid-19th century — that in order to do a dangerous and unpleasant job half a world away, they might need a special force.

That was the origin of France's fabled Foreign Legion — where foreign volunteers have traditionally been attracted by the promise of French citizenship at the end of the tunnel.

However, employing foreigners in the armed forces brings back the scary memories of the Roman experience.

When the Romans grew too comfortable and did not want to serve in their legions to enforce Pax Romana in distant corners of their Empire — they too increasingly came to rely on foreign mercenaries.

The result was that the foreign soldiers became increasingly influential in the Empire, and ended up overthrowing emperors and placing their own generals to the throne.

This may be a valid argument, but once again it is not new. The French also faced the same problem — and they found a solution.

Their Foreign Legion was based abroad, in Algeria. And after that country became independent, the Legion decamped to Corsica — also a safe distance from the French mainland.

The United States has plenty of far-flung territories where it too can garrison its foreign troops when they are not in action. In short, the creation of an American Foreign Legion could solve many of the problems currently confronting the Bush Administration.