Leadership: Breaking The Cycle of Military Incompetence


March 12, 2022: At the end of 2021 the United States again withdrew its combat and combat support forces from Iraq, leaving behind 2,500 American troops to provide training assistance as Iraq tries to rebuild its military yet another time and do it without repeating mistakes and bad habits that persisted a century became a nation after World War I (1914-18).

The Americans have been doing this since 2003, when they ousted Saddam Hussein, a successful Sunni Arab ruler who concentrated on protecting the wealth and power of the Sunni Arab minority. For centuries the Sunni Arab minority, especially those from Baghdad, dominated local government. The Turks recognized this and put the better educated, motivated and organized Sunni Arab “Baghdadis” in charge. When Britain was assigned the job of establishing an independent Iraqi government, they followed the Turk example and put the Baghdadis in charge. That backfired in 1940 when the Baghdadis decided that the growing power of Nazi Germany provided an opportunity to punish the British and enhance Iraqi power. Secret negotiations with Germany were undertaken and Germany prepared to airlift in troops and equipment followed by a German ground offensive on the Persian Gulf oil. The British soon became aware of this and put together a force of three divisions, one of them formed around the Jordanian Arab Legion, and invaded Iraq. After a three-week campaign they were in Baghdad and found another group of Baghdadis who were willing to remain loyal to Britain. Dismayed at the dismal performance of their new Iraqi allies, the Germans canceled plans to move against the Persian Gulf and invaded Russia. The U.S. carried out a similar operation, using two American and one British divisions in a three-week campaign to overthrow the Saddam Baghdadi government.

Sunni Arabs comprised 20 percent of the population and concentrated on keeping power, diverting most of the new oil wealth to themselves and keeping the 20 percent of the population that was Kurdish and the 6o percent who were Shia Arabs subservient. To do this the Baghdadis employed an ancient technique, as they formed a separate military, the Republican Guard, to protect Sunni Arab control and ensure the loyalty by the regular armed forces. The Republican Guard was composed of Sunni Arabs who knew what they were fighting for and were the best trained, equipped and motivated military force in Iraq. During the 1980s war with Iran, the Iraqi Arab Shia soldiers were motivated by financial incentives and preference for Sunni Arab domination rather than the Shia Iranians. It was common knowledge that the Iranians treated their Shia Arab minority worse than the Iraqi Sunni Arabs did. The Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate, which counted as a loss to the Iranians, who were accustomed to regularly defeating Arab armies.

After 2003, when the Americans sought to rebuild the Iraqi military with the Shia Arab and Kurds now in charge of a democracy, many Americans did not appreciate the importance of these divisions and ancient loyalties in Iraq. American officials put in charge of the initial reconstruction did realize the problem and promptly disbanded the Sunni Arab dominated Iraqi military. Back in the United States this was criticized by politicians who did not understand or appreciate the history of Iraq and the malevolent role the Baghdadis played. The Baghdadis reverted to Plan B and supported an Islamic terrorist movement to expel the foreigners and put the Sunni Arabs back in charge. A gullible Western media accepted the Sunni Arab claims that they were Iraqi freedom fighters rather than the traditional tyrants trying to get their power back. This went on for about five years before most Sunni Arabs realized that the Shia Arab and Kurd majority had the numbers, guns and incentive to kill or drive all Sunni Arabs out of the country. This was a traditional regional solution to such problems. The Baghdadi Islamic terrorists did not disappear but remained quiet until 2011 when the Sunni Arab majority in Syria rebelled against the Shia Arab minority that had ruled Syria for decades. The Baghdadis moved operations to Syria and created ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Levant was “Greater Syria” that included Lebanon and parts of Jordan and Israel. The ISIL obsession with dominating the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels weakened the rebels to the point where the Shia minority government was back in charge by 2018 and is still fighting to eliminate all remaining opposition in Syria. ISIL has become an international franchise that encourages ruthless and ultimately futile efforts to conquer the world in the name of Islam.

The failure of the Iraqi military to defeat anyone other than fellow Iraqis is not unique in the Arab world, but it is the best example of a collection of cultural values and bad habits that consistently prevent Arab forces from defeating non-Arab forces. Western analysts have determined what factors make Arab forces much less effective than all others. It’s a collection of bad habits but can be summarized in an ancient adage accepted worldwide; there are no bad troops, only bad officers (leaders). The Arabs suffered centuries of domination by Greek, Roman, Iranian, Turk and European armies that had better officers and leadership in general. The European allies that won World War I also destroyed the Ottoman Turk empire and worked to establish independent Arab states. It worked in some cases, but not so much in Iraq.

All Arab nations had to overcome some debilitating customs to establish effective armed forces and governments. Except in rare cases Arab officers have no respect for their troops nor trust in their fellow officers, both superiors and subordinates. The Arab educational tradition favors memorization, not literacy and reliance on written knowledge. Iraqi officers were dismayed at the American reliance on the written word in the form of training and technical manuals. Literacy rates among Arabs are lower than in other cultures and that means few foreign books are translated into Arabic. Exceptions include the Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), the Nazi how-to manual written by Adolf Hitler and eagerly translated into Arabic. Mein Kampf has long been a best seller in Arab countries. Not a lot of books are translated into Arabic because the only book knowledge that counts is in the Koran (the Islamic scriptures). Arab scientists succeed by learning English and doing their advanced studies and research in English. The Americans translated a lot of their technical and training materials into Arabic but efforts to distribute them widely, especially to literate NCOs and troops were thwarted by officers who usually prohibited the use of these written materials, except by themselves. The officers insisted their subordinates and troops get their information from officers and memorize it.

While the most effective armies, especially Western ones, depend on literate troops who are expected to learn as much as possible about military skills and think for themselves in combat, the Arab tradition sees all of that as an invitation to chaos, insubordination and revolution. This is one reason why few Arab armies have effective NCOs (sergeants). In this, Arabs saw the Russian military system as confirmation of the Arab system because the Russians had no effective NCOs. The post-Soviet Russians realized their error and have been trying, for the last three decades, to fix it. Success has been slow in coming. The situation is worse in Arab armies because effective NCOs are seen as an invitation to societal collapse.

Some Arab countries find a way around this. The Saudis still have tribes as social and political organizations and use the inherent trust within a tribe to create a more effective military. There is also something of a class system to this because when the Saud clan formed Saudi Arabia in the 1920s, they did so via several trusted allies who are still the core of Saudi power. As with Iraq, the most trusted tribes provide the troops for the National Guard, which serves the same function as the Republican Guard in Saddam’s Iraq or the KGB military forces of the Soviet Union or the SS forces of Nazi Germany. Britain still maintains such a system but more as a tradition than loyalty test for elite units that guard the monarchy. The British monarchy lost their political power in the 19th century and control of the army to parliament in the 17th century. Another problem with Arab armies, and many in East Asia as well as Soviet Russia, is the resistance to questioning orders from superior or senior officers regularly seeking advice from subordinates. This was another reason why the Arabs got along with the Soviets, even when it became clear that the Russian weapons looked impressive but were usually inferior to their Western counterparts. The Israelis pointed out that Western military leadership practices can be quickly accepted because in the first few decades of Israeli history half the population were Arab-Jews because most Arab countries expelled their Jewish citizens, many of them families that had been living in Arab countries for over a thousand years. Most moved to Israel and saw the Western style Israeli military system was superior and had no trouble adapting. Many Arab soldiers taken prisoner in those early (through the 1970s) wars were surprised to see many of the captors looked like them and some even spoke their dialect (Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese) of Arabic like a native. That got a lot of young Arabs thinking seditious thoughts and played a part in triggering the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

The Arab system of military leadership is hostile to any criticism of its methods and is reluctant to admit that an internal problem is the result of poor leadership. Other reasons, often involving foreigners, are found and the problems never get fixed. Islamic doctrine plays a role in this because Islam holds that all outcomes are “God’s Will.” Other major religions did not adopt or keep this attitude into the present. The non-Islamic world believes God helps those who help themselves and that makes a big difference when it comes to military performance. Non-Arab Moslems, like the Turks and Iranians, pay lip-service to the Gods Will thing but practice the Western version of how that operates.

The United States is again trying to overcome all these problems as they assist in rebuilding the Iraqi military. American military advisors were aware of all these problems after 2003 and sought to overcome them. At the senior levels of the U.S. government, it was more convenient to accept the myth and the needed reforms were happening. But the advisors still in Iraq reported otherwise. Even before 2003 or September 11, 2001 the U.S. military, or at least the U.S. Army Special Forces and some people in the CIA were aware of these problems. But most Americans, including military leaders, did not accept it. All this is important because the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of a smaller number of ISIL attackers was a shock to most Iraqis as well as the Americans. The traditional Arab attitudes towards military leadership persisted and it was embarrassing for Iraqis to admit that. At the same time there was some good news. The American Special Forces pointed out that one proven technique the Special Forces had developed was to offer Special Forces training to Arab countries. The catch was that the Special Forces trainers spoke the local language and understood the culture and they were able to create effective special operations units in Iraq, where it was noted by the locals that these guys were different, effective and operated like Western troops. These Iraqi troops were all volunteers who agreed to accept the alien military practices of the American Special Forces trainers. It worked, but when ISIL attacked in 2014, only about ten percent of Iraqi troops were special operations quality and that was not enough to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the ISIL offensive. The Iraqi special operations troops were useful and critical in some situations, there were just not enough of them and replacements took over a year to recruit and train. That meant losses could not be replaced quickly. The current problem is not lack of knowledge and understanding of the problems, but the willingness of the Iraqi government to accept the radical changes needed to create an effective military.




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