Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness
(Kenneth Pollack, February 26, 2019)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Kenneth Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.
He served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs.
He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War
Since the Second World War, Arab armed forces have consistently punched below their weight. They have lost many wars that by all rights they should have won, and in their best performances only ever achieved quite modest accomplishments.
Over time, soldiers, scholars, and military experts have offered various explanations for this pattern. Reliance on Soviet military methods, the poor civil-military relations of the Arab world, the underdevelopment of the Arab states, and patterns of behavior derived from the wider Arab culture, have all been suggested as the ultimate source of Arab military difficulties.
Armies of Sand, Dr. Pollack’s riveting history of Arab armies from the end of World War II to the present, assesses these differing explanations and isolates the most important causes. (The book will be available for purchase and signing.)
He examines the combat performance of fifteen Arab armies and air forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war, from the Jordanians and Syrians in 1948 to Hizballah in 2006 and the Iraqis and ISIS in 2014-2017.
Sweeping in its historical coverage and highly accessible, this will be the go-to reference for anyone interested in the history of warfare in the Middle East since 1945.
Dr. Pollack is the author of nine books, including Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, 2013, named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Economist; A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, 2008, which was chosen as an editor’s choice of The New York Times Book Review; The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, 2004; and The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, 2002, a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller.
He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. from Yale University.
For more on governance and reform in the Arab world, see Mansour Al-Hadj’s Westminster talk, What are the Prospects for Real Reform in Saudi Arabia?, and Shmuel Bar’s Westminster talk, The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, and the Emergence of “Jihadistans” in the Next Five Years.
Now, our speaker tonight is as you know Dr. Kenneth Pollack, who’s a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing on those countries in the Gulf.
He served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs, and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs.
He began his career as a CIA analyst, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War.
His new book focuses on why Arab armed forces have lost so many wars that they by right should have won. Maybe for his next book he can write why the United States military forces have during the same time period lost its military engagements.
But he probably needs to rest after this magisterial tome for which you are to be congratulated for, a work of the first magnitude and importance in which he examines the performance of 15 Arab armies and Arab forces in virtually every Middle Eastern war since 1948.
Now, Dr. Pollack is extremely prolific for someone of his tender years, having produced – it depends on your perspective – and he’s written nine other books. I’ll just mention a couple of them: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, 2004.
He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. from Yale University.
The topic of his speech tonight is the title of his book: Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Ken Pollack.
Thank you all for coming out. It’s really a distinct pleasure to address this audience. Thank you Bob for such a lovely introduction. It’s one of those where at the end I feel like saying, yeah, I’m really going to be interested to hear what this guy has to say and I hope I won’t disappoint.
As Bob suggested, my topic tonight is about the way I usually put it, the underperformance of the Arab militaries over the last seventy years and this is something that we see throughout history.
In every historical era, there are countries which punch above their weight militarily and those that punch below it. Prussia in the eighteenth century was a tiny little country. When you look at it in terms of its economics, its demographics, Prussia should have been a secondary state in Europe. But because of its military competence, it became one of the great powers of Europe.
Right, and all through time we’ve seen that. Countries that for economic and demographic reasons, they seem like they’ve been weaker or stronger or they seem like they should have been stronger or weaker.
And I wanted to look at this question of why has that been the problem that the Arabs have faced over the last seventy years. Why is it that time and again when they’ve gone to battle, they have underperformed. They have lost wars that by all material measure, they should have won and often won very big.
And when they’ve won, they’ve managed to eke out very modest victories in circumstances where other factors should have argued that they should have won an overwhelming victory.
That was my topic and that’s what I tried to come to grips with in this book. Obviously, this is becoming more than just academic interest. I would actually argue that it has been of more than academic interest for a long time in part for reasons we don’t really think about.
I think the most obvious reason why people should be thinking about this now is that you know, let’s face facts. Most Americans would very much like to see an end to America’s involvement in the Middle East.
But most Americans also don’t want to walk away from the Middle East only to have the Iranians, or Hezbollah, or Daesh/ISIS, or Al Qaeda takeover as we leave. And one of the problems that we’ve had repeatedly is that Arab allies don’t seem to have the military capacity to withstand those threats without significant assistance from us. And if we are going to leave the region and not simply leave it in chaos, create a security vacuum, or turn it over to the Iranians or the worst elements out there in ISIS and Al Qaeda, we’ve got to leave behind strong Arab allies.
But, as I know at least one of you in this room has experienced firsthand, we’ve had a heck of a time building up strong Arab militaries for exactly the same set of reasons the Arabs have so consistently underperformed since the Second World War.
And of course the other thing we should think about, and I think about it a lot these days, is that over the last seventy years one of the most important elements of the Middle East geo-strategic balance has been the military equation. Right? We don’t even think about it. It’s at this point just become kind of, you know, the wallpaper, part of the scenery.
But the simple fact is, for the last seventy, seventy-five years, the Arabs have been incredibly weak militarily. Israel has been incredibly powerful militarily. We have been incredibly powerful militarily compared to the Arabs and so have the Russians and that has consistently set the table in the Middle East, these unbelievably lopsided military balance, which has also proven durable for the last seventy years, really have underpinned all of the international relations of the Middle East.
And one of my concerns is that I actually think that may be coming to an end. I’m going to talk about that at the close of my talk this evening about why I think it’s coming to an end. But if I’m right, and that incredibly lopsided military balance, which has prevailed over the last seventy, seventy-five years and which has been the critical factor underpinning the international relations of the Middle East, if that’s coming to an end, buckle up because the Middle East we have now, as chaotic as it may seem, could be about to get a lot more so. If all of a sudden that’s up for grabs and people are starting to wonder what is the real military balance? Maybe states that felt weak suddenly believe that they actually have a shot at real military victory.
So that sets the table for why I think this topic is important, why we as Americans need to be thinking about it and thinking about it now. Okay.
As I’ve already suggested to you and as I think you probably already all know from whatever military history of the Middle East you know, from whatever history of the Middle East you may know, Arab militaries have tended to do very badly in combat since 1948. As I said, they’ve lost many wars that they, by material measures, they should have won. Their victories have been very modest.
But what’s really striking about all those conflicts is how consistent patterns have been of how they have fought. It’s not just that they have lost so many wars. It’s not just that when they’ve won, they’ve won in pyrrhic fashion, it’s that in every single case the problems that they experienced were the same: war after war after war, country after country, decade after decade, from one end of the Middle East to the other.
Arab armies have experienced a similar set of problems in combat time after time so much so that if you do read the actual, firsthand accounts of these wars, as I do, as I’ve done – and you don’t have to, that’s why I boiled it all down for you in this book – but if you, what’s really stunning is how many of these conflicts the history reads like plagiarized versions of each other. Right? Because it’s that same set of recurrent patterns.
Very briefly, and I’m being very general here, I’m only giving you a taste of what’s in the book, very broadly, what you find in war after war, is that Arab generals have tended to be hacks, who didn’t know what they we’re doing. Their soldiers didn’t understand how to use or maintain the weaponry that was available to them. And their junior officers, what we call the field grade officers, time and again proved passive, inflexible, unimaginative, and incapable of responding to fast-moving battlefield developments. That was a pattern that you find in war after war after war. Alright? And that became the puzzle, the problem, I had to solve in writing this book, and figuring out where did that come from.
Now, it’s not a simple answer, right? These are big, complex issues, right? When you’re talking about armies in combat and combat all over the place and I looked at all different wars as you heard Bob said from 1948 right up to 2018. I talk about fifteen different cases in the book. I actually have closer to sixty cases altogether that I looked at I just didn’t present all sixty of them because that would, you know, make it a little bit unreadable.
And against all kinds of foes, right? You know we always think about the wars against Israel, but it’s the same patterns against the United States, against Britain, against France, against Tanzania, against Chad, against the Iranians, against each other, right? Time after time after time, the same set of problems, right? And these kinds of problems, again, they don’t come from any single source. It’s a big complex set of problems and as a result they come from a complex set of origins, right?
And the answer that I give in this book is that ultimately, these issues, these problems that the Arab Armies have experienced, derive from their larger societies. Raymond Aron once famously said that all militaries are the products of their societies, right? No truer words have ever been spoken. I will tell you as a military analyst, the worst mistake that military analysts tend to make is that we assume that a guy with a gun is a guy with a gun and all that matters is what kind of gun he’s got, right? And the truth is what really matters is who that guy or, increasingly, who that gal, is, right? And what he or she believes and how they were taught to think and act and behave in a thousand different ways. The human factor is what really drives military balances and what really determines success or failure on the battlefield.
And so when you look at this complex set of problems for the Arabs, what you find, what I present in my book, is that it derives, ultimately, from the politics, the economics, and the culture of Arab society. Now again, these are huge topics. All I can give you is a taste of what’s in the book, and please understand, I’m going to give you very glib, simplistic versions, right? These are big, complex topics.
And in particular, you know, culture is a very delicate one. As I say in the book, working with culture is like working with nitroglycerin, right? It’s often necessary to do so, but if you’re going to do it, you need to exercise extraordinary care because if you don’t, you can do a tremendous amount of damage. So I take a lot of time in the book to talk about what culture is and what it isn’t, how to think about it, how it does and doesn’t have an effect, how it has been abused in the past, how to think about it in the context of military operations.
Again, I can’t take you through all of that, right? So please bare with me. I’m going to give you very simplistic versions of this and [I’m] glad in the Q&A – I’m going to try to leave quite a bit of time for the Q&A – we can talk more about if you’d like to do so, but understand that these are a lot more complicated and all I’m giving you are the thumbnail sketches of it.
Okay, so how to think about the problems that they’ve experienced. Well, I started by talking about the problems that their generals have had. The problems that their generals have had are typically overwhelmingly a problem of Arab politics. The Arab world even to this day is dominated by autocracies, right? And over the last seven years that has basically been the rule far more than it has been the exception, right?
And what we find time after time after time is that these autocrats are very frightened of being overthrown by their militaries, often with good reason because often, they are themselves generals who overthrew their predecessor, right? And what they’re trying to prevent is the next guy from doing the same thing to them that they did to their predecessor. And so as a result, there is a built in tendency across all of these autocracies to regard their militaries with a great deal of suspicion. And they do a whole bunch of different things.
They, oftentimes, preference loyalty over competence when they choose their generals, right? And in some really extreme cases, Saddam Hussein being the best, perhaps the only example, Saddam actually chose guys he knew to be morons, he knew to be incompetent for his top generals specifically because he recognized that they would have tremendous difficulty mounting a competent coup against him, right? And there was a brief period of time and eventually he does realize that that’s a mistake and he has to go about appointing competent people.
And the truth is – you know we need to bear this with a few grains of salt – in many cases, what you find is – in most cases – that dictators are looking for guys who are both loyal and competent. It’s just that if they’ve got to choose between the two, they tend to go with the loyal over the competent. They go with the loyal and hope the competence is there, and we’ve seen plenty of cases where dictators have chosen guys who were very loyal who also turned out to be pretty competent, but because they do tend to preference loyalty over competence, you’ve had problems in many, many cases.
In addition, they tend to micromanage their military forces to make sure that they’re not doing anything that the regime doesn’t want them to do and they create really bizarre, complex command-and-control situations that make it hard for their military forces to overthrow them, but also make it hard for those militaries to fight, especially for the generals to do their jobs.
My favorite example of this comes from 1973 during the October War, the Yom Kippur War, the Ramadan War, whatever you want to call it. I choose the neutral term of the October War. You know before the October War, the Syrians massively expanded their army and they probably had enough brigades to fill about ten divisions and they learned after the Six Day War that you’ve got to have divisions.
They didn’t have divisions in the Six Day War because the leadership at the time didn’t trust any of their generals with command of a division. It was a division commander who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, so no divisions, right, that’s too much power in one man’s hand. Well, they get beaten in ’67 horribly and one of the lessons they learn is you know what we’ve got to have divisions.
Well, Hafez al-Assad, even though he needs ten divisions, he can only find five guys that he actually trusts to command a division, so he goes into the October War with five divisional commands, right? And because he’s got so many divisional brigades, he stuffs all of these brigades in five divisional commands. So each one of these divisions is like a little corps, right? It’s like an overstuffed turkey that’s trying to maneuver around and it creates all kinds of problems for these poor division commanders who are trying to manage forces that are just too big for the systems that they’ve actually got in place.
So politics is overwhelmingly the problem that we see with Arab strategic leadership, with the generals. That’s the top of the chain of command. I talked about the bottom of the chain of command too, right? I talked about how Arab soldiers, the kind of, you know, average guys manning the tanks, manning the machine-guns, flying the planes, often have tremendous difficulty getting the most out of their weaponry and maintaining it all properly. That turns out to overwhelmingly be a product of Arab economics and really of underdevelopment.
The Arab world never really industrialized. The truth is it still hasn’t. They’re more or less jumping over industrialization. They’re jumping into the Information Age, but they never really went through that process of industrialization and that’s important because, quite frankly, twentieth century and early twenty-first century warfare is Industrial Age warfare.
My old mentor, Barry Posen, once famously remarked that the shift between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century was that for the nineteenth century and before, you armed the men whereas in the twentieth century, you manned the arms. Industrial warfare was all about these complex machines of war and think about it, right? When we think about armies and we ask the question of what army is stronger, what are the things we want to know? How many tanks have they got? How many artillery pieces? How many planes? How many armored personnel carriers and what can they do, right? Is this tank better than that tank? Is this plane better than that plane, right? We focus on the machines.
And so one of the critical elements of military effectiveness during the Industrial Age was how well do your people man the arms? And one of the problems in the Arab world is because industrialization never really got there, we find that large numbers of Arab personnel come to their militaries without the same levels of familiarity with machinery that you find in Western armies, and then eventually in East Asian Armies, and eventually in South American armies as well, right?
And again, in my book I’ve got all kinds of statistics showing the numbers of kind of cars per person, and phones per person, and TVs per person, showing how the Arab world never had the same numbers that you had in the West and other parts of the developed world. And for those of you who fought in the Arab world, trained out there, you know a lot of these guys, they come to the military without the same familiarity that the average American or European or Japanese comes to the military with in terms of understanding just the basics of how machines work, right, and Industrial Age machines not smartphones, but how a car engine works, right, because that’s what you need to know.
You want to fly an aircraft, you’ve got to understand how a plane flies and what it does. You want to take care of a car, you need to understand the very basics of what’s required to maintain that car. And so economics and underdevelopment, they’ve really been the critical stumbling block for the lowest levels of Arab military hierarchies. And then there’s that middle level. Middle level is the level of the junior officers. Think of them as the middle managers of twentieth century and early twenty-first century militaries. That middle level – the problems there are largely a problem of the dominant Arab culture.
Now, I can’t go through all of the caveats, but I’ve got to give you a few, right, because this is such a touchy subject. Please understand, first of all, culture is endlessly changing. This is not the culture of the Middle Ages in the Arab world. It is a culture that developed in response to the circumstances of the Arab world in the Middle East during the twentieth century, right, and it is a response to that. This is not a judgement. Arab culture is what it is, like every culture, because it responded to its own circumstances, to its geography, topography, history, demography, all of these different features that impinged on it, right? That’s what humans have, that’s how human society works, right?
One of our greatest advantages over every other animal on this plant is that they have instinct and we have culture. Culture allows you to adapt to your circumstances far better than instinct. It’s why we’ve taken over the planet, right, and why animals have to stay in certain geographic areas. We can live anywhere because wherever we are, our culture adapts and people learn to do things in ways that allow them to survive in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
And again, that’s also determined by their history, right, so whether or not you were budding up against the Mongols or the Romans, right, or dominated by the Ottomans, right, these are critical elements that will shape a people’s culture because culture is all about how does the species survive, how does the society survive in its circumstances, right? So cultures develop in response to their environments and they’re very effective at doing that. The problem for the Arab world is that of course while cultures develop in absolute sense in a response to their environment, warfare is a competitive activity and warfare at different points in time has demanded different kinds of skills.
And what you find all throughout history, going to that question that I posed to all of you at the very beginning of my talk about why it is that some countries have underperformed and some overperformed at different times, a big element of that is about whose culture equipped them with the right skills given how wars were fought at that moment in time. I love to use the example of the Mongols. I used them in the book. It’s not like the Mongols set about building huge numbers of superbly trained horse archers so they could conquer the world, right, what happened was Mongol culture developed large numbers of superbly skilled horse archers because that’s what you needed to survive on the Eurasian steppe. But once you had all those magnificent horse archers, you could conquer all of Eurasia, right, because that was the ideal set of skills given how wars were fought at that time, given the military technology, organization, and etc.
The problem for the Arabs has been the opposite, right? The way that their society evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, again, it equipped them, it allowed them to survive in their circumstances, but did not equip them with the right skill set for Industrial Age warfare. Again, this is a big complicated topic, I’m going to boil it down. At some level, it’s ultimately about hierarchies and organizations, right? Every society has hierarchies and organizations. It’s one of the hallmarks of civilization, right, but everybody’s hierarchies function differently.
Some of you I’m sure have been to Japan or Germany or India, right? And you’ve encountered organizations, bureaucracies, hierarchies there, right? And my guess is – certainly this is how I felt – they felt very different from how our organizations work, right? I can remember standing in the Japanese Foreign Ministry when I was about 26, 27 and just being absolutely baffled at how their foreign ministry worked. It did not feel at all like how the U.S. government felt not in any way, shape, or form. But you know what? It worked for them, right? It was their system. It worked. Their culture told everyone how to behave in the hierarchy, right, how do you behave when you’re at the top of the hierarchy, how do you behave at the bottom, how do you behave toward your superiors, how do you behave toward your subordinates, how do you behave toward your peers.
That’s what cultures do, but everybody’s culture is different and the problems that the Arabs have had over the last seventy years is that Industrial Age warfare demands a bottom up hierarchical organization. That’s what the Germans figured out first. You want to know why they did so well in World Wars I and II? Because they figured this out.
For those of you who know the German term Auftragstaktik, mission-oriented tactics or mission-oriented orders, this is the idea behind it. It is the guys at the top, they give general orders to their troops, ‘I want to move in this direction, I want to envelop these forces’, and they leave it to their subordinates, to the middle-managers, the junior officers, to figure out how to take that hill, how to defeat this enemy force. And then, when they’re waging this battle, to determine at the spur of the moment, how they’re going to fight, right? So it’s a tremendously bottom up process.
You want to win in Industrial Age warfare, you have got to be great from the bottom up. Your junior officers, your NCOs, your middle managers, they have to be terrific. They have to be flexible. They have to be able to take responsibility and make decisions on the spur of the moment, and the guys higher up have to recognize it and be able to help them, support them, react to it.
The problem that Arab societies had is that their culture calls for a very top-down hierarchy where all orders, all guidance, all ideas from the top down. And the guys at the bottom – they are not supposed to think for themselves. They are not supposed to be making decisions. They are supposed to wait until they get orders from the top, and if they don’t get those orders, they sit and wait and don’t start taking action on their own. And that’s what you see time after time after time, battle after battle.
One of the things I do in the book is I point out this is the same set of issues identified by the Arab Human Development reports. Some of you are probably familiar with those series of reports put together under the auspices of the United Nations over a period of 2002 to 2016, written by huge numbers of extremely talented and able Arab experts and academics who all recognize this same set of problems has also been hindering the Arab world in the equally competitive activity of international economics, right, where the Arab world has not developed the same kind of entrepreneurial and innovative industries that the West and East Asia have, and they’re allowing them – and now South Asia as well – allowing them to dominate the international economy.
And I also look at non-military organizations in the Arab world whether it be factories or banks or bureaucracies, right, we see the same issues again and again because again, this is how Arab society has organized itself and it’s perfectly natural, it makes perfect sense for them to do so. And again, in their own context it works for them. The problem is it doesn’t work in Industrial Age warfare. It’s not the most efficient way to do so, especially when they come up against another military that is capable of functioning the way that Industrial Age warfare requires. They lose and they lose often very badly. The Israelis are the polar opposite. They are the ultimate bottom-up society, right, they are bottom-up to a fault, to the point where the junior officers typically don’t even listen to their generals, which can create its own problems, but it’s one of the reasons why the Israelis have beaten the Arabs so handily, especially in tactical engagements, time after time after time.
And same thing for the United States and for other countries. Again, even you know you look at Chad and one of my cases in here is looking at the Libyans fighting the Chadians. What you see is the Chadians too, just naturally, it is their culture. They are very aggressive, they are very bottom-up. They are incredibly flexible and the Libyans are the exact opposite.
Okay, so the point of the book ultimately is about how all three of these factors have combined to hinder Arab forces over the course of time. Alright, and really the way to think about it is that again, Industrial Warfare during the twentieth century and the early twentyfirst century called for a set of skills, which unfortunately Arab society did not produce in large enough measures.
And again, please understand, it’s not that they never produced this, it’s not that there’s no one in the Arab world, that’s absolutely not true. There were plenty of bright, smart, innovative, aggressive just not enough of them, and oftentimes not in the right positions to take advantage of it, alright, because those people often were not promoted. We would recognize them – again, for our own cultural reasons – and say right, this is the guy you want in charge or this is the gal you want in charge whereas too often in the Arab world it was no, no, no, that’s not the person we want in charge, we want this guy who does the traditional way, the right way.
But the world is changing, right, dramatically so. First of all, warfare is changing. I keep talking about Industrial Age warfare and I’m doing it for a very particular reason. I think we’re at the end of the Industrial Age and we are moving into the Information Age and frankly, none of us knows what Information Age warfare is going to look like. It’s going to be very different. We are just at the dawn of the Information Age. It’s worth noting, we have lots of theories and our military is thinking long and hard about this and you know, trust me, our military believes they’ve got this. And you know what, it’s going to be great because we’re going to be even better in the Information Age than we were in the Industrial Age. Maybe, hope so, but you know, history has a bad habit of playing tricks on people who believe that, right?
I mean just think about if you were looking back at say the early twentieth century and you were asking the question what country was most likely to be the dominant power, military power during the Industrial Age, you’d say the Brits, right? They have the most industrialized economy, they had industrialized the longest, they had been the pioneers of industrialization. Think about what they did in terms of warfare. The Brits invented the tank, they invented the strategic bomber, they invented the aircraft carrier, right? You can go through one after another.
Many, a great many, of the key pieces of military hardware that dominated the twentieth century were invented by the Brits, but the Brits are not the winners of the competition for the great military powers of the Industrial Age, right? They are surpassed qualitatively by the Israelis and the Germans, quantitatively and to a certain state qualitatively by us and the Russians as well. Right, they’re not the big winners and so we shouldn’t assume just because we are the power that is basically propelling the information revolution, that we’re necessarily going to be the winners, and the same thing for the Arabs. Just because they’re not the ones who are necessarily propelling it – at least not at this moment – don’t assume that they’re not going to benefit from it. The world is changing and when you think about warfare in the future, we just don’t know what skills are going to be required because we don’t know how mature Information Age warfare is going to be waged.
You know, in the Middle East, the Israelis have benefited from having the best pilots and the best planes. We are fast approaching the point where what may matter in aerial combat is simply who has the best missile, and it won’t matter what plane you’re flying or how good your pilot is. If your radar can find the other plane and get a lock and you can push a button by long-range air-to-air missile, we’re getting to the point where [it] can kill just about anything it can see and these missiles are getting so good that that’s what matters. Right, they do all the maneuvering. You don’t have to be a hotshot pilot who knows how to dogfight if you’ve got a really good stand-off air-to-air missile. And that’s just a taste of what I’m talking about, of how the Information Age is fundamentally changing how wars are fought. We don’t know how they’re going to be fought and so we don’t know what skills are going to be required in the future.
But it’s also worth noting that the Arab world is also changing and I think it’s changing in some dramatic ways. The most obvious example of that is the politics. I think everybody in this room, almost everybody in this room, remembers 2011 and the Arab Spring when we had revolutions in five Arab countries and massive unrest in just about every other one, right, that is a very good sign of how politics are changing. Arabs are no longer willing – as they had been in the past – to simply live under these schlerotic autocracies. They are looking for something different. They are thinking about different things. And in part that is being driven – and in part, that is driving – changes in the economics, right?
Technology is penetrating the Arab world in ways that it hadn’t before. As I said, you know if you look at my charts in the book, you’ll see that the numbers of again, cars per person and phones per person, are very low. Then you look at smartphones for today, they are right up there with us. Heck, in many ways they’ve surpassed us, right? They’ve got like three iphones for every one that we have. And, you know, we’re moving into an era where frankly, nobody needs to know how to take an iphone apart. Can anyone in this room take their iphone apart? Could you repair it? We throw them away, right? That is dramatically changing how we approach technology and technology in the Information Age may be completely different from the way technology was in the Industrial Age.
In the Industrial Age, the people had to conform to the tolerances of the machines. Increasingly, in the Information Age, it is the technology that is conforming to the tolerances of the people. That’s why we have smart phones, right, because they are learning how we do things, right, and making it easier and easier for us to use them to do what we want to do. And finally, Arab culture is changing and changing in dramatic ways. As I said to you when I started talking about it, culture is not timeless, culture is endlessly changing and adapting as the circumstances of the people change and the Arab world of today is very different from the Arab world of thirty years ago and of sixty years ago, right?
You see this in people’s response to things like education and understand, culture is all about education. Culture determines how you educate people and the education then inculcates the culture, right? We don’t even think about it. It just comes right through, right, and people are demanding more critical thinking and different kinds of curriculum, right, and more flexible and innovative ways of learning in the Arab world. Many people are sending their kids abroad to try and get it and some of these countries are trying to import teachers to try to change the teaching methods, right, and you see this in surveys about childrearing in the Arab world where younger people don’t want to raise their children the way that they were raised by their parents, so the culture is changing too.
The point of this book is that for seven years there’s been a real mismatch between the skills that Arab societies produced and the skills demanded by Industrial Age warfare. That’s the problem that the Arab world has been having, but the future? We don’t know. We’re going to have a different Arab society, a different warfare, requiring different skills and that different Arab society is going to produce different skills. We don’t know how they’re going to match up in the future. They could wind up as the Prussians in the twenty-first century or they could just remain armies of sand.
Brilliant, thank you, really, really extraordinary.
Question: so you talked a lot about culture in this. There’s a word you didn’t mention once, Islam.
There was a few, I was wondering which one-
So one thing is Arab culture, but Lebanese can be Christians and they’re Arabs, so is this more specifically an Arab thing or is it Islamic?
Great question and I spent a fair amount of time in the book trying to address exactly this issue, but again, I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch. It’s mostly about Arab culture and much less about Islam. First of all, you know, there’s a tremendous anthropological work on this issue of the relationship between culture and religion and the evidence is overwhelming that it is the culture that drives the religion far more than the other way around. And we can see it just in our own religions. I mean look at how the Catholic Church is struggling to keep up with the changing culture of its practitioners, of its congregants. And again, they’re always a little behind, right, that’s the nature of religion, right? Religion acts as a cultural break.
One of the things that culture is supposed to do is prevent the species from exterminating itself, right, by not allowing change to move too fast and people to get ahead of themselves and religion is one of the breaks on that, but every religion is constantly being pulled by the culture and the culture wins far more than it loses, so it’s not that Islam is totally irrelevant to this, but you have to think of Islam – and again, it’s the Islam of the Arab world – as something which is ultimately shaped by the Arab world, right, there’s a wonderful book for those who are interested.
Clifford Geertz, arguably the most important cultural anthropologist of the twentieth century, wrote a very famous book called Islam Observed and in it he looked at the Islam practiced in Morocco, so the western edge of the Islamic world, and Islam as it’s practiced in Indonesia, and what he demonstrated is these two religions have almost nothing in common, right? They are fundamentally different. They both rely on the Qur’an, but the interpretations are utterly different and in fact, in both cases they are much more like the preexisting culture and the culture as it has evolved than they are like each other or for that matter like the religion as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia, right, the heart, the origin place of Islam.
So it’s not that Islam is completely irrelevant, it’s just that this is much more about culture than it is about Islam and again, in part that’s because the culture tends to drive the religion far more than the religion drives the culture, but fabulous question. Thank you for the question.
Yes, if I may continue to push you on this issue. Of course, [unintelligible] you did not mention Islam and Muslims. What about the Iraq-Iran War that went on for years, massive loss of life, especially in Iran where they had human waves? Iraq should have probably been defeated, but it wasn’t. And what about Pakistan and India? There you also have an Islamic country. One could argue that Islam is a retrograde religion, culturally backward.
One of the speakers who was here some months ago, Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam, pointed out that the country of Greece, which is – I don’t know, correct me – some eight or ten million people, translates more books from foreign languages than all the 22 Arab countries combined, and if you take all of the Islamic countries, it’s not much better.
Chad, of course, is a Muslim country as well, so you pointed at Chad and Libya and the Chadians even though they were Muslim did very well against the Libyans, but what about Iraq and Iran? The Ottomans conquered the Arab countries and they were controlled for four or five hundred years.
Right, okay, so first of all, I mean in some ways you’ve already made some of my points for me, right? The Ottomans were much more capable militarily, right? Islam didn’t stop that in any way, shape, or form. Again, I want to be careful here because Islam is very different today from what it was in the seventh century. The religion evolves too, right, and let’s remember that the Arab armies of the seventh and eighth centuries were the terrorists of Eurasia and Africa, right, and they conquered and [they were] the largest empire on the planet at that point in time. Iran and Iraq, great example.
You know I’ve written as much about Iran as I’ve written about Iraq and about the Arab world. Iran-Iraq War was one of my cases both in this book and in other things that I’ve written. And what’s really striking, the Iranians are a lot better than the Iraqis, right, and they’re not great, they’re not fantastic, but their problems are often different from what you see with the Iraqis, right? The Iraqis conformed to this model absolutely perfectly. The Iranians tend to show a lot more creativity, right, they don’t have the same. There’s a lot more imagination, more aggressiveness among their junior officers, right? You don’t see the same set of problems.
Now, in some cases you do, right? You’ve got the same problems of underdevelopment that the Arabs do, right, they’re not great at using weaponry exactly the way that the Arabs are. They’ve got some issues with their generals, again because of the politicization, that’s similar, but at that middle level, which is the most problematic one for the Arabs, the Iranians are unquestionably better and that’s why they drive the Iraqis out of Iran in 1981 and ‘82 and are able to start battering the doors down on the Iraqis despite the fact that they had been cut off from the entire world, right, they’re using garbage Chinese equipment whereas the Iraqis have basically got first call on the best equipment from most of the world.
As you pointed out, I look at a number of other cases, some Muslim, some not. India: India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, right? Those people don’t seem to have any particular problem. There are plenty of Muslims who serve in the Indian Army. The Indians never complain about it. By the way, they also do quite well with democracy. Indonesia, Malaysia, right, even Pakistan. Pakistan is not the Arab world, right, and I don’t do it in this book, but I’ve looked long and hard at the Indo-Pak Wars.
The Pakistanis don’t have the same set of issues, right? In point of fact, Pakistani junior officers are far better than Arab officers during this same period of time. They are much more responsive, much more creative, in fact, the big problem with Pakistan is the politicization, right, and constantly you have the junior officers and American advisors saying, you know, if the senior officers would allow the junior officers to fight this war, they’d do a heck of a lot better. So again, the issues are not about Islam, right?
I would also say to you that I know there are all kinds of people who have ideas about Islam. Islam is one of the great religions of the world, right, and the Qur’an is very much like the New Testament and the Old Testament. There is so much in there and it’s really about how you interpet it. People interpret it incredibly differently.
I mean I don’t go into it in too much detail in this book because I haven’t looked at Persian culture and Shia culture to the same extent that I’ve looked at Arab, particularly Sunni culture in the Arab world, but there’s an argument out there that people make that one of the advantages that the Iranians may have – and people make this about Hezbollah as well, another Shia group – is that, you know, Shia Islam derives from one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence that actually welcomes interpretation, right?
And so there’s an argument out there that this willingness to interpret the religion permeates the entire society, right? It’s part of the wider culture and in turn infuses the wider culture exactly as we were talking about with a greater willingness to question authority and to think for yourself and to act from the bottom-up, right? I simply mention it here because I can’t comment authoritatively, but there’s no question, the Iranians, Hezbollah, they do better. It may well be because it’s a different way of thinking about the religion and a different way of handling the religion.
Dr. Pollack, as a Master’s student I was assigned a chapter of your book called Arabs at War.
And I read a lot more than just a chapter. I read acknowledgements to the index.
And it’s just one of the best things I’ve ever read.
I wonder if you could sell for those of us who have read that, what’s in the book. I’m hearing a lot of culture.
Sure, great question. For those who don’t know, so Arabs at war was the first book I ever published. And first, thank you for buying it. I don’t know if you bough it, but thank you for reading it, thank you for your kind words. This is the sequel, okay? And what I’d say about this is Arabs at War was a book about Arab military history, so it basically covers all of these wars soup-to-nuts. I feel badly for you that you had to read so much because my god, that thing is a doorstop, but that book was mostly looking at what they did wrong, right, so if you think about the talk that I gave tonight, remember that set I started by saying look, here’s the set of problems that they’ve had. That’s what the conclusion of Arabs at War is, right, looking across all of these Arab militaries over this long span of time and what are the patterns, right, and these are the patterns of the things they did badly.
This book was the effort to ask why, why do they keep doing these things badly and for that matter, why is it that we, and the British, and the Russians, and the French can’t train them to do it better? Right? When we go in there and try to teach them to do it a different way, why is it that we’re not able to make the same progress, right? And I’ve got all kinds of great stuff in here with the Russians pulling their hair out about their Arab charges exactly the way that our guys do when they are over there, right? And again, this was an effort to ask that question and the best thing that I can say to you is that not all, but many of the case studies, maybe two-thirds of the case studies, are straight out of Arabs at War. You can just skim over them and ‘yep, got that, remember that, okay, good’, and then go on to the stuff that really matters.
The other thing that’s in there that I didn’t have in Arabs at War that was very important for this book was I compared the Arab armies to other armies, non-Arab armies that had similar sets of problems. So in some ways, in response to the question that you asked me sir, you know one of the questions that I ask is: is it the Russians, right, is the problem the Soviet tutelage? Right, so I not only look at the Arab armies and a series of them, I also ask the question well, how do the Cubans do? They also use the Russian system. How do the North Koreans do? They also use Soviet practices. When I’m looking at politicization, I compare them to the South Vietnamese and Argentinian militaries, right, two of the most heavily politicized militaries of the twentieth century, right, and what do they have in common, what do they do the same, and what do they do differently. And I also compare them to Chad and China, two desperately poor countries, right, to look at this question of underdevelopment.
So this is the sequel and there is a bit that you’ll see in there and again, you can skim over those parts, make it easier, but it’s very much trying to get at this question of why, right, why are these patterns that I identified in Arabs at War keep recurring, right, in hopes of getting at this question of how might things change, how could we change them if we wanted to, and if they change – and I think that they will whether we want them to or not – how should we think about what the future balance of power in the Middle East is going to be?
I used to work with a propaganda institution in Algeria, so what I know is most Arab countries were created by the West, so these countries were created not based on sound principles or values, it’s just created. They pick these leaders and then these leaders need some protection, so they created armies. This is how we got ours from the West and this is how it works, so for them in the Arab world, armies and Arab governments are just kind of tools to protect some interests. As I see it, the title should be ‘Governments of Sand’ or something like that.
‘Regimes of Sand’.
I don’t know if I’m right or wrong.
This is a great question, thank you. So much in there, so let me see if I can give you some concise answers to a great set of questions. So first, you’re not wrong. I would say actually what you’re saying is all true, it’s just that there’s more to it than just that, right? So first, you’re right that many of these countries were created by the West.
But in many cases, they knitted together themselves. Right, it’s very fashionable right now to say ‘oh, Iraq, artificial country, Syria, artificial country’. It’s true, every country is artificial and ultimately, we should remember if I were giving this talk ten years ago, twenty years ago, we would all be talking about the ferocious nationalism of the Syrians and the Iraqis. They were world renowned for their nationalism, right, and we’ve seen this time and again. People have multiple identities. These things can cohere.
Second point: you are absolutely right that these regimes all began with what I call palace guard-militaries. And again, it’s an important element, I didn’t mention it tonight because it’s something that’s kind of ebbed and flowed, but it’s another element of this isue of the political relations with the militaries, right? When they started out as you point out, every one of these militaries was nothing but a palace guard, right, it was just there to keep the regime in power, and it was designed mostly to protect the regime against internal threats. And those internal threats could be a coup, it could be an assassin, it could be a tribe that didn’t like them, right, or whatever it may be.
But what you also see is that over time many of the Arab states, not all, but many of the Arab states actually start trying to use their militaries for foreign policy goals, right, they start trying to go to war with Israel, with each other, with countries like Chad, and Tanzania, and Iran, and the United States, right? And over the course of time, many of them try to field really competent militaries, right? And those, of course, are the ones that I tend to focus on because, you know, if Morocco ever fought a serious war against another country, I’m guessing the Moroccan military wouldn’t fare very well, right? Because it’s never had a serious threat, right? They brawl with the Polisario a little bit. That’s not a serious threat, right?
But the Egyptians after 1952, the Free Officers overthrew the king in part because they believed he let them down in the war with Israel. The Egyptians tried mightily to build a very serious military, right? And in 1973, they pulled out all the stops. They did everything they could to field the best military they could. And what’s interesting about it – that’s one of the most interesting cases in the book – is they do manage to do some very interesting things and they do eke out a modest victory, but by the same token, that’s what makes it so interesting is they pull out all the stops. They do everything that they can. They have enormous advantages over the Israelis and all they can do is eke out a modest victory for about four days before the Israelis turn things around on them.
And again, case after case, the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War, right, the Jordanians in 1948, the Syrians in ‘73 and again in ‘82, right? These are moments when Arab militaries really did try to make that effort. Now, the last thing I’ll say is that what you say is also true – one of the interesting things is you look at the politicization and I trace it a little bit in the book, exactly as you describe, it starts out, they’re all palace guard-militaries, right, just there for internal threats. Then, they start overthrowing the governments, in part because they start losing these wars. They blame the governments for losing the wars, so they start overthrowing the governments and you get what I call praetorian militaries or praetorian governments where the military is in charge of the government, right?
But then, they all get afraid that they’re going to be overthrown, so they start becoming what I call commisarist militaries, right, like the Stalinist system where they’re trying to control the military so it won’t overthrow them. And they get so good at it, right, and they all learn that our militaries really aren’t very good at this whole war thing, that they wind up going back to being palace guard-militaries, which is what most of them are today, pretty much.
Well, I’m fascinated by the whole idea of technology, information, and particularly with how it pertains to war and the military because we’ve come a long way regarding quantum physics. I was listening to a webinar that was actually being given by an Air Force military officer who was a physicist and he was sharing how, in fact, information now can go faster than the speed of light. It can go through a computer, you can have a tactic or a strategy and you can see what the future can hold. That’s just one iota of how we can manipulate space and time. When you talked about how we’re getting bigger missiles, I think that may come, but the real strength is in how we can manipulate the quantum field or technology and cyber security.
I was reading – because one of the things that I do is I read about cyber security – and had said that the electoral votes, that that particular space is in real jeopardy for cyber invasion, but that’s why it’s so easy for the Russians. In fact, they mentioned the website for how they did that was 4usa.com. The whole idea of technology I find fascinating and it would be great to further that and not give our secrets away.
Howdy, currently, in Yemen, you’ve got a conflict in the region today with the Saudis versus, if you will, proxies of the Iranians. This is something going on today. What is your current read? Are you looking at the tea leaves of the future in this particular conflict and if so, what is it?
Absolutely, and I’ll say a little bit about cyber too because I think it’s an important topic, so Bill, let me start with Yemen. Yeah, first, I’m a military analyst, I work on the Middle East, of course I’m interested in Yemen. And I think you’re also right to be asking the question well, you know, how does it relate to the topic of the book, which you know as far as I’m concerned – not just because I wrote the book, that’s why I wrote the book – it’s the $64,000 question for the whole Middle East moving forward. Actually, I should adjust for inflation. It’s the $64 trillion question for the whole Middle East moving forward.
We see a few things. First, the Saudis are having the same set of problems I identify for every one of these wars, the exact same set of issues, right? We’re coming out of the Industrial Age, we’re coming into the Information Age, but we’re not there yet and certainly the Saudis aren’t, and again, they are having that same set of problems. To me, what’s much more interesting is the Emirates and the Emirati military in Yemen because the Emirates are designing a new kind of force, right?
Now, they’re learning a lot from what we did in Iraq, right? In effect, that’s what they’re replicating in Yemen, so the Emirati effort different from the Saudi effort in Yemen is they brought a small set of special forces units, very elite, heavily trained by us. Many of these people educated in the West, right, so that’s part of what’s going on here. So special forces to do certain operations and then a very small force, 2,000, 3,000 people altogether, advisors, trainers, who are providing command and control and advisory assistance to Yemeni tribesmen, basically, and then providing fire support. Right, the Emiratis have all the money in the world, so they can buy all the latest technology.
And they’ve got magnificent systems. They’ve got Leclerc tanks and South African G5 Artillery pieces, all the best in the world and the Emiratis provide fire support. It’s exactly what we did for the Iraqis in the ISIS war. And to me, that’s really interesting, right, because they’re not quite doing the Information Age warfare yet. This still is Industrial Age warfare, but they are tweaking the parts of their society that actually can do it right, plucking out the people and this is more or less what we did with the counterterrorism service, the CTS, the golden division – any of this rings a bell for you guys – in Iraq, right, these are the guys who fought all of the battles in Iraq. We tried to do more or less the same thing in Iraq.
The Emirates have done it to an even greater extent in Yemen and they’re having real success, right? This is why they were able to retake Aden and why they were able to take Hodeida airport and marched up the coast, right, and are threatening to take the city. It’s this very small Yemeni force that’s acting as this big force multiplier for all of these Yemeni tribes, so yeah, for me, Yemen is fascinating.
And again, it’s still two different countries: one that hasn’t figured out an answer for the Industrial Age and one that has, but again, it still points us to this question of what about the Information Age, right? And I love your question, I love your comment because I agree with you. Cyber to me is a complete unknown.
Something we know about cyber: 2007, you are probably aware that the Israelis took out a Syrian nuclear reactor, right? The North Koreans were building a nuclear reactor for the Syrians out in the desert. It was very clearly designed to give the Syrians a nuclear weapon. The Israelis took it out. The way they did it was, as best we understand it, they inserted a virus into the Syrian air defense net and they took down the entire Syrian air defense net through a cyber attack.
Okay, if that is the future – right – if the future is whoever wins the cyber battle then disables the other side’s kinetic systems, right, your air defense, your tanks, your weapons, exactly, you win and so what you need – you know as Donald Trump’s 400 pound guy living in a basement, you need like a thousand of those guys, right, who are hacking away at the other side. And again, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if that’s what’s going to happen, but it’s simply another way of thinking about how the future of warfare could be radically different from the past.
Thank you sir for coming. This is a brilliant explanation. So I just skipped through your chapter on Daesh and why it was so successful and I see you gave six excellent reasons why Daesh was so effective and how they are able to overcome to some extent the inherent defect of Arab culture, at least more so than the armies based in Baghdad. I’d like you to talk about this a little bit and go over that. I’m especially interested in what you have to say about the way they use foreign fighters. One thing I noticed since I reported too is they were very creative about using things like drones. But I’d also like you to talk about to what extent you see the Iraqi Army having developed?
Sure, I’ve got a chapter where I look at Daesh – that’s ISIS, Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS – and Hezbollah, as two new non-state actors that are doing a lot better than other state actors. And very briefly to give you an answer, I’m only going to give you a tease, so you’ll have to read the book to get the real answer.
As you point out, I have a bunch of different explanations. Some of them are very traditional, right? There are some things that Daesh, ISIS, had going for it that are very traditional military advantages, every military wants them, tremendous morale, right? These guys all believe that if they died, they were going to heaven, right? And that kind of morale you can’t buy, right? And it’s wonderful if you’ve got guys who will charge machine guns because they believe that they are waging jihad, they are doing god’s work, right? So some traditional military advantages, right?
They were also leveraging some of the kind of early versions of the Information Age. They were very sophisticated, their use of propaganda, their use of social media, right? They understood that their zeal, right, was deeply disconcerting to the average Iraqi who didn’t have it, right, the average Iraqi soldier of jundi who didn’t have that, and so they used that and they used social media to spread the fear that that created. Very clever in that way.
Another thing that they had was as you started to suggest, they are a very different kind of organization, right? And what’s important about them is, understand, Daesh, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, all of these groups started out as terrorist organizations, right? And terrorist organizations, we know a lot about them. The ones that succeed succeed because they have a cellular structure: small groups of people who have to be able to act completely independently for security reasons, right? The ones who survive are the ones who identify people who can function in those cellular structures, right? So it’s a completely different kind of hierarchy.
It is – you know, pardon the kind of cumbersome terminology, but it’s the cultural anthropologist in me – it is a non-culturally regular hierarchy, right, and they go looking for non-culturally regular people to fill that hierarchy and they train people. Also understand you know it’s not like you get your culture by age sixteen and that’s it, you’re done, right? Cultures are very complex things and through training you can pull out different traits and different circumstances, right, so they try to foster this, so it’s a very different, it’s a non-culturally regular organization that goes looking for non-culturally regular people who can thrive in it.
And then the last piece, which you also mentioned, is they have relied heavily on foreign fighters, right, so it’s one thing to say one thing to say that some of these guys are non-culturally regular Iraqis or non-culturally regular Syrians – all true – but how about the Chechens, right? They’re not Arab at all, right? And what you find is actually some of their most fearsome fighters and their most skillful commanders were Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, right, from a completely different world entirely. And so this is just a sample of the different factors that made ISIS, and also to a certain extent Hezbollah, that much more capable.
Apparently, I don’t think you found much of a distinction in, for example, Moroccan and the Algerian armies in overcoming these cultural shortcomings when they had Moroccan and Algerian regiments that were incorporated directly into the French army and fought with them in World War I, World War II, Indochina, and Algeria.
Yes, this is a great question and the honest answer is I did not look for exactly the reasons that a couple of the other questions asked, right, which is those are societies functioning in a very different way, right? At a number of places in the book I quote Edward Said, a name that is probably not a welcome one to many ears. But Edward Said you know makes at least one point that I think is absolutely spot on where he made the point that look, this is a society that had to function for four hundred years under Ottoman control and then fifty years under British and French, right? And that warped the culture, right? You have to learn how to survive under those circumstances, right? And that dramatically changes your culture, right?
And you’ve got colonial armies, right, and you know, as a side habit, World War II, you know, I actually teach a class up at Georgetown on World War II. The fall of France is one of the things I always teach, so yes, the performance of a Senegalese, Moroccan, and Algerian regiments and even divisions is a very interesting facet to me. I’ve never seen anything in there that said to me there’s something radically different than this going on, right?
Their advantages are interesting kinds of advantages. They’re not necessarily about, you know, for instance, more skillful junior officers. They tend to be much more about commitment, about bravery, right? I spend a lot of time talking about advantages that come from Arab culture, right? It’s not all disadvantages. There are actually some very useful advantages that come from Arab culture in terms of unit cohesion and personal bravery. That’s what you tend to see in the performance of the Moroccan and Algerian formations in the French army and in particular in World War II and World War I.