Uncle Sam of Arabia: Another new Washington military doctrine?

Uncle Sam of Arabia: Another new Washington military doctrine?
7 min read
24 Jan, 2017
Comment: The Middle East is in danger of becoming the Wild West if 'Sheriff' Trump doesn't resist the temptation to send in bands of US special forces, writes Robert Springborg
New counter-insurgency doctrines will do little more than provide temporary, limited victories writes Springborg [AFP]

Lawrence of Arabia demonstrated the potent combination of British special operation forces working with Arab "irregulars", or foreign, temporary forces operating outside of their own territory.

The former provided weapons and ammunition, training, intelligence and some battlefield command, while the latter provided troops proficient in asymmetrical warfare, support from the population and political legitimation of military operations against the Ottoman enemy.

This model has demonstrated its continued viability against occupying forces where the indigenous population, keen to drive those forces out, has few qualms about turning to another foreign power for modern versions of the assistance the British, through Lawrence, provided Sharif Husayn of Mecca and his loyalists. A case in point is the nine-year guerrilla war that ultimately drove Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. 

This successful model of a national liberation movement supported by an external force also opposed to the occupying power has unfortunately been conflated with counter-insurgency, or COIN as it is commonly known.

The key difference between the national liberation model embodied in the 1917-18 Arab Uprising, or in the struggle by the Mujahidin to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets, on the one hand, and COIN, on the other, lies in the purpose for which an alliance is formed between a domestic and foreign actor.

In the former it is to liberate the country from foreign occupation, while in the latter it is to subdue a common domestic enemy.

While admittedly these lines can be blurred, national populations perceive the difference between national liberation and civil war. In the contemporary Arab world, very few, if any, would describe fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen or elsewhere as constituting a national liberation movement.

The governing force, increasingly reliant on the foreign power and decreasingly accountable to domestic ones, typically becomes steadily more corrupt

These are internal power struggles between divided national political communities. Outside supporters are thus inherently involved within those power struggles, taking one side against another, rather than supporting a broad consensus behind liberation from an occupier.

Dynamics in the three actor COIN drama thus differ profoundly from the national liberation struggle. By allying with a foreign power against fellow citizens whom it is not strong enough to defeat on its own, the governing force necessarily discredits itself with those citizens, undermining its legitimacy.

This in turn causes that governing force to rely ever more heavily on the foreign power to subdue an ever more obdurate domestic enemy. Conflict spirals upward and typically continues until one side subdues the other, or the country is in effect partitioned, "ethnically cleansed" into autonomous regions.

The governing force, increasingly reliant on the foreign power and decreasingly accountable to domestic ones, typically becomes steadily more corrupt.

  Read More: Obama's other legacy in the Middle East

Within the contemporary Middle East, Afghanistan is a case in point. Its government, much like that of South Vietnam's in the early 1970s, is steadily losing the will and capacity to fight as it becomes more obvious to all that its foreign supporters are about to abandon the struggle.

Iraq is a case where at least the temporary outcome has been partitioning, the country in effect having three capitals - Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul, maybe with a fourth, Basra, on the way.

Libya and Yemen are similar stories, each with two capitals, while Syria seems to also be headed in that direction. In all these cases the "capitals" are ruled by corrupt, desperate men, contemptuous of their fellow citizens and deeply dependent upon external supporters.

So when one hears from the US military that it has devised yet another COIN doctrine that unlike all of its predecessors is bound to end in success, one is rightly skeptical.

Yet that is precisely what has been shopped to former President Obama and President Trump by various active duty and retired generals. And indeed, the doctrine is presently being trialed in various theaters in the region, including most especially the Jazira regions of Iraq and Syria, where the principal opponent is Islamic State.

A small manifestation of that was the photographic revelation in mid-January by The New Arab of a US soldier at the Mosul front, obviously involved in providing direct combat assistance to some Iraqi forces.

The days of wasting billions of dollars on useless Iraqi and other Arab armies are over, we are told

The "new" COIN doctrine is of course old wine in new bottles, the new bottles being primarily the promise that US special operation forces have learned how to bolster Arab militaries so that they can now be effective.

The days of wasting billions of dollars on useless Iraqi and other Arab armies are over, we are told. Close cooperation by secretly deployed, experienced US soldiers, coordinating when necessary with US and Arab air power, will do the trick, whatever the trick is to be.

One of the obvious intents of this new doctrine is to erase the memory of previous failures, of which the Iraqi one was the most expensive and disastrous.

Another inspiration for it is presumably the success enjoyed by Iran in bolstering the military capacities of its Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni and possibly other allies, as Iran steadily generalises the model it first developed with Hizballah.

Alas, the US cannot replicate that model for several reasons, key of which are that Iran shares a common or almost common faith with all of these forces, which combined with it being a regional actor endow it with a legitimacy which the US could never hope to achieve.

In any case the US is unlikely to place substantial military personnel in positions in which Iran is perfectly willing to do. But lack of effectiveness is not the major drawback of the new COIN doctrine.

These are too discordant, flimsy foundations on which to rest US policy, to say nothing of influence, in the region

The temptation for the new US president, just as it was for his predecessor, is to take the military at its word, authorising it to essentially run amok in the region on the grounds that it is fighting terrorists.

The combination of COIN and CT (counter terrorism), thus literally provides a license to kill, not only with very little oversight, but also with very little political strategy behind it.

The main thing is simply to bolster the capacity of local forces better to kill their enemies, on the assumption that they are also enemies of the US, without giving careful consideration to the political consequences.

So the enemies in question include many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, some but not all the Shia in Yemen, north Sinai tribesmen in Egypt, members of the tribes that inhabit the central northern regions of Libya, and so on.

Friends range from the Shia exclusionary government in Baghdad, to the Kurdish one in Erbil, to the Saudi-backed one in Aden, the military autocracy of President Sisi in Egypt and the assemblage around former CIA retainer Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi.

These are too discordant, flimsy foundations on which to rest US policy, to say nothing of influence, in the region. So even assuming these "governments" could be saved through the new COIN and associated CT strategies, it is not at all clear they are really worth saving, whether from the perspective of large numbers of their fellow citizens or the US.

The Middle East, in sum, is in danger of becoming the Wild West. If "Sheriff" Trump does not resist the temptation to send posses of US special forces off in various directions in search of allies to support and enemies to kill, he will end up like Obama, contributing to the region's problems rather than assisting in their resolution.

No new COIN doctrine can do anything more than provide temporary, limited victories for "allies" who are in virtually all cases little better than classic warlords, whose behavior will inevitably give rise to further armed challenges.

Lawrence of Arabia was successful because he and the British Government supported a national liberation movement, not a disparate collection of autocrats seeking to put down insurgencies resulting primarily from their own failures.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.