by James Spencer
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Albert Einstein allegedly said. As two of the longest wars America has fought may be drawing to a close, perhaps the United States has learned some lessons.
Not necessarily, if the latest work from Kenneth Pollack is any indication. Pollack—a former CIA intelligence analyst, an expert on Middle East politics and military affairs, and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—has recently published a new book: Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness. He has also penned a piece for Foreign Policy entitled “Military cooperation with Middle East allies can work—if Washington rethinks its premises.”
Not only does the article echo Orientalist tropes of the Imperial era, but it flies in the face of overwhelming evidence about Middle East conflicts (let alone Afghanistan). Although Pollack identifies some aspects of the situation, he misses key issues. The result is a badly flawed piece—and surprisingly so, as Pollack mentions most of the flaws in passing but fails to consider them properly. Instead, he rides his “cultural” hobby-horse into a swamp.
The mentality Pollack seems to espouse is not unusual among certain jingoist politicians and their followers. Thanks to this mentality, various imperial powers lost tens of thousands of soldiers because Arabs or Afghans or Zulus apparently couldn’t fight very well, had no grasp of tactics, and so forth. So, it is surprising that the myth of “natives who […] were only two feet tall and armed with sharpened mangoes” persists. It is the sort of mentality that produced the mirage of the “cakewalk in Iraq” and resulted in Israel’s bloody nose in Lebanon.
“Time and again, America’s Arab allies have failed to live up to martial expectations,” writes Pollack as proof of Arab cultural issues. The observation is partly accurate, although it’s unclear whose expectations Pollack is citing (presumably not the Orientalists’). But by selecting “America’s Arab allies” as the only Arab fighters in the region, Pollack excludes evidence that critically undermines his thesis. Several groups of Arab fighters—Pollack names “Hezbollah, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other U.S. enemies” but excludes the Hashd al-Sha’abi of Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen—have performed rather better than expected. Even ignoring such groups, there are the Druze soldiers in Israel, who are culturally Arabs and highly competent, and the UAE forces, which have acquitted themselves reasonably well.
The fraught civil-military relations of the Arab world mean that many Arab rulers are so frightened of being overthrown by ambitious generals that they purposely hobble the armed forces to keep them weak. Whenever that has happened, it has typically led to poor strategic leadership and communications and, on occasion, poor morale and unit cohesion.
This is indeed one of the key reasons why “America’s Arab allies have failed to live up to martial expectations”—but it is a political reason, not a cultural one. Pollack also confuses the symptom and the disease: the “poor strategic leadership” is not the result of the weakness, but its cause.
The Arab world never really industrialized, and this relative underdevelopment meant that many Arabs came to the military without much understanding of advanced machinery. As a result, Arab personnel often failed to get the full potential out of their weapons and invariably failed to maintain them properly, with the result that the real numbers of tanks, planes, and artillery pieces they could field were far fewer than what they had purchased.
Pollack ignores both similar issues in the West, for instance in Germany where less than a third of military assets are operational. He also refuses to examine the highly creative ways that America’s Arab enemies have been fighting, most recently with relatively advanced weapons, like the Houthis with UAVs and USVs or the Islamic State with UAVs and chemical weapons that they manufactured themselves.
“But the most critical factor is that Arab cultural-educational practices conditioned too many of their personnel to remain passive at lower levels of any hierarchy and to manipulate information to avoid blame,” Pollack continues. He’s right in the issue he identifies but wrong to conclude that it has a cultural cause. The issue is careerism, not culture. It is rife in the armed forces of the Middle East and North Africa, but it is an issue in every armed force (and most large organisations). Consider the recent report on Operation Iraqi Freedom, which noted:
And those battlefield commanders who did find innovative solutions to ground-level problems were not only often not commended or heeded in their innovations, they were often penalized for their work that inverted policy to adapt to real time needs of the battlefield.”
Pollack continues, “In modern combat—where the difference between victory and defeat is often aggressive, innovative junior officers able to react to unforeseen circumstances and take advantage of fleeting opportunities—these tendencies proved devastating time and again.” Here he correctly identifies a flaw but again ascribes to it cultural specificity, rather than universality. Although Western armies preach auftragtaktik, the practice is often micro-management, or the “long screwdriver.”
Pollack ploughs on:
Arab armies perform well-scripted and rehearsed set-piece offensives or static defensive operations, often fighting with exceptional bravery. But they perform poorly at fluid, maneuver warfare; ad hoc operations; combined arms warfare; air-to-air and air-to-ground operations (especially when they can’t count on precision-guided munitions to do most of the work); and anything that requires flexible, accurate information management. These need to be left to more capable Western forces.
The key word in this paragraph is “armies” (although he again ignores the performance of the UAE army.) In contrast to most Arab state forces, “Hezbollah, the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other U.S. enemies” have often done very well: Hezbollah’s conduct in the 2006 conflict was highly competent (on their pre-prepared, very specific terrain).
Pollack continues: “To the extent that the United States can influence officer promotions and command assignments, as it did in Iraq in 2006-2010 and 2014-2017, that can help diminish the impact of politicization and empower commanders with much-needed but non-culturally regular skills.” This is another key issue that Pollack semi-considers but then misattributes to his hobby horse “non-culturally regular skills.” It is more likely that the United States chose officers that were competent, inspiring leaders rather than incompetent, self-aggrandising political appointees.
“At an even deeper and harder level,” Pollack writes, “the more that the United States can do to affect the education of future Arab soldiers and officers from the earliest ages, the more likely that there will be larger numbers of those with the right skills available.” This system has indeed been tried (although not using the U.S. curriculum) and proved effective: it produced the Republican Guards, and the Special Republican Guards in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
“The more that Arab educational processes change from the autocratic emphasis on rote memorization and consumption of knowledge (rather than its creation),” Pollack argues. This contains two key issues that he fails to identify. Many Sunni Arab autocracies encourage unthinking obedience to those in authority through their educational systems, which is not a good basis to encourage mission command. Further, these are autocracies: the soldier is not fighting, bleeding, and dying for his or his family’s betterment. Very often, he is not interested in the fighting, and even less so in the bleeding and dying.
“The U.S. failure to improve Arab militaries wasn’t unique or America’s fault,” Pollack writes. “But the United States should have learned long ago that attempting to make Arab forces a carbon copy of the Marines wasn’t going to work.” That sage advice might have been rephrased, as T.E. Lawrence put it of World War One:
Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.
Pollack’s fundamental flaw is based in his apparent wish to demonstrate Arab cultural deficiency. The truth is far simpler and more universal.
Sun Tzu discussed “the moral law” 2,500 years ago, while Napoleon is credited with saying that there is no such thing as bad soldiers, only bad officers. That is the key problem in the MENA militaries: there are too many political appointees, either as loyalists to prevent a coup, or as patronage. Such officers are not the leaders to inspire and enthuse—whether at the bottom or the top of the chain of command.
Arabs are no more lacking any of the martial attributes necessary to make good soldiers than are Western soldiers—as sundry British, American, French, Italian, and Israeli service personnel have discovered to their cost. The issue is not Arab culture, but rather the Arab autocracies. If the United States wants to get competent Arab fighting soldiers, then it needs to change the political systems in which those soldiers live. However, while that might produce competent militaries, it might also produce states which are not US allies.
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen