Why Are Arab Armies So Ineffective?

Romy Haber | @romyjournalist

Our shouting is louder than our actions,

Our swords are taller than us,

This is our tragedy.

In short

we wear the cape of civilization

but our souls live in the Stone Age

These are the words of Nizar Qabbani, the Arab nationalist whose erotic and romantic pen turned into a political one, bashing Arab regimes and culture. Arabs have failed on so many levels; from gender equality to democracy. But most importantly, they have failed on the battleground.

In the words of Nizar: “We went to war, and lost.”

Arabs have performed poorly in every war they fought and are fighting, especially in the last decades. Their failure is mostly due to political failures and betrayals, but one shouldn’t esteem lightly the flaws in their military strategies, from miscalculations to faux pas.

A Gross Overestimation

Confidence is necessary for any army, but when it is not accompanied by competency, it turns into a blinding ego.

Despite their numerous failures, Arab armies have overestimated their capabilities and underestimated their enemies. In the art of war, Sun Tzu stated that you should never underestimate your opponent. Arab leaders seem to have skipped that chapter.

In their wars against the Jews, they had the initial advantage but they managed to lose it. They expected easy victories but Jewish militias proved them wrong, and more than once. Maybe one could say that The Arab propaganda was so strong that even the commanders believed that they were unbeatable.

In other words, Arabs prepared for an easy win, while Jews prepared for the worst.

On the other hand, the ego of Arab leaders is remarkable; they believe and make their citizens believe that the ruler is superior. They create a god-like figure and punish criticism severely. On top of that, ignorance is rampant. Most of the leaders and generals are not even highly educated.

Muammar Al Gaddafi once said: “There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet.

The delusion of Arab leaders and their short-sighted vision costs Arab nations a big price. “Either I rule people forever or I destroy the country” only megalomaniacs like Gadaffi could say such a thing.

In plain English, Arab armies have overestimated their tactical and strategic capabilities and the leaders have overestimated themselves.

The Arab Malaise

The humiliation and desperation that followed Arab armies affect both soldiers and civilians.

Arabs now feel that they’re in an infinite state of misery. Samir Kassir, assassinated writer and journalist, and accused of being an “Arab pessimist” who had lost faith in his own society, developed the term “Arab malaise” in his book “Being Arab”. He understood the political and intellectual stagnation of the Arab world and captured the suffering of the modern Arab world at the hands of its own leaders. But he believed the worst aspect of the Arabs’ malaise is their refusal to emerge from it.

Maybe it’s not easy for Arabs to emerge from it when their only choices are dictatorships and militant Islam.

As for soldiers, the very raison d’être of the armed forces is the defense of something. But what if the soldiers don’t love what they’re defending? In many cases, Arab armies fight wars to defend not a nation but a regime. Quite often, it is a regime they despise.

Islamic terrorist organization and militias seem to have performed better than many Arab armies. This is because a terrorist is dying for a cause he believes in, while a soldier is used to the numerous past losses of his army and has little hope for the Arab world.

Poor Civil-Military Relations

In his book The Soldier and the State, Samuel P.Huntington argued that while the military has responsibility for operational and tactical decisions, civilians must decide matters of policy and grand strategy. Yet in the Arab world, armed forces have a political role that extends beyond their military function.  We can easily call Arab armies praetorian armies. But in many cases, Arab armies not only influence politics, but they also rule every political decision.

At some point, Arabs tired of dictatorships saw armed forces as the social and economic reforms they need. They saw them as a symbol of national integration, honor and a way to fight corruption and oligarchy. People were drawn to the common narrative that the army would protect the nation from colonialism and external threats. They grew eager to give it more and more social and cultural control, hence the bottomless power and influence they have.

One doesn’t have to spend much time searching history to see that allowing armed forces to control every aspect of a country has bad implications. Sudan today can prove it; the military took control of the Sudanese government and the outcome was horrific.

Incompetence in Equipment

Both the US and the Soviet Union have trained and armed various Arab armies, but the results have been underwhelming.

Perhaps Arabs have received the necessary “Swords” to succeed but were not able to exploit them properly. In other words, they do not understand their weapons well enough.

In an article, Kenneth Polack wrote: “The Arab world never really industrialized, and this relative underdevelopment meant that many Arabs came to the military without much understanding of advanced machinery. As a result, Arab personnel often failed to get the full potential out of their weapons… ”

For instance, Saudi Arabia spends lavishly on defense but still fails to take over Sana’a or even Sa’ada, the home territory of the Yemeni Houthis. They orchestrate air attacks and count on mercenaries to fight on the frontlines.

You can have the best equipment but if you do not know how to use it, it is Sisyphean.

Culture Matters on the Battlefield

Culture has a huge impact on military doctrine and how the troops perform. You cannot study the military capacities of an army without accounting for culture.

Kenneth Polack noted that “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.”

Relationships in the Arab world are vertical; there’s always a male figure that makes all the decisions, which leads to a centralized style of decision making in the army. Nepotism is rooted in the hierarchy, and the usual criterion to reach a higher rank is loyalty, not competency. Therefore, Arab armies usually end up with amateurish generals who use fear to control their troops. However, a healthy command structure is one where men respect, not fear, their leaders.

A common theme of planning and careful consideration of strategies is seen among western armies today. For instance, the German army has adopted the concept of “Auftragstaktik”. In simple words, the generals tell the troops what they need to accomplish, not how; much can change in war, and over planning can chain soldiers to inaccurate tactics.

In the western military model before the First World War, initiatives led by soldiers were not embraced- but this is no longer the case. Arabs, as usual, are years behind the west.

In the Arab world, soldiers fear not following orders to the letter. Add to that mediocre leadership, and you only get poor performance.

Arab society also features a lack of critical thinking;- Arabs are infamous for not being able to think outside the box. They are very religious and their educational systems are a step behind critical thinking. Islamic tradition holds that learning is fixed, not flexible. This makes Arab soldiers unable to deal with the unplanned events of combat and consequently end up with poor unit cohesion.

Clausewitz named it the presence of mind- “Presence of mind . . . is nothing but an increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected.”

Arab armies perform poorly, but looking at Islamic Arab non-state groups and militias, it is obvious that they have been more efficient on the battleground. Maybe these militias and clans came as a result of the inefficiency of the Arab armies.


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