WASHINGTON – If President Barack Obama is looking for help from a coalition of Sunni-majority countries to resist the Islamic State, or ISIS, the consensus among regional analysts and military experts is that it won’t work.
Obama has been pushing at the recent NATO summit for the formation of a coalition to resist ISIS, but Great Britain has been stressing such a force should not be Western led. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials have, in turn, been reaching out to nations across the Middle East.
Many of the key Sunni countries, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, however, not only channel money to ISIS, but also have militaries inferior, particularly in command and control and tactical maneuvering, to ISIS’ capabilities – and its fanaticism and ferocity on the battlefield.
ISIS was able to score early battlefield successes against an Iraqi army that initially scattered upon being attacked, abandoning much of its modern – and expensive – Western military equipment for ISIS’ use.
This development came after the United States over a decade had spent hundreds of billions of dollars to train and equip the Iraqi army, only to have it evaporate on ISIS’ initial assaults into the country last June.
This acquisition of powerful military hardware, along with its takeover of oil wells and the robbing of banks approaching a billion dollars, allowed the Sunni jihadist group to incorporate vast amounts of territory, military bases and other strategic infrastructure facilities, which the Iraqi army now finds difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve.
Military experts point out that ISIS already has begun to adapt to air power attacks from the United States and even Syria, which has attacked ISIS positions around Raqqa, a Syrian city the ISIS announced as capital of its caliphate under which all like-minded extremist Sunnis are expected to live under strict Shariah law – or be killed.
While western airpower attacks have in some ways blunted ISIS’ advances in recent weeks, particularly around critical strategic locations such as dams in Iraq, ISIS is modifying its approach away from large convoys of vehicles that expose its positions to artillery fire.
ISIS has begun to downsize its forces to company and sometimes battalion-level operations, giving it even more flexibility and small-unit tactical capabilities, with mounting battlefield success. In effect, ISIS is adapting more to an asymmetrical warfare approach of unconventional warfare, or rapid-reaction guerrilla fighting, where hit-and-run tactics have proven successful in the past against standing armies.
Such an approach is opposite of how Arab countries typically operate, with large standing armies more difficult to maneuver at the tactical level. Arab armies also have a history of a lack of coordination when working with other Arab armies, especially in a unified command and control structure.
Despite its purchase of tens of billions of dollars in western military hardware, Saudi Arabia especially has displayed such obstacles in its fight against al-Qaida in neighboring Yemen. Capabilities of coordinated command and control and the ability to move armies swiftly require near constant military exercises to become proficient. However, there is no evidence such military exercises among Arab countries has taken place.
Unlike Arab armies, the ISIS leadership has diffused decision-making responsibilities to an emir, or prince, level, since caliph leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his close military advisors cannot micromanage highly dispersed units across a vast area.
“The emirs of the Islamic State there are imbued with sufficient decision-making responsibility, which, when combined with often considerable experience in small unit, indirect fire and infiltration tactics, allows them to maximize the ability and flexibility of their motorized light infantry outfits,” reports an analysis of the open intelligence group Stratfor.
This approach then allows the emir to make rapid autonomous tactical and operational decisions to take advantage of quickly changing battlefield developments.
“Instead of charging into the opponent’s carefully laid out field of fire, the Islamic State leader can probe the enemy lines for weakness,” the Stratfor analysis said. “Facing stiff resistance or coming up against an ambush, the Islamic State emir can orchestrate a rapid retreat only to wheel back and flank the enemy.”
Experts acknowledge that the inhibitions of Arab armies to work well within or in coordination with other Arab armies are not only historical but cultural.
“There are many factors – economic, ideological, technical – but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force,” asserts retired U.S. Army Col. Norvell De Atkine.
Having trained with Arab armies for years, Atkine said military decisions are made and delivered from higher ups but with very little lateral communication. While he made these and other observations initially in a 1999 Middle East Quarterly article, military experts tell WND these criticisms remain relevant to today’s Arab armies.
“This leads to a highly centralized system, with authority hardly ever delegated,” Atkine said. “Rarely does an officer make a critical decision on his own. Instead, he prefers the safe course of being identified as industrious, intelligent, loyal and compliant.
“Bringing attention to oneself as an innovator or someone prone to make unilateral decisions is a recipe for trouble,” he said. “As in civilian life, conformism is the overwhelming societal norm, the norm that stands up gets hammed down. Orders and information flow from top to bottom. They are not to be reinterpreted, amended or modified in any way.”
“In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly,” Atkine said. “U.S. trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them.
“Having learned to perform some complicated procedure,” Atkine said, “an Arab technician knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have that knowledge. Once he dispenses it to others, he no longer is the only font of knowledge and his power dissipates.”
In a study of Arab military effectiveness, former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack of Washington-based Brookings Institution said, “Certain patterns of behavior fostered by the dominant Arab culture were the most important factors contributing to the limited military effectiveness of Arab armies and air forces from 1945 to 1991.”
He attributed these limitations to over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level.
Atkine referred to a comment from General George Patton on preparation which he said is absent with Arab armies.
In referring to the Roman General and later Emperor Julius Caesar, Patton said, “In the winter time … [he] so trained his legions in all that became soldiers and so habituated them to the proper performance of their duties, that when in the spring he committed them to battle against the Gauls, it was not necessary to give them orders, for they knew what to do and how to do it.”
Based on assessments from these and other military experts, this cannot be said of present-day Arab armies, thereby raising serious question on Obama’s Arab coalition strategy toward ISIS and how it will be carried out.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for WND/ G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].