Thursday, October 2, 2014

Change comes slow, if at all, in the Mid-East

This was recently sent to me by a trusted friend, a USAF Colonel (retired).  It's rather long, but offers insight as to why Arab militaries (and Arab countries in general) are such a dysfunctional lot.  Most of you probably won't care, but I find it fascinating....


September 17, 2014: Britain recently revealed that in August they had to deal with a mutiny among 300 Libyan soldiers being trained at a British base. The Libyans were selected to receive combat and leadership training so they could better train and command Libyan soldiers back in Libya. The mutiny occurred when British officers in charge of the training put three of the trainees under guard after police picked them up for being off base without permission. Then twenty other trainees went and threatened the British soldier guarding the three Libyan trainees. The British guard let the three go free rather than risk violence. Senior officers were uncertain about how to handle this insubordination given the nature of Arab military trainees.

What happened with these Libyans was not uncommon when Westerners are assigned to train Arabs to be military leaders. What these trainers run into is a collection of problems that have long made it difficult for Arab, and many other poor (and often Muslim) nations to establish democratic governments or prosperous economies. A lot of the problem has to do with culture, especially culture influenced by Islam. There are a number of reasons for this and the most important problems are:
Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that officers are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it, and pretend it's all in their head. Despite that, improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies rewrite the book as needed and thus usually win. (Al Qaeda seems a little more innovative.)

There is no real use of NCOs (sergeants or petty officers). Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies, and nobody cares. The troops do not appreciate this and that dislike often manifests itself in unpleasant ways.

Officers tend to be despised by their troops, and this does not bother the officers much it all. Many Arab officers simply cannot understand how treating the troops decently will make them better soldiers. Westerners have a hard time convincing a lot of Arab leaders on this point and those that do understand and implement these ideas risk ridicule for not being authentic (as an Arab).

Paranoia prevents adequate training. Arab tyrants insist that their military units have little contact with each other, thus insuring that no general can became powerful enough to overthrow them. Units are purposely kept from working together or training on a large scale. Arab generals don't have as broad a knowledge of their armed forces as do their Western counterparts. 

Promotions are based more on political reliability than combat proficiency. Arab leaders prefer to be feared, rather than respected, by their soldiers. This approach leads to poorly trained armies and low morale. A few rousing speeches about "Moslem brotherhood" before a war starts does little to repair the damage.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.

Arab military leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences during all of the Arab-Israeli wars and continues to make peace difficult between Israelis and Palestinians. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood." 

While Western officers and NCOs are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skill to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige), Arab officers try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach, but on what he knows that no one else knows.


While Western officers thrive on competition among themselves, Arab officers avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone.

Westerners are taught leadership and technology; Arab officers are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as officers are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as officers.

Initiative is considered a dangerous trait. Subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Battles are micromanaged by senior generals, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab officer will not tell a US ally why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western officers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab officers simply will not admit that they do not have that authority.

Lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arab armies to maintain modern weapons. Complex modern weapons require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab armies avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops. This makes the timely maintenance of weapons difficult.

Security is maniacal. Everything even vaguely military is top secret. While Western promotion lists are routinely published, this rarely happens in Arab armies. Officers are suddenly transferred without warning to keep them from forging alliances or networks. 

Any team spirit among officers is discouraged.  All these traits were reinforced, from the 1950s to the 1990s, by Soviet advisors. To the Russians, anything military was secret, enlisted personnel were scum, they had no use for NCOs, and everyone was paranoid about everyone else. These were not "communist" traits, but Russian customs that had existed for centuries and were adopted by the communists to make their dictatorship more secure from rebellion. Arab dictators avidly accepted this kind of advice, but are still concerned about how rapidly the communist dictatorships all came tumbling down between 1989 and 1991.

Such a system can produce fearsome looking armies, at least on paper. But these troops cannot survive an encounter with well trained and led soldiers. Even fanatical Islamic terrorists are often too much to handle. This is still happening throughout the Arab world as can be seen currently in Libya and Iraq.


  1. Interesting. A lot of these negative traits, I recognized in some of the managers I worked with in the corporate world.

  2. The author of this article seems to know what he's talking about. A fascinating article.

  3. Sadam knew how to govern these people. By taking out all the dictators we have started WWIII. It was a dumb move on our part to even think democracy would work there.

    1. You nailed it Tom. Sometimes it is better to stay out of it and let them fight their own battles, especially the religious factions. If you jump in the middle of fighting cats you better expect to get scratched.

  4. We should stop trying to impose Western style democracy on parts of the country that have been ruled for hundreds of years by tribes.

  5. I meant "parts of the world". Sorry.

  6. This could be the reason why, Israel, a country of only 6,000,000 regularly wins wars against the 300,000,000 Arabs surrounding them......... And it will always be that way. The problem, ISLAM!!!