Enhancing Arab ‘military effectiveness’ in the face of evolving challenges

Abu Dhabi offers a powerful example of how an Arab army could operate.
Sunday 17/02/2019
Is culture an issue? Jordanian army members participate in a drill during a US Black Hawk helicopters handover ceremony at a Jordanian military base near the town of Zarqa.    (Reuters)
Is culture an issue? Jordanian army members participate in a drill during a US Black Hawk helicopters handover ceremony at a Jordanian military base near the town of Zarqa. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Middle Eastern militaries used to build their defence systems and then depend on outsiders to man them but, as Arab countries face additional threats and aid from the West decreases, that strategy must change, Kenneth Pollack argues in a new book.

Outside forces — the United States or the Soviet Union, for example — would send military equipment to Arab countries and provide training and manpower when trouble came, Pollack said. However, as US President Donald Trump talks about pulling out of the region and as threats increase, the strategy needed to change.

“You have real conventional military threats in a way that you didn’t in the 1980s, ‘90s and even early 2000s,” Pollack said at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “We need you to build your defence capabilities and you need to do it yourselves” has become the attitude of the West towards Middle East allies, added Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

In “Armies of Sand: The Past, Present and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness,” Pollack states there are problems from “the top to the bottom” of Middle Eastern military hierarchies. He called the command-and-control arrangements at the general-officer level “nonsensical,” junior officers “passive,” “inflexible,” “unimaginative” and “completely incapable” of responding to battlefield scenarios and average enlisted soldiers inept when it comes to their weapons.

This, he said, was a cultural issue.

First, general officers tended not to be top-level because many Arab countries have a history of poor civilian-military relations, Pollack said. Often, there have been “regimes of questionable legitimacy” worried about military generals overthrowing them because that’s how the person in charge got there himself, Pollack said.

He added that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein intentionally put people “he knew to be idiots” in charge of the military so he didn’t have to worry about being overthrown.

Second, many lower-level enlisted soldiers face training difficulties because they didn’t grow up exposed to technology. That makes it harder to step into an F-16 fighter jet than an old Soviet plane, which is simpler to operate.

The third and biggest problem, Pollack said, was that junior officers haven’t been taught or allowed to think for themselves. They wait for guidance from the top in situations that those in charge can’t react quickly to or even see what’s happening in a war zone.

In the West, a top commander offers a general sense of what needs to be done and then leaves it to subordinates to determine how best to do it, including how to respond based on what the other side does.

The solution, Pollack said, was also based on culture.

Regarding the United Arab Emirates, which he does not discuss in the book, Pollack said he had only recently become fully aware the UAE was acting on its own in Yemen. However, he pointed out, Abu Dhabi offers a powerful example of how an Arab army could operate.

“First of all, they’ve been very smart about this,” he said. They’ve recruited a small section of people as mid-level officers — men and women — who are different, who have an extensive Western education, who are imaginative, who are reactive and who have had more contact with technology, he said. This allows them to offer guidance to the rest of the military.

“[They are] basically eliminating all of the problems that I talked about,” Pollack said. “It is a brilliant idea and it demonstrates what is capable even with our military of today. The Emirates have the lessons, at least for a state military.”

He said Saudi Arabia has also begun addressing the problems.

Can culture get in the way of military technology and know-how transfer?

“We keep trying to train them as if they are us,” Pollack said.

That did not work because, Pollack said, the US military denied the existence of culture: Everyone’s the same and everyone can be trained the same.

“They do the usual American thing: They talk louder and slower,” Pollack said, “but they won’t do it our way. It does not feel right to them. You have to focus on their strengths.”

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