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.