- The security challenges faced by the Arab forces in the 2011-2021 decade originate more from exogenous than indigenous factors, and these come to us from across the centuries: three lessons on counterinsurgency (COIN) can be identified.
- First of all, every insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Arab states have seen a major role for foreign forces;
- Secondly, the larger the operational foreign force is, the less the indigenous government force will be able to defeat the insurgency: for this reason, whatever effective COIN operation has to ultimately pass through the empowerment of local forces.
- Thirdly, successful COIN strategies have to take into account the lack of institutional capacity and the need of government reform; otherwise, unaddressed sources of radicalization at economic and social level are meant to reproduce insurgencies.
Any attempt to make generalizations about the so-called Arab armies would fall short: the best approach to addressing their performance in COIN is to lay out the principal governing features of the region that shape —and usually constrain— the effectiveness of Arab forces in dealing with insurgencies. While Arab armies have frequently been the subject of derision due to ineffectiveness, the Arab soldier, (or Jundi), is courageous, inured to adversity, and fights well within the basic tactical unit.
The challenges faced by Arab forces in the 2011-2021 decade have more to do with exogenous factors than indigenous ones, and they have centuries-long roots.
Against this backdrop, three lessons on COIN can be identified. First of all, every insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Arab states has seen major influence by foreign forces. Secondly, the larger the operational foreign force is, the less the indigenous government force will be able to defeat the insurgency: for this reason, whatever effective COIN operation has, ultimately, to pass through the empowerment of local forces. Thirdly, successful COIN strategies have to take into account the lack of institutional capacity and the need of government reform; otherwise, unaddressed sources of radicalization at the economic and social levels will reproduce insurgencies.
Principles: Exploring the Roots of Arab Forces’ Troubles with COIN
Nearly every national entity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is different and traces the origins of its people deep into antiquity. From the Berbers of North Africa to Mamluks of Egypt; to the Bedouins of the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Gulf; to the traditions of Persia. Over time, the emergence of the great Muslim empires created unique and substantial differences from one region to another. These would largely be subsumed with the emergence of the Sultanate of the great Ottoman Empire, which ruled nearly the entire region for over 600 years, declining into benign corruption in the 19th Century, and collapsing entirely in the aftermath of the Great War (WWI), leaving the diverse populations of the region ill-prepared for the enormous task of self-governance.
Into the vacuum left behind by the Ottoman Empire’s collapse strode the European victors of the Great War, most of whom were wholly unprepared for what came next. They carved up the region into areas of influence, creating formal sovereignties within their colonial spheres with little regard for the respective histories of the peoples.
By the beginning of World War II (WWII), across the region emerged the Spanish Sahara; the French Maghreb; Italian Libya; British Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, Mesopotamia, the Gulf; and the largely French Levant. Each colonial power shaped its respective colonies in its own image, imposing its language and its unique approaches to governance upon the indigenous populations therein. For the people of the region, they found themselves living within foreign-drawn borders, led by imposed monarchs or governments, and administered by varying forms of European colonial doctrine. Transitioning from the governance of the so-called “Sick Man of Europe”, the Ottoman Empire, to disparate colonial administrations, the people of the region were often left out of the process or the outcomes of governance. Thus, the difference between the ruling elite and simmering so-called “Arab street” often emerged; with one strata of society having little to nothing in common with the other.
WWII wrought havoc across the colonial empires of the Europeans, and in its aftermath, and in a relatively quick succession over the next 20 years, most of the former colonial entities emerged as independent states. Most had little true governance infrastructure that could exist apart from the departing colonial administrations, and thus lacked, and in many cases still do, the institutional capacity not just to govern effectively, but also to credibly raise, equip, train, command and control forces for conventional or unconventional conflict, including COIN operations. And depending on the manner by which the individual states achieved their respective independence, by writ or by revolution, most still clung loosely to their recent European colonial experience for context.
The Arab people of the region exist in multiple different realities, particularly as it relates to military capacity. Nearly a hundred years after the end of WWI, the earthquake of the so-called Arab Spring pointed directly to the persistent problems of widespread and rampant corruption; the broad failure of governance, usually from institutional incapacity; and the yawning gulf between the palaces and the pavements.
Sources of insurgencies: What’s to Keep in Mind
Lack of institutional capacity
While we have broadly treated the challenges faced by newly independent, or newly incorporated revolutionary regimes, many of them flush with newfound and accumulating energy wealth. During the Cold War, as the US-led West squared off with the Soviet Union, the MENA region became yet another cockpit for an extension of tensions and the testing ground for proxy maneuvering, with particular regard to Arab states. While the majority of those states that achieved their freedom from peaceful transfer remained close to the West, most of the revolutionary regimes aligned with the Soviet Union or purchased heavily from Soviet arms menus. Thus, Hussain’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Boumediene’s Algeria, Nasser’s Egypt, and to some extent Qadafi’s Libya armed themselves with Soviet equipment and advisors. The other, young states, mostly monarchies and principalities, armed themselves along Western lines and found themselves tied closely to French, British, and US advisors. Even so, in most of the region, the absence of institutional capacity at the defense ministerial levels to raise and field armies was complemented by the generally low capacity to recruit, organize, train, and employ operational forces, even though many of these forces were armed to the teeth with some of the finest equipment on the planet. The differences in post-colonial military cultures overlaid on ancient tribal dynamics made the organization of the armies more difficult. Indeed, tribal influences and the inherent, traditional, role of tribal militias have represented the main difficulty and point of tension around a credible organization of standing forces at the national level, often leaving behind an unsatisfying hybrid compromise between militias and national forces. Some of these persistent incongruities would be disastrous and on stark and full display during the decades of the so-called Arab/Israeli wars.
Foreign influence and interventions
For most of the governments of the region, without outside support, the complexities of modern warfare have far outstripped the nation’s indigenous capacity to fight conventional wars, or to deal with insurgencies or active revolutionary forces. Thus, virtually every insurgency and counterinsurgency in the region in the Cold War and post-Cold War period has seen some major role for foreign forces. From the Dhofar rebellion in the Sultanate of Oman to countering ISIS, Arab armies required foreign assistance both to organize a permanent government capacity to support a military and to create or support the operational capability to conduct credible COIN operations through training and in-the-field advising. In real emergencies, where the insurgency suddenly seemed to be existential, regimes were frequently aided by foreign firepower and “boots on the ground”, usually in the form of special operations forces as trainers and advisors to “right the ship” and gain control of the military situation until an indigenous solution could be put forward.
Nevertheless, it has been proven that the larger the operational foreign force, the less able the indigenous government force will be to defeat the insurgency. This is not new, and it was learned by the Americans again in Iraq from 2003-2011, when the US-led coalition was the principal defeat mechanism at the expense of the proper preparation of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The hasty US departure in 2011 left the ISF in the hands of the corrupt Nuri al Maliki regime, and unprepared for what was coming in the form of the Islamic State (ISIL). Later, though, when the US-led coalition re-intervened in Iraq and subsequently in Syria to defeat ISIL, the strategy from the beginning was to support and empower indigenous forces through a reconstituted ISF in Iraq, and assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria. This is a powerful lesson: while COIN campaigns in MENA region may assisted by foreign forces, the indigenous military, or “Arab army”, must ultimately be the solution to dealing with the violent extremists and insurgents.
The insurgency’s humus
Understanding the sources of radicalization – poverty, injustice, tribal disenfranchisement, massive governmental corruption, faith/Islam – is vital. These dynamics have, over time, created the basis for the rise of extremists and jihadists at the core of the COIN operations. As a consequence, the violent oppression/suppression of populations by the post-colonial administrations created active, violent, and bloody insurgencies, usually forcing the central governments to seek to quell them with even more ruthlessness. Because these armies were generally already equipment rich, but training poor, the response was often firepower intensive in a conventional sense, creating huge numbers of innocent civilian casualties and destruction of cities, towns, and vital infrastructure, with little resulting tactical difference on the ground, while directly increasing human misery, societal radicalization, and violent extremism almost regardless of the cause.
Yemen comes immediately to mind. Returning to a previous point, while the reasons for these insurgencies begin with the massive incompetence, corruption, and cronyism of the central governments, they are usually brought into full blossom by the ham handed regime responses. Any COIN strategy that envisages isolating or decoupling fighting the insurgency from government reform is a losing strategy. No government anywhere can kill its way out of an insurgency, and no matter the ultimate quality of the indigenous COIN force and its foreign support, the radicalization of the people, the violent extremism, and ultimately the insurgency itself will not end without addressing the inherent and underlying causes of radicalization with the necessary economic, justice, and security sector reforms; as well as commitments to human rights and increased inclusivity in the administration. The two are inextricably linked and are two sides of the same coin.