Why Arabs Lose Wars ….Twenty Years Later.

Below are the notes I used to explain this paper at the ASMEA conference in NOV 2018 ASMEA Presentation notes 2018. They are cryptic but provide the essentials. The entire paper is at memoriesandreflections.wordpress.com

– My Initial interest in Arab military originated from my study at the American University of Beirut (AUB) “Guerilla U” as it came to be called. I was particularly fascinated by the growth of the Fedayeen /PLO centering on my analysis of the Arab military/ warrior culture.

-It remained my interest over the years. I Built my own library. Very little written on Arab military culture.

Had a number of years working on the ground with several Arab armies and established a number of contacts.

-Al Jazeera interview in 2016. Producer said he couldn’t anything other than my article on Arab culture.   Outcry from Egyptian leadership and relations with Qatar. It strained the already bad relations between Qatar and Egypt,

-In 1999 I wrote an article for The Middle East Quarterly “Why Arabs Lose Wars”-It has had a very long shelf life and has ben the most read article since the founding of the on line periodical since it was founded. It was an analysis of the military culture which has tended to render Arab conventional way of war largely ineffective

-No aspersion on Arab courage or intelligence. No country of nation has an earmark on that

– Although I knew Al Jazeera is basically a mouthpiece for the Qatari regime I decided to do the interview with them and I am glad ,. Many responses from Egyptian officers and enlisted men on the subject. Racism, barbaric treatment of enlisted men, etc

-I continued to focus on Arab military culture including an analysis of why the Arab as an unconventional fighter is so much more effective.  “The Arab as Insurgent and Counter-Insurgent,” In Barry Rubin ed. Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, Routledge.

-Then I wrote a piece from the online periodical MERIA on why western training of Arab military does not take. Again focusing on the cultural aspects.


A couple of years ago I then wrote a paper again for the Periodical MERIA entitled “Muhammad Taught Us How to Fight, “ centering on the strategy of the ISIS attempting to follow the supposed strategies of the Prophet himself


So coming full circle,

a friend of mine asked me to write a paper on Why Arabs lose Wars 20 Years Later, This is the latest entry on my blog

In doing so I focused on the Egyptian battle with Jihadis in the Sinai, the Saudi war with the Houthies, and The Iraq campaign against the ISIS.IRAQ

Iraq deserves great respect for its ejecting the ISIS out of the main cities. I understand the pride most Iraqis take in the victory and applaud along with them.But it has to be taken in context,

`- Only part of Iraqi army involved…. the CTS Golden division . and they ended up decimated by constant combat. Much of the very large Iraqi army is untrained and ill disciplined. The ISIS was a much overrated and hyped foe, They faced an Iraq which had

–Total Western and international support

– Huge superiority in numbers

— Heavy armor and artillery

–air supremacy

same old problems of the Saddam era reappeared as soon as the American advisors departed nepotism ran rampant, incompetent officers were appointed on the basis of loyalty to the regime


Saudi Arabia

The moribund and fragmented command structure of the Saudi forces was apparent. Mostly because of use of the balance of rival forces to maintain the regime in power, ( SANG vs. RSLF) poor NCO’s , incompetent officers with same old problem of leading from far behind. Saudis have same problem Egyptians had in fighting the same people in the early sixties. Take note we have been training the Saudis since the seventies.



Same problem we had in Vietnam. Egyptian conducted he sweeping operations which were totally ineffective.

Cultural ignorance of their own people re the Sinai

Lack of small unit leaders

War on people instead of the insurgents

Basically the same problems Churchill wrote about in the River Wars in the 1880’s , I saw in the 1980s and persist to this day

One additional factor is the increased radicalization of Islam which has further limited the freedom of thought and thinking outside the box.

Basically the main issues across the board are these.;

Using information as power

Poor education

Lach of cohesion re soldiers and officers

Inability to delegate authority or accept responsibility

Lack of trust among officers in leadership

Decision making avoided

Balance of forces to maintain regime stability

Security and paranoia

And the most crippling one……

Lack of a professional NCO corps and well trained small unit commanders


In 1998 the author wrote an article entitled “Why Arabs Lose Wars.” It was published 1999 in the Middle East Quarterly [1] and had been one of most read articles in the magazine since that time. It has been re – circulated on the Internet to this day. It has also been unofficial required reading for American soldiers and officers deploying to train Arab soldiers. The premise of the article was that that cultural barriers are the most serious impediment to Arab militaries developing an effective conventional fighting force. The article enumerates specific aspects in which the dominant culture negates some positive traits of the typical Arab soldier. I emphasize “conventional” because as I wrote later, Arab irregular forces have been much more effective, again for cultural reasons.[2]

Twenty years have past and Arab conventional forces have been involved in manyconflicts. The Iraqis have been involved in two, one against the United States, Egyptians against the Islamists, and Saudi Arabia against the Yemeni Houthies, and of course the Syrian government forces, and allies against a myriad of irregular forces. In this paper my objective is to assess if the cultural aspects of the military society have changed materially and if so, how. I will analyze this in terms of their effectiveness in the conflicts in which they are engaged, and when possible, in the context of the factors surfaced in the original paper. The fact that Arab forces have been largely engaged against irregulars is not relevant because Arab forces have fought the rebels using conventional forces in a largely conventional way.

I will also examine these cultural factors within the background of American military trainers working with Arab militaries, especially n Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in the case of Saudi Arabia, working with them since the 1970’s. The author will expand on issues surfaced in my article, “ Western Influence on Arab Militaries, Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes. [3]

Within the cultural factors surfaced, I will also underline the political factors, specifically factors such as sectarianism and Islamism. They have always had an immense impact on Arab society, but have become increasingly critical in examining the Arab military culture. The Arab culture, despite the trappings of Modernism, remains resistant to Western culture and has evolved very slowly. [4] This inherit conservatism is exhibited by the endurance of movements such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which seeks not only to halt what they view as Westernism[5] but completely reverse it.

I have constructed this article on the foundation of previous presentations to ASMEA conferences, and classes I have presented at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. To this I have included my culling of information from former students and Arab friends, and whatever oddments of information gleaned from various books and media. In the final analysis, a great deal of inference and supposition is required, with some educated intuition. With due modesty I think my experience over some 50 years of interest and observation of Arab militaries qualifies me to do so. In this paper I will focus primarily on the military experiences of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia since 1998.

One question that immediately surfaces is why so little has been written on Arab military culture in the past? One answer is the secrecy that Arab states impose on every aspect on their military sector. This, combined with the impact of highly censored state- run media basically makes inside reporting on the military near impossible. In my own experience mundane matters such as promotions (except for very high level) and transfers from one unit to another are classified secret. This type of information in the U.S. military is routinely published in periodicals such as the Army Times.  This is a feature of the paranoia factor as surfaced in my original paper.

 Over the years, hundreds of U.S. military officers and non – commissioned officers (NCO), as well as many civilian contractors have worked with the Arab military, yet very few have written anything more than an occasional hagiographic piece on how well an Arab army is progressing with U.S. military assistance. The reasons are not particularly complicated. Firstly, those officers still working with Arab military cannot violate the official line i.e., that while there are problems overall things are going swimmingly.[6] As American military officers move on to other assignments, limited time and waning interest largely precludes writing papers. From over 20 years of teaching military officers, I know most would prefer taking incoming fire than writing. Civilian contractors involved with Arab militaries are loath to bite the hand that feeds them by writing critical analyses. Finally it would be foolish to think that Arab officers would take the risk of criticizing their own militaries. Some years ago, I gave a sanitized version of Why Arabs Lose Wars to a group of Arab military attaches attending a conference of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. It was met with an unhappy reception and most left the room immediately, with one exception. The military attaché from the United Arab Emirates came up to after all others had left and told me, “we all know what you said is true but we can’t admit it.”

I have also received many emails and text messages from military officers, both American and British, relating that their experience with Arab armies in a training environment coincided with mine. [7] Some have used the content of the article and my expanded presentations to brief incoming contractors   and officers. This has been very gratifying to me particularly in view of the recent trend of the U.S. military to move to a “politically correct” view of Islamic society and culture. One of the features of this trend has been to avoid recommending the use of the best book on Arab culture by Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind [8]. It is essential reading for any trainer deploying to the Arab World.

Most satisfying to me, however, was the response from former Egyptian officers and soldiers I received following the airing of the Al Jazeera documentary, “Conscripts.” [9] An interview with me conducted by the producer of the documentary was a central part of the film. The documentary, aired on 26 November 2016, described the barbarous treatment accorded recruits, primarily those non – college educated and from the peasant class. It also highlighted the low standard of training given to the recruits.

The documentary itself created a firestorm of vociferous denunciation from Egyptian official sources. It caused a further rift in Qatari-Egyptian relations already at a low point. [10] There is no doubt that the Al Jazeera documentary was a hit piece on Egypt. Everything in al Jazeera is politically oriented and approved by the Qatari ruling family. Nevertheless despite the political slant, the documentary was an accurate reflection of reality. My remarks pertained to Arab militaries in general, not just those of Egypt, but of course those were edited out in the final version.

The producer of the documentary, Emadeldin Elsayed[11], approached me some months earlier in 2016 saying that my article “Why Arabs Lose Wars” was the only article he had ever found on the cultural aspects of the Arab military environment. After some trepidation, knowing the political slant of the news outlet, I did the interview and am very happy I did so. It produced many comments from ex-Egyptian military officers and enlisted describing the conditions in the Egyptian army, particularly that of the officer –enlisted relationship. Their articulate responses in English, reminded me of the dichotomy of the many talented Egyptian and Arab officers I have met over the years, and the ineffective militaries in which they served.   Perhaps the characterization of Kamal El Fouli in Alla Al Aswady’s book The Yacoubian Building describes it best, “The same authentic talent, however like so many talents in Egypt, has been diverted, distorted and adulterated……”[12]

One recently discharged soldier, a Nubian, wrote that he admired the American army “but in my country we are like slave.” He went on to write about the recruit’s experience, terming the Egyptian army as very racist, [13] something well known in Egypt, and a condition affecting most Arab counties. He wrote, “ You know what I did in Egyptian army? I cleaned apartments for officers.” As a recruit this soldier wrote that recruits were denied water and made to stand in the sun for hours for no apparent reason, and he himself suffered a psychological breakdown, and tried to cut his wrists. He was sent to a medical clinic and the female reserve officer doctor told him not to tell anyone because he would be court martialled.

Another Egyptian, a reserve public service doctor with the army for two years, commented that the military leadership was poorly educated, a conclusion he gathered from his time treating them. He mentioned that as a doctor for officers the only thing that interested them was to take home vitamins for sexual prowess. He ridiculed one high Egyptian general, apparently the official analyst for an Egyptian state TV channel, who opined that “the Tunisian Quartet is a good woman and she should get the Nobel Prize.”   Nevertheless, from a number of the Egyptians who responded to my appearance on the video, it was also evident that for ambitious young men the army officer career is a good choice because, as one wrote, “the army runs the country.”

I also received a number of digital thumbs up from other Egyptians still in the army admonishing me not to disclose their identities. This was a reminder that writing about the Egyptian as well as any other Arab military force requires a lot of intuitive interpretation because inside sources are hard to come by and often financially or politically motivated to present a particular view. Those who do give their opinions are putting their careers, and perhaps their freedom on the line. The primary point here is that these often-acerbic opinions and comments reflect a primary reason for the ineffectiveness of the Egyptian army trying to eradicate the Islamist threat in the Sinai and Western desert.

In their operations[14] in the Sinai the Egyptian leadership has not evidenced any particular interest in applying lessons learned in low intensity conflict, despite the massive amount of literature available.[15] As I have observed, Arab military literature tends to be translated Western manuals, which often have little relevance to the “Arab Way of War.[16]” This defect is magnified by the fact that, in general, Egyptians have little interest in the people or culture of the Sinai, and few officers have demonstrated a desire to learn.

The void left by the officer corps has not been filled by the non commissioned officer nor are they allowed to do so. The often displayed uncouth barbarism of poorly educated non commissioned officers, is evidenced by often preying upon hapless recruits, involving bribery and demanding protection money. They do not provide a bridge between the soldier and the officer.[17] Whatever tactical and survival training the recruit will receive comes from training supervised by the officer.[18] As a result only the most elementary training will be provided to the soldier, especially those going to the Central Security Forces (CSF), who tend to be the least educated and in the poorest physical condition.[19] Most soldiers will fire only a few rounds from their weapon before going off to the Sinai. As shown in the film “Recruit,” the most valued lesson learned in training is obedience and a passive acceptance of hardship. Living with hardship comes easily to most Egyptian recruits from the villages and farms, but they do it within the comfort zone of their people and family. The alien environment of the military is a far different matter, especially when operating in a desert or foreign region, such as Yemen, or the Sinai.

The point of the above is not to surface the unsurprising fact that there are many unhappy soldiers in the Egyptian army, but to underscore the cultural aspects, which today, have rendered their operations in the Sinai and Western Desert generally ineffective.[20] They launch wide sweeping operations, seemingly primarily designed to impress the public, using state – run media to maintain a steady flow of good news.[21] Daily communiqués describe security forces vigorously pursuing the war against Islamist terrorists (or to be more descriptive, tribal units that have, for economic or political reasons, chosen to ally themselves with Islamist organizations). These operations seem to be more of a “slash and burn” type to exact collective punishment on a tribe or village believed to involved in some terrorist outrage.[22] The Egyptian army is always on the defensive, acting in a reactive mode, operating in an intelligence vacuum, and usually in an ad hoc manner. The most recent operation beginning in February, 2018, recently concluded with little to show for it. The withdrawal of some army units amid widespread reports of botched operations attacks on civilians,[23] and a general lack of effectiveness, was more a admission of failure than success. After winding up their operation, which was criticized for widespread abuses of the civilian population, they sought to redress the toxic environment by distributing bread and candy to the children.[24] This indicated their general insensitivity to the people of the Sinai as well as their ignorance in assuming this is the essence of civil-military relations.[25]

In response to the lack of success in destroying the terrorist forces, there have been purges of the officer corps by President Al Sisi but it seems to have compounded the problem not solved it. A recent text message to me from an Egyptian official working within the Ministry of Defense summed up his picture of many changes in the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. As he succinctly put it, “ all is chaos.” This surfaces a particular malady, which infects all Arab militaries. The frequent purges of the officer corps, for whatever reason, negate any continuity and gaining from lessons learned. The firing of Egyptian Chief of Staff Sami Anan this past January brought a number of successive changes down the chain of command. It also brought a whole new lot of mostly sycophant officers.

Islamist terror groups make excellent use of the Egyptian army’s weakest links. They hit small unit defensive locations, such as traffic control check points and small bases, taking advantage of the low standard of training and leadership exhibited by junior officers and non – commissioned officers. They then re-integrate themselves among the tribes in the Sinai and are invisible to the ponderous sweeps made by the Egyptian army. The Egyptian army is road bound, and unfamiliar with the terrain and people, who mostly view them as occupiers, not fellow countrymen. Another favorite insurgent target is the Egyptian army or police convoys. Some of the most devastating attacks have been on moving convoys whose movement was not coordinated with supporting units.[26]

One of the best defenses against this well-known insurgent tactic is the use of pre-planned artillery or air support, which can be used to turn the tables on the ambushers and destroy them.[27] But as has usually been the case, Egyptian unit and combined arms coordination have been practically non-existent and the ambushed units are on their own. A prime example was the recent ambush of a security force convoy in the Western desert in which the insurgents were able to walk among the trapped and destroyed vehicles methodically killing survivors. The occupants of one vehicle that escaped were heard frantically telling their headquarters that they were being pursued.[28]

A factor that cannot be ignored is the civilianization of the Egyptian military higher leadership. Some would see this as militarizing the Egyptian society, but in fact the degree of general officer management of the ministries, the bureaucracy, and the economic sector has gone a long way in diminution of the concentration of the military leadership in creating a professional force. This critical issue has been well examined, with wrong conclusions, by Zeinab Abul-Magd in his book Militarizing the Nation.[29]


The good news of an advance in Arab military proficiency would seem to be the success of the Iraqi forces ousting the Islamic State from Iraq. There is no doubt that this success buoyed the morale of the Iraqi populace, at least those of the Shi’a community, and most of the urban Sunni population. It was a great success, and should not be deprecated. This is particularly true in view of the rather checkered history of the Iraqi military beginning in 1948 in Palestine and extending to the debacle in Mosul in 2014,[30]  an exception being Iraqis performing well in getting their premier 3rd Armored Division to the Syrian front in the 1973 war. They moved directly into combat against the Israelis, stalling their advance on Damascus.[31] They also fought the Iranians to a stalemate in the Iran- Iraq war, but the massive initial advantages held by the Iraqi forces were largely negated by the cultural impediments that have always constrained Arab conventional forces. By virtue of the insightful work of Kevin Woods and the team at the Institute of Defense Analysis, the inner working of the Iraqi army through the time of Saddam Hussein has been laid bare and the picture is a dismal one.[32] Unfortunately the rebirth of the Iraqi army has been a painful one. From my contacts within the Iraqi community and officers who have worked with the Iraqis since the “new Iraqi” army was built, the possibilities for a quantum improvement were largely squandered and expectations unmet.[33] The success of the Iraqis in defeating the ISIS has to be viewed in the context of the international and regional environment, and an assessment of the comparative forces involved. First of all the Iraqi “army” success was basically due to only two units, the Counter Terrorist Services (CTS) and the 9th Armored Division. Only a miniscule part of the Iraqi army was actively involved in the long march to Mosul. The vast majority of the Iraqi army was not trained or led well enough to take part in the campaign.[34]

The Iraqi forces involved enjoyed the advantages of greater firepower including armor and artillery while the ISIS fighters[35] were generally equipped with light to medium weapons. They were vastly outnumbered by the Iraqi forces, which also had critically important assistance airpower support, including that of the Americans and European forces. From city to city the Counter Terrorism Service units, (CTS)[36] led the assaults taking heavy casualties, with inadequate numbers of personnel replacements. The rebuilding of this unit has been very slow and at this point has not regained a pre- Mosul state of combat effectiveness.[37]

Political competition between Shi’a militia and Iraqi Security forces leadership was, and is, an important factor. Despite a lot of politically inspired pro militia propaganda, the military role of the militias was limited to a distinctly secondary role. In many cases militia successes were a result of ISIS fighters evacuating smaller towns and villages to consolidate their forces in Mosul. The sectarian divisions, as wide as ever, continue to impede the creation of a truly professional Iraqi military force. The existence and popularity of this militia is prima facie case of the degree to which these divisions will haunt Iraq just as did Hussein’s Iraq.

In the debacle at Mosul in 2014, when Iraqi forces collapsed, the ineffectiveness of American training was often cited as a reason for the collapse.[38] Almost universally cited was the disbanding of the Iraqi army[39] by the American led coalition provisional government. This view was buttressed by a belief that, somehow, despite a recent history of military disasters, the dismissed army was a “professional” army. It is a favorite among the pundits in that it explains a complicated tragedy simplistically in a war that became unpopular[40] with the American public and thereby useful as a political weapon.

The “ineffectiveness of American training” of the Iraqi forces was also a simplistic answer. Actually the army trained by the Americans no longer existed after the hasty and ill-considered American withdrawal of forces in 2009[41]. Once American influence in the chain of command was largely eliminated, the Iraqi army quickly descended to the traditional Iraqi military culture of nepotism, corruption, sectarianism, tribalism and authoritarianism[42] Loyalty to the Maliki regime was considered far more important than proficiency. It is a lesson relearned, i.e. that once Western influence is removed, traditional Arab cultural mores quickly reassert themselves.[43]

Saudi Arabia

 Despite some 40 years[44] of training by British, American, and other European officers and contractors Saudi efforts against the irregular Houthies have been ineffective and sometimes catastrophic.[45] Reputable inside sources on the conduct of the war ardifficult to obtain but results of the war thus far are not difficult to see. Despite overwhelming superiority in numbers, heavy weaponry, airpower, and assistance from the United Arab Emirates, the Houthies[46] remain undefeated and hold large swaths of territory. The Saudi intervention is eerily similar to the Egyptian intervention in 1962.[47] Like this war, the Egyptians fought the same Zayidi tribes with the same results. Road bound, poorly trained, totally ignorant of Yemeni culture, and poorly led, the Egyptians suffered many casualties, not the least of which were psychological disorders[48] among the Egyptian peasant soldiers fighting in hostile unfamiliar terrain.

From Western sources close to the Saudis, their main problem seems to be an ineffective communications systems, command and control, inadequate and woefully deficient maintenance and resupply systems.[49] Apparently the Saudi commanders directing the operations remain far from the battlefield. The Zaydis monitor Saudi troop and supply convoys as they meander through the Asir province toward the mountains of north Yemen. The set up frequent roadblocks and ambushes and the Saudi small unit commanders are not up to the task of countering the attacks.[50] Similar to the Egyptians, combined arms anti-ambush tactics are missing. The Saudi response to these ambushes seems to be bombing Zaydi villages close to the ambush sites, apparently as a form of collective punishment. As one long time trainer with the Saudi forces put it, “the Saudis are finding out that there is a world of difference between fielding a self defense force and an expeditionary one.”

 Some Observations on Training

Over the last 20 years I have not been able to discern any significant changes in Arab methods of training, which still are of an unimaginative manner, often cursory, sporadic and of a cut and paste variety. Over the short term, training conducted by Western trainers does achieve a level of higher proficiency, but does not seem to carry over beyond the life of the Western training program.[51]

The basic problem is that Arab small unit leaders can only be well educated and or trained in a neutral “antiseptic” cultural environment. Training has to be intensive, hands-on and long term. It must be followed up by refresher and reinforcing training. Training programs that allow the officer to spend considerable time at home during training invites a contest between the Western methods being instructed and the pervasive culture that permeates his thinking.[52] The Arab culture is so pervasive and deeply embedded, that divorcing the Arab military from the overall Arab culture has proven to be a chimera.[53] I am referring to the ethos of military culture that creates a bond between officer and soldier. The basic building block is imbuing a way of thinking about your role as a small unit commander.   Teaching young Arabs of the educated middle class to handle sophisticated weaponry or digital devices is not the problem. They tend to be fascinated with technical gadgets and are quick learners. What I specifically mean by imbuing the ethos necessary in small unit commanders is the development of decision making, communicating the decision, adapting to change, and taking responsibility for the decisions.

The above are the characteristics I have found and continue to find lacking in the Arab war fighting capabilities. In both the Iraqi and Egyptian campaigns against the Islamists, combatting guerillas in small unit actions or urban warfare, the premium was on the effectiveness of small unit leadership. In the case of the Iraqi, the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) unit, more specifically a couple of brigades of that unit, developed those skills on the field of battle at a tremendous cost. The standard of training given by the American advisors was excellent, but developing the small unit ethos required was largely developed on the battlefield. Combat gives the vital experience needed but as veterans know, prolonged intense combat, especially in urban areas, also denigrates the unit’s effectiveness, as survival becomes more important than individual effectiveness. In that area, it is imperative that commanders ensure their men are not subjected to unnecessary risks. It was obvious that the CTC units were unable to do that. They were slow in developing coordination obtaining air and artillery support, thereby exposing the troops to the withering fire of insurgents within the concrete jungle. Individual bravado often substituted for well thought out tactics in driving insurgents from their strongholds. Individual acts of bravery often substituted for close tactical combined arms coordination. For example, in clearing Fallujah, American marines, when running up against an insurgent nest in the urban maze, brought in armor, precision air strikes, or direct fire heavy weapons to level the structures.[54] Much too often this sort of quick reaction with combined arms was beyond the capabilities of the CTS, and inevitably high numbers of casualties was the consequence. As General George S. Patton wrote, “untutored courage is useless against educated bullets.”[55]

Therefore successfully clearing the Anbar province of the insurgents, cannot be attributed to the “Iraqi Army” or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), who were primarily propaganda for civilian morale building.[56] The present Iraqi army, with the exception of the CTS, compared to the army Saddam fielded in 2003, has not improved as a professional fighting force. It is hampered, as before, with incompetent officers, a non -existent NCO corps, and an organization plagued by nepotism, and sectarianism.

Within the Egyptian military, perhaps without the drastic repercussions, the same problem of withholding or misuse of information is a major factor in the inability of the Egyptian security forces to quell the rebellion in the Sinai and the Western Desert. As Owen Sirrs made clear in his study of Egyptian intelligence, the intelligence community is the backbone of the “deep state”[57] Unlike Iraq where Saddam was the State, the Egyptian intelligence community can make or break a president. Its backing away from Mubarak in 2011 was a case in point. The security apparatus, ever vigilant and with collective ears to the ground, decided Mubarak was too much of a risk and in the culture of shifting alliances, the subtle change of support was not difficult.[58]

The class divide was a mighty factor in the control of the revolutionaries. They were led by mostly middle class youth, many of them students, and the villager conscripts had nothing in common with them. This is a cultural factor that was of utmost importance in the Syrian civil war in the 80’s. The Assad government, based on a minority Alawi power structure, a sect supposedly hated by the majority Sunni population, used his primarily Sunni soldiers against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood Islamists without major defections. The Muslim Brotherhood rebels were urbanites and the mostly rural Sunni Syrian army recruits felt no affinity toward them.[59]

A case study in how Arab regimes maintain loyalty of the officer corps, even if they would seem to be predisposed to oppose the regime is offered by the present Assad experience. It is indicative of how the regimes maintain control of their officers. The so called “Arab Spring” seemed destined to rip asunder the Assad regime in Syria, with many pundits viewing the war as ultimately turning against the minority Alawite regime.[60] Many Sunni officers and the largely Sunni enlisted ranks were expected to defect. Some did of course, and some units were not used against the rebels because of doubtful loyalty, but in the end the Syrian army remained largely intact.[61] The passive obedience seen in Egyptian soldiers was also evident in the Syrian army. The perks of the Syrian officer’ s position in society and standard of living heavily influenced their loyalty to the regime. The attraction of an officers family living in “Assad City”[62] a military cantonment suburb of Damascus, offered selected military officers and their families safety and comforts not relatively available to the general public, even if not in the war devastated areas. It not only isolated the officer’s families from the ravages of war in the civilian communities, but being selected to live there was a major attraction for the average officer, especially of the junior and middle grade officers. It was a signal he was on the “top shelf” list. The Egyptian army has similar officer “cities, especially attractive to Egyptian officers contending with the urban housing shortage. Although the officer class benefits did not keep up with upper middle class[63] during the latter part of the Mubarak regime, General al Sisi has revived them. Iraq, as of now, does not have military cities, although in the Saddam years, cities like Tiqrit had virtual high ranking officers neighborhoods.

Looking back over the last 20 years, it is evident that in terms of military effectiveness Arab militaries suffer from the same, and in some cases, additional cultural and political adversities, which continue to degrade their combat effectiveness. As I have addressed above the lack of a professional non commissioned officer corps and an absence of regard for enlisted soldiers plus the inability to create a functioning combined arms doctrine are two factors that appear to create a serious impediment to significant improvement in the performance of Arab warfare. Three others are:

+The poor quality or lack of an educational system,

+Use of information and supplies as power

+Decision making, taking responsibility vs. wielding authorit


Since my original article was published, civil wars, the “Arab Spring”, and a more militant and violent form of Islamism have convulsed the Arab world. All this has adversely affected schooling of Arab youth, with Iraq and Syria in particular having their educational systems almost destroyed. Despite an impressive blossoming of many universities in the Arab world, the quality of the education continues to be a pressing problem and illiteracy remains a stubborn [64] The militaries obviously suffer from not only the poor quality of incoming recruits but also the low educational level of officers. The system of rote education has actually become more evident as one aspect of the Islamic revival with its emphasis on memorization of the Qur’an. The officers, for the past several decades in Egypt and most Arab countries, have generally come from the lower middle class.[65] To this class, acquisition of greater wealth or family status is always a fervently desired goal, however in their view, education no longer seems necessary to achieve it. The term “educated elite” often used in connection with the “Arab Spring” protestors is incorrect. More often they were half educated, or from the urban poor. The education issue extends to the military education system. The Arab military schools do not give the students a well-rounded education. They are often made up of hagiographic history with emphasis on the latest regime and dry lectures taken from Western military manuals. The character in one Egyptian novel, explaining his decision to enter the military academy, pretty well summed up the curriculum to his anxious mother in telling her that it was just a year of “games.” Again, obedience and the trappings of military discipline are most desired outcomes of the education.[66]


 Use and Misuse of Information and Hoarding of Equipment.

 Hoarding is not a symptom of a defense against a “rainy day.” It is not a feature of Islamic culture, which actually weighs against saving up for times of scarcity.[67] In both cases, information and supplies, it is a matter of acquiring or maintaining power. It is engrained in a culture some anthropologists would call a culture of scarcity.   In both Iraq and Egypt post 1999, the use, misuse, or concealing of information and supplies has been a major factor in the collapse of Iraqi forces against the Americans in 2003, against the ISIS in 2014, and the Egyptians in their fight against the Islamist terrorists. For instance, one of the roadblocks in setting up an automated system of supply in both Iraq and Egypt is the custom of dispensing needed supplies based on favoritism, kickbacks, and the proclivity to always plead scarcity to requests for needed parts.

The IDA team surfaced the culture of prevarication, a consequence of the paralyzing fear emanating from the top, which haunted the Iraqi forces. Bad news was not brought to Saddam Hussein and eventually the systemic culture of dissimulation produced a leadership that believed in their own lies. Two factors are intertwined with this. This climate of fear was overlaid on a society that is susceptible to what Rafael Patai, referred to the Arab penchant for “exaggeration and overassertion.”[68] In other words   Saddam did not create the culture of lies, but he used it to his advantage. This percolated all the way to the bottom rung of the military organization, even in battle communiqués. Secondly the withholding or transmission of information in the hands of Iraqi intelligence operatives gave them life or death control over many senior officers and officials. Thus figures of fear were not just centered in Saddam Hussein but throughout the society and military structure.[69] The dissolution of the Saddam army by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had one objective of eliminating this syndrome but with the advent of the al Maliki regime and the departure of the American advisors this crept back into the military. By the time of the Iraqi army collapse in 2014, many of the ills of Saddam’s army were again evident. At this date, the rebuilding of the key unit CTS, as well as the rest of the army is in question, and from fragmentary notes from soldiers working with the Iraqi military most of the problems remains or has reappeared.

In Egypt, the all powerful Intelligence and Security services, taking a page from the Algerian[70] success in fighting Islamic terrorism, i.e. fighting terror with terror, makes excellent use of the all important “dossiers” on key political and military figures. They can be used to manipulate not only policies but also military doctrine and combat operations. Certainly the security services had no compunction in using criminal gangs and drug warlords to defeat Islamist terrorism in the eighties ’ and nineties.[71] It has no similar scruples in using whatever means necessary to defeat any threat to their power, including Islamism or embryonic democratic movements. The basic problem with this is the pervasive corrupting influence it has within the military itself. Indeed it is clear that the Egyptian military is not the final arbiter of power, as so commonly believed, but in fact, it is the apparatus of the combined security and intelligence services who have deeply entrenched themselves within the bureaucracy and military leadership. One of many adverse implications of this state of affairs is that military leaders cannot trust one another.

Decision-making and taking Responsibility

 Reading the works done by the IDA team in analyzing the difficulties of the Iraqis against the Iranians and collapse against the Americans, the testimonies of the Iraqi generals reminds one of the laments of Hitler’s generals. It was all Saddam’s and Hitler’s fault. It is difficult to find in the memoirs of Egyptian or Iraqi leaders any admission of personal failings or doubts of personal merits. Nor is there much in the way of critical analysis of societal mores. Generally there is always a convenient scapegoat. In the writings of War Minister Fawzi,[72] there is much criticism of the previous Egyptian military leadership, maintaining control of operations from above, not delegating authority, and continuing to use conventional tactics against the Yemini Royalists guerilla tactics.  This is treated as a simple failure in strategy and tactics. In reality it was an inevitable consequence of the corruption that had permeated the Nasserite military and was endemic to the society.[73] He also mentions the immense costs of non- battle casualties but does not seem to attach these failings to any aspect of Egyptian culture, one being the inability of the Egyptian peasant soldier to adapt to the Yemini culture and/or terrain. Of course taking responsibility for failure in the Arab world can be injurious to one’s health.

The “Inshallah” factor is scoffed at by some academicians but in this era the tendency to invoke God in every aspect of human endeavor has become ever more present as a reason for failure. Placing the blame for failure on a lack of Islamic faith is a very effective method of spreading the blame on the collective society.[74] Its frequent use by the leadership has percolated its way through the military hierarchy.   The irony in the military sector is that while few are willing to make decisions or take responsibility even fewer are willing to delegate authority.

 Islamism and Sectarianism

 Two other factors that have always been present in Arab culture; Islam and sectarianism. They have always impacted military proficiency to some degree, but have become much more important in the last twenty years. They have also had an additional deleterious effect overall. The Iraqi army has been torn apart by sectarianism, and the Egyptian military leadership continues to flounder about in a quandary, attempting to undermine the appeal of Islamism (political Islam) by increasingly posturing as the primary protector of conservative Islam. It is a very narrow path they tread. The failure of the Military Intelligence Department to prevent the assassination of President Sadat[75] casts a lingering shadow over Egyptian intelligence and security apparatus in ferreting Islamists out of the military. The knowledge that officers such as LTC Al Zumur, and Major Ali Muhamed were Islamists has not been forgotten. More recently the defection and work of former officer Hishan Ashmawi , special operations officer Abdel Hamid, and Major Walid Badr with Islamist elements seems to have induced greater disquiet among the military hierarchy. Some believe the Intelligence apparatus has been infiltrated with Muslim radical influence.[76]

The willingness of the intelligence apparatus leadership to negotiate (ostensibly anyway) and come to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood during the short-lived presidency of Mohamed al Morsi also gave pause to the military leadership.[77] They understood full well the destruction of Turkey’s military political power by Taycip Erdogan and his Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. This simply results in more intrigue, historically divisive in the Egyptian military, and ultimately a lack of trust among senior commanders. This also percolates downward, paralyzing decisiveness among junior leaders.


 The Egyptian army does not suffer from sectarianism so pervasive in Iraq. However the class distinctions, racial, and religious divisions based on the many varieties of adherence to Sunni doctrine still divide Egyptians. The lot of Christians, Nubians, and even the Sai’idis in the Egyptian army is one of discrimination and harassment. While Iraq has had a historical embedded sectarianism for generations, the recent wars surfaced the deeply entrenched animosities aggravating them.[78] The tsunami changes in the society brought about by the demise of the centuries old Sunni Arab dominance of Iraq has impacted the Iraqi military just as deeply, and for the near term, deleteriously. The great pride the Iraqis,[79] like the Egyptians, have in their military institutions has centered on the dominance of the Iraqi Sunni society. Iraqi officers have traditionally been drawn from the Sunni population of the tribal Anbar province and the turning upside down of the political order has resulted in a preponderantly Shia officered army. The Shi’a, unaccustomed to rule or a dominant place in the Iraqi military, exhibit unsure leadership and have demonstrated a face of insecurity. There is a definite historically based inferiority complex among the Shi’a toward their Sunni countrymen.


 Centering on the three Arab countries of this analysis, in terms of combat effectiveness, there is no evidence they have progressed in the past 20 years. There is evidence that in certain respects they have retrogressed. To a large degree this is due to the wars and political upheavals of the past 20 years, with the constant wars bringing not experience and greater proficiency but an erosion of the capabilities that formerly existed. The one possible exception in some respects may be, ironically, Saudi Arabia. The advent to power of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has made a difference in the Saudi capabilities. He has fired a number of incompetent commanders and created greater sense of unity between the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) and the Royal Saudi Land Forces, ( RSLF).[80] However the mistrust and differing missions between the SANG and RSLF still create a barrier while the tribal culture continues to present a larger obstacle

To an even larger measure, however, the cultural barriers of the Arab societ, have been made even less permeable by the resurgence of an outwardly more conservative Islamic society, turning the Arab society more inward. The “global village” has been exposed as a chimera.[81] Evidence in the Arab world also points to a turn away from the inroads of Western culture, except in the most superficial aspects.[82] That appears to extend to the most important aspects of the Arab military, i.e., the professional soldierly ethos.[83] However the Arabs continue to import massive amounts of military equipment from all over the world, including the West and Russia, using purchases more to further domestic and international objectives than building a professional army. Logistics and maintenance systems are culturally derived.[84] The Arabs operate it inadequately and rarely can they maintain it. Moreover the profusion of different sources of equipment makes a functioning and efficient logistics system a near impossibility.[85]

It has never been a matter of individual intelligence or courage, or lack of fighting spirit, but rather a culture permeated by a political ideology framed in religiosity that acts as a brake on innovation and change, and a political culture that is often antagonistic to self-criticism and invidious comparisons to the West.[86] Those few who do so such as Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany, and Tawfiq al Hakim, paint an Arab society burdened by class distinctions, nepotism, wasta, ( having the right connections), and a bureaucracy that resembles the mysteries of a Franz Kafka novel. It stifles and blunts the ambitions of those individuals, both military and civilian, who could bring positive change to a region suffering from the dry didacticism of a politicized Islam and a society no longer tribal but still maintaining its negative characteristics.[87]

The military institution is a sub culture in all societies, but it cannot be disassociated from the dominant civilian culture. The turning inward and increasingly Occidentalist views of many of the elite political class has an obvious effect of an already very politicized military.

One more factor is tending to further separate the Arab militaries from the Western influence. The Arabs, like all peoples, but more than most, admire strength and power.[88] The recessional of Western powers, especially the United States, from the Arab world, is seen as evidence of a Power in decline, and the Arab militaries will always go for the “Strong Horse,” a term once coined by Osama bin Laden.

Since the original article was written twenty years ago, the Arabs have not made any appreciable movement upwards in creating an effective conventional force, nor are they likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Culture and tradition will continue to rule.
























[1] Norvell B DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose War,” in Barry Rubin and Thomas A. Kearney, (Ed.), Armed Forces in The Middle East: Politics and Strategy (Frank Cass, London, 2002), pp. 23-40.

[2] Norvell DeAtkine,(“The Arab as Insurgent and Counterinsurgent.” Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Barry Rubin, (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 24-45.


[3]Norvell DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries. Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes,” MERIA (March 18, 2013. http://www.rubincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/DeAtkine-revised-au1-PDF.pdf.

[4] Based on my own observations of Arab society from 1966 till the present, including about 9 years on the ground

[5] As used in this paper modernism is defined as the use of new technology and Westernization the acceptance of Western values e.g. social norms, ethics, political systems, belief systems etc.

[6] For example see LTG. Paul Funk Commander of the Iraqi Task Force in Iraq writing http://www.shafaaq.com/en/En_NewsReader/0177cc3c-1e82-49c4-b1cc-a2ff045b693b. “This military and social transformation materialized not only in the fight against ISIS but in every facet of civil society. We are beginning to see all aspects of the Iraqi security architecture working closely with the judicial system to ensure citizens’ rights are upheld. Arrests are conducted using warrants and executed by law enforcement organizations that are ethnically and religiously diverse, against suspects wanted for their crimes, not because of their political or sectarian affiliation.”

[7] A British officer working with a Gulf military used my material extensively, including a number of my John F. Kennedy Special Warfare and School (JFKSWCS) presentations available on https://www.slideshare.net/liwa6/me-urban-war, and my blog at https://memoriesandreflections.blog/



[8] Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind. (Tucson Az.: Recovery Resources Press, 2007). I wrote a forward for this edition. In 2004 the Abu Ghraib prison issue was blown completely out of proportion to its actual importance including naming the Arab Mind as a textbook for torture of the inmates. See my article https://www.meforum.org/articles/2004/the-arab-mind-revisited


[9] The video made by Al Jazeera with clips of my interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZHlvHqwcIY

See also “War In Hell” Middle East Eye on line https://shar.es/anWPL   I had another interview by Al Jazeera in July of this year, on the same subject, but as of yet it has not been aired.



[10] https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/blog/2016/11/27/al-jazeera-documentary-on-egyptian-army-conscripts-provokes-outrage.


[11] https://www.linkedin.com/in/emadeldin/ see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emadeldin_Elsayed. Elsayed has become well known for his documentaries putting the Egyptian government in a bad light, one chronicling the collapse of many apartment buildings in Alexandria. El Sayed spent considerable time with the Egyptian army observing them as a journalist but now, of course, he would not be allowed back in to Egypt. His parents live in Turkey.



[12] All Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, Translated by Humphrey Davies, (New York: Harper Collins, 2006) Nook Version, p.147

[13] Racism is deeply embedded in the Arab society, not based on color per se but rather on origins in which Blacks are seen as descendants of slaves. See my blog, https://wordpress.com/post/memoriesandreflections.wordpress.com/11463.


[14] In the analysis of Egyptian operations I have drawn primarily on my experiences and conversations with former students, colleagues who have worked with the Egyptian military recently and communications with a number of former or active duty Egyptians. The book by Mohannad Sabry, Sinai, Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israeli’s Nightmare, Cairo: American University Press, 2015, was very informative.

[15] Arab military texts and manuals frequently are nothing more than Western reprints into Arabic, as are many of their articles in their military journals.

[16] See my presentation at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, https://www.slideshare.net/liwa6/arab-way-of-war-04

[17] Nubar Aroyan, Diary of a Soldier in the Egyptian Military, (Bloomington IN.: West Bow. 2012.) Pp. 37-78

[18] The problem here is that Arab officers, in general, eschew closely supervising training exercises, particularly if it involves demonstrating the tasks expected of the soldier. The results of the poor state of training is illustrated in the article byMohamed El Dahshan, “The Sad Reality of Egypt’s Vaunted Military,” Foreign Policy, at http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/11/01/the-sad-reality-of-egypts-vaunted-military/amp/

[19] Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen (London: Verso, 2014), p.193. My own observations and of those who have worked with them more recently verify Kandil’s assessment. They have very little training in confining urban demonstrations and internal disturbances and usually resort to brute force, probably more out of fear than malice. Their leadership is abominable.

[20] A qualifier is required here in that the Egyptians have, in the past year, largely contained and diminished the ISIS operations in the Sinai by using brutal tactics including the wholesale dislocations of people, mass arrests, and destruction of villages believed to be sympathetic to the insurgents. The effect has been a short-term victory, probably a pyrrhic one. See https://www.timesofisrael.com/egypt-is-winning-battle-against-islamic-state-in-sinai-but-only-temporarily/


[21] “Egypt Army Withdraws from Sinai” at https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180613-egypt-army-withdraw-forces-from-sinai



[22] In addition to my own sources of Information and Muhannad Sabri’s Sinai I have used Google military retrieval services for several years, and sources such as Middle East Monitor, Al Ahram on line, Middle East Online, Al Monitor, Sada Journal, The National on line, Middle East Policy Council on line, the Blog Egyptian Chronicles, Middle East Eye, Egypt Today, Arab News, al Jazeera, Gulf News, Jadaliya, and Arab News.

[23] There are a myriad reports from many diverse sources which depict the often brutal and always indifferent treatment of the civilians of the Sinai: for instance, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/23/egyptian-military-offensive-sinai-threatening-humanitarian-crisis/


[24]An article in State run Egypt Today is typical of exalting Army operations in the Sinai. In an article the writer reports, “As the Comprehensive Operation –Sinai 2018 achieved massive success in fighting terrorism, the Armed forces decided to take further procedures to ease the conditions of Sinai residents…..” resident…” See http://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/51521/Army-takes-procedures-to-ease-Sinai-residents%E2%80%99-burdens




[25] see Reunold Bolliger, Mahamed Elmashawy and Ragnar Weilandt, “The Military, the Media, and Public Perceptions” at DCAF conference, opining a declining ability of a free press due to Government control. https://www.dcaf.ch/sites/default/files/publications/documents/Egypt_Civil_Paper3_ENG.pdf


[26] Tobias J Burger, Scott N. Romaniuk, “Islamic State After Syria; A dangerous New Stronghold in the Sinai” in Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor !8 May, 2018.

[27] A tactic my unit (1st Infantry Division) in Vietnam used to great success against Viet Cong 1968.

[28] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/world/middleeast/egypt-ambush-hasm.html


[29] Zeinab Abul-Magd, Militarizing the Nation, The Army, Business, and Revolution in Egypt, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2028). In militarizing the nation it is a grave error to assume this means injecting the Spartan martial spirit into the people. Actually it is quite the opposite in this case. Generals are too busy managing and maneuvering through the murky fields of Egyptian politics to command or lead. While much of the book is worthwhile, Abul- Magd’s belief that the Egyptian army has borrowed tactics and population control from the U.S. Army is simply Leftist cant. If anything they adapted the brutal extermination policies of the Sri Lankan strategy against the Tamil Tigers. An interesting look at how the Egyptian society generally views their military is explored by Dalia Said Mostafa (Manchester UK: Palgrave, 2017), As she wrote, “Like so many millions of fellow Egyptians, I was brought up to believe strongly in our national army as the protector of the nation from foreign invasion and forceful aggression.” P.8.   This sentiment is still there among most Egyptians. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’a have similar sentiments about their army. It is a sad commentary on their lack of respect for civil institutions, an antipathy, which well founded.

[30] See my presentation to the 2017 ASMEA conference available at https://wordpress.com/post/memoriesandreflections.wordpress.com/12321. Good historical reference is Pesach Malovany, Wars of Modern Babylon, (Lexington KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2017. Of course the classic by Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, London: Saqi Books, 2004. Kanan Makiya, (originally published under pseudonym Samir al Khalil) Republic of Fear, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. Also Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba”ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.For essential background, Majid Khadduri , “The role of the Military in Iraqi Society,” The Military in the Middle East, Ed, Sydney Nettleton Fisher ( Columbus Ohio: Ohio State University, 1963.) p. 41-51. See also Amatzia Baram, Culture, History, and Ideology in Formation of Ba’thist Iraq 1968-89. Especially chapter on Mesopotamia symbols in official Iraq, 61-68.


[31] However in a briefing I attended in Amman Jordan as part of a DOD ” lessons learned” team in 1974, the Commander of the Jordanian 40th Armored Brigade, the premier unit, in the Jordanian Army at the time, severely criticized the Iraqis for their lack of fire discipline, disjointed tactical operations, and coordination. The 40th Brigade was deployed in the same area as the Iraqis.

[32] In addition to my own experiences and extensive discussions with U.S. officers and Iraqi army personnel, the great work by Kevin Woods and his IDA team is of invaluable help. I used Saddam’s Generals, Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War, Arlington Va, : Institute of Defense Analysis, ( IDA) 2011, Iraqi perspectives Project: A View of Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership, Saddam’s War, Arlington Va.: JCOA, no date. The Mother of All Battles, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Saddam’s Tapes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[33]. Especially informative was the article by David Witty, “The Iraqi Terrorism Counter Terrorism Service” (CTS) From the Center For Middle East Policy, Brookings Institute, at https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/David-Witty-Paper_Final_Web.pdf . As Witty wrote upon the American withdrawal there were concerns that the…” ISOF would revert to the culture of the former regime army that placed loyalty and political reliability above competence and experience.” As it turned out their fears were well founded. As Witty goes on to write,’ Before and after U.S. withdrawal, ISF shifted away from U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which focused on protecting the population, and started large scale clearing operations, which even the prime minister referred to as “sweeping attacks.” This as previously covered is the present Egyptian conduct of operations,





[34] https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/amp/indepth/2017/1/24/is-iraq-relying-too-heavily-on-elite-special-forces. Sources in the American Iraqi community told me of their fear for relatives in the CTS, they call the “Golden Division,” because they were taking such heavy casualties and were repeatedly put into combat without respite.  Witty mentioned the same problem. It was somewhat strange but one relative mentioned she was talking on a cell phone to her relative while he was involved in a firefight. It seems this was not unusual.   The Iraqi government had plans to expand the ISOF (CTS) but in reality cannot get enough qualified recruits to replenish the losses. See also https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/worldviews/wp/2017/07/21/iraqs-elite-special-forces-struggle-to-regroup-after-bloody-fight-for-mosul/.






[35] Part of the Iraqi success was the ISIS trying to re – invent an “Islamic way of war.” Initially this was successful as it was based on deception, propaganda and terrorism as drawn from early Arab history but eventually it proved inadequate in modern warfare. See Norvell B DeAtkine, “Muhammed Taught us How to Fight” in MERIA Journal, Fall , 2015. This article is no longer available on that web site but a version can found at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/muhammad-taught-us-how-fight-isis-early-islamic-warfare-deatkine/


[36] The “Golden Division” is a common appellation applied to the Counter Terrorism Service by Iraqis and journalists. Nominally they are a special forces type organization consisting of three brigades. The 1st Bde. was usually the unit referred to as the Golden Division. They suffered the most casualties.

[37] Conversations with relatives of “Golden Division” unit. Also inferred by David Witty in his article.

[38] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/09/22/why-the-u-s-still-cant-train-the-iraqi-military/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.126a2de9094e


[39] A universal “truth” which has become the common narrative without an analysis of the “what ifs” e.g., if the Ba’athi army had been left intact. For instance among the multitude of books and articles which portray the “disbandment” of the Iraqi army (it mostly disbanded itself) is a very good book by Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War and Losing the Peace. (New Haven CT.: Yale University Press, 2007)pp. 155-159. See the thoughts of the late Ambassador Hume Horan on the “disbandment” of the Iraqi army. https://web.archive.org/web/20070713010334/http://www.afsa.org/fsj/mar04/horan.pdf Horan was the foremost Arabist in the State Department and one of the few who knew much of anything about the Shi’a of Iraq,


[40] Whether it was that unpopular or rather a message implanted by the media with political objectives remains unclear. The idea that the public could be “tired” of a war in which so few bore any burden raises some obvious questions.

[41] Only a very small number of American advisors remained after the pull out and they were no longer in a position to influence the action. The mostly Shi’a loyalists to Al Maliki were largely ill educated and with little or no management or command experience.

[42] David Witty in his article on the CTS makes it very clear that the corruption became palpable and omnipresent as the American influence waned. Also from my communications with an old friend of mine, a Lebanese American contractor who spent several years with Iraqi military as translator and advisor he provided me with many examples; For example even though Iraqi depots had plentiful supplies of spare parts, units were forced to buy parts for their vehicles; a typical aspect of the Arab penchant for hoarding supplies,

[43] Norvell DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes”. Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol 17 (Spring 2013).


[44] The Saudi Arabia National Guard( SANG) and the Saudi Arabia Land Forces (SALF), long been separate organizations even within the training responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Defense. The U. S. has been involved in training SANG w since 1975. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabian_National_Guard. The separation is one of the coup proof barriers set up by the royal family to maintain control in the typical Arab tradition of divide and rule. At one time American advisors with the SANG and SALF were not even allowed to mingle. The new Saudi Crown Prince has taken some measures to unify the forces.


[45] Neil Patrick, “Saudi Security and Defense Reform” in SADA Journal   May 31 2018 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/76487. Both the Saudi Arabia National Guard and the Saudi Arabia Land Forces were described as “getting hammered” in Yemen. Part of the problem is the myriad of overlapping and dysfunctional regional governments that all have a desire to control events but do not have the authority to do do. The gist of the Patrick article , validated by people who work with the Saudis , is that most of the changes are cosmetic. See Hadi Fathallah, “Failure of Regional Governance in Saudi Arabia,”. Also in the SADA Journal, July 27, 2018 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/76928 The intricate Saudi “coup proofing” can be illustrated by the fact that a Saudi unit deploying to an area to conduct training must get permission from an area military commander to access the ammunition bunkers, and clearance from at least one or more provincial governors to get road clearance. All of these authorities will be most likely members of the royal family and all are under control of the Crown prince Muhammad bin Salman. It is a prime

As mentioned in the article the southwestern province of Jizan, bordering Yemen, have a high proportion of tribes related to Yemeni tribes across the border. From my experiences and discussions with American advisors, the tribes and villagers of the Jizan have never felt any loyalty to the Saudi Central government . ARAMCO is building a huge port project on the Red Sea but to what extent that will affect the people is unknown. In years past the Yemenis have claimed the Asir province. Saeed M. Badeed, The Saudi-Egyptian Conflict over North Yemen 1962-1970 (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1986), pp. 9, 15, 53, 58. The Saudis have long feared the assumed warlike attributes of Yemenis and often treated the many thousands working inside the Kingdom as indentured slaves. The Yemenis reciprocate the feeling.




[46] The Houthis are Zaidi tribes people of the north of Yemen. They are Shi’a of the “fiver” subdivision of Shi’ism. They were once considered indistinguishable from the Sunni Yemenis, but the rise of militant political Islam drove them back into the Shi’a fold…and Iran’s grip.

[47] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/03/28/how-yemen-was-once-egypts-vietnam/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.64e56d843ab4


[48] One of my Arabic instructors at the Defense Language Institute, East Coast, was a former Egyptian army psychiatrist who served in Yemen, and related to me the massive mental disorders among the Egyptian troops in Yemen.

[49] Communication with former advisor to the Saudi Land forces.

[50] Saudi officers that I have had contact with over the years training at Ft Bragg and other posts simply do not, with some exceptions, exhibit the qualities required of small unit commanders.

[51] Basing this on my overall effectiveness of the Iraqi, Egyptian and Saudi forces in combat in the last 20 years.

[52] During my time in security assistance duties I often noticed how young Arab officers would return to their countries full of enthusiasm for incorporating their U. S. training into their new jobs. When I met them in the field some months later, I would realize they had conformed to the prevailing culture.

[53] The careful reading of Ali al Wardi, particularly Ali Al Wadi, Understanding Iraq Society, Culture, and Personality, and novels by Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq al Hakim, among others, should be mandatory reading to understand the culture. The powerful influence of Islam, family, tradition, status, envy, bureaucratic sloth and indifference are wonderfully narrated in these novels.

[54] Many instances of this are recorded in Bing West’s book , No True Glory: a Frontline Account of Battle for Fallujah, (New York: Bantam Books,2006), paperback ed. P.315-6

[55] From DA Pam. 360-50 Dept. of Army Washington DC “Quotes for the Military Speaker/ Writer 1982,”

[56] Most of the villages and territory “recaptured” from the Islamic State by the PMU were almost always areas that the ISIS had evacuated previously. At the time of the Mosul debacle, the sight of the PMU fighters on the streets of Baghdad was a great relief to the Iraqis who were worried about the ISIS pouring into Baghdad.

[57] Owen Sirrs, A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service, A History of the Mukharat, 1910-2009 (London: Routledge, 2010. 188-197.

[58] Kandil,222-244.

[59]Chris Zambelis, “Syria’s Sunnis and Regime’s Resilience”, CTC Sentinel, May 2015 https://ctc.usma.edu/syrias-sunnis-and-the-regimes-resilience/


[60] Liz Sly, “Assad’s Hold on Power Looks Shakier than Ever as Rebels Advance in Syria,”Washington Post, 25April, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/assads-regime-at-increasing-risk-amid-a-surge-of-rebel-advances/2015/04/26/c2742e22-ec32-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html?utm_term=.d626017d330e


[61] Kamal Alam, “Why Assad’s Army has not Defected” National Interest,Feb. 12, 2016 https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-assads-army-has-not-defected-15190


[62] Kheder Khaddour, Assad’s, “Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal” Carnegie Middle East Center November 4, 2015. At http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/11/04/assad-s-officer-ghetto-why-syrian-army-remains-loyal-pub-61449


[63] Kandil, 182

[64] Celine Malek “Illiteracy in the Arab World,” The National UAE, 23 Nov 2017 https://www.thenational.ae/uae/education/illiteracy-in-arab-world-can-be-a-dangerous-tool-experts-say-1.678664 see also Auda Adams and Rebecca Winthrop, “The role of Education in the Arab World Revolutions,” Brookings, June 10, 2011 https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-role-of-education-in-the-arab-world-revolutions/amp/




[65] Eliezer Be’eri, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, (New York: Praeger, 1970), 304-324. Since the data for the book was compiled, the social composition has become more varied but is still seen as a route to a greater career for lower middle class.

[66] What some observers call “amazing,” General Al Sisi sent his troops against the supposed popular Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators and despite the massive efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood to plant sedition they failed completely. See Kandil, 261.

[67] Typical of this is the majority Sunni Jurist opinion that life insurance is haram (forbidden).

[68] Patai,

[69] Kenan Makiya, Republic of Fear, 48-72.

[70] Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War 1990-1998. (New York: Columbia University Press,2000), 73-82.

[71] Norvell DeAtkine, “The Arab as Insurgent and Arab Insurgent,” in Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East. 30.

[72] Mohamed Fawzi, Reconstructing a Shattered Army. pp15-27

[73] Naguib Mahfous, Adrift on the Nile , Trans. Francis Liardet (New York: Doubleday,1993). President Nasser came close to stopping the publishing of this book in Arabic. Fouad Ajami posits that Mahfouz’s novel, A Thief and the Dogs is a very clear condemnation of the Nasser regime. Fouad Ajami, In This Arab Time; The Pursuit of Deliverance, (Stanford Ca.: Hoover Institution Press, 2014), pp.220-225. See also Kandil, 35-42.

[74] http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2012/02/why-did-arabs-suffer-nakba-disaster-in.html. Constantin Zurayk wrote a famous piece called the “Meaning of Disaster” in 1948 in which he blamed the backwardness of the Arabs for their defeat in 1948. However the most important aspect of the article, seemingly remembered by the Arabs, is the use of the term “nakba” ( disaster) to define the “expulsion” of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. As Rubin wrote, the real nakba was…. “the Arabic-speaking world’s failure to embrace modernity, science, real democracy, and other such things. In that respect, every day is a nakba and 2011 was not the year of the “Arab Spring” but the year of renewing the nakba strategy. It is a self-inflicted nakba and the victims are the Arabic-speaking people themselves.”

[75] I was at the October 1981 Egyptian military parade at which Sadat was assassinated. He arrived with American secret service trained bodyguards hanging all over his car, but when the shooting started they were nowhere to be seen. This of course has engendered many conspiracy theories, and quite rightly.

[76] Egyptian officers often complain that the operations against the Islamists are ineffective because sympathetic moles within the security and intelligence apparatus tip them off.

[77] Kandil 221-244.

[78] For an excellent analysis of the problems in building a new Iraqi security service based not only on ethnic divisions but traditional cultural constraints. See Tony Pfaff, Development and Reform of the Iraqi Police Forces, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008. See also Marc Youngquist, 143rd In Iraq: Training the Iraqi Police in Spite of it All Sherman Ct.: Emerald Lake Publishing, 2016. This account gives a very trenchant and personalized view of the problems breaking through traditional culture and massive corruption to train the Iraqi police force.

[79] Jafar Pasha Al Askari, Trans., Mustafa Tariq al Askari , A Soldiers Story: From Ottoman Rule to Independent Iraq,   ( London: Arabian Publishing, 2003). In his memoirs Al Askari, mentions that the Iraqi army had no problem with recruiting, nor did the police force. P. 235 That remains so today and the Iraqis, even the Shi’a, who have reason to hate the military are proud of the Iraqi army.

[80]  See https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/saudi-arabia-fires-top-army-chiefs-military-shake-180227054218368.html


[81] Authors Bogan State, Patrick Park, Ingmar Weber, Yelena Mejova, and Michael Marcy, “The Mesh of Civilizations and International E-mails Flows,” at Stanford University, validated, in a very technological manner, the famous “Clash of Civilizations.” by Samuel Huntington, much to the chagrin of innumerable “experts” who have sought to denigrate the study. See https://www.technologyreview.com/s/512116/global-e-mail-patterns-reveal-clash-of-civilizations/

[82] Emerging use of technology and well- lighted shopping malls do not indicate any intrinsic grasp of Westernization in terms of civic responsibility or thought. It is a basic error that continues to be made by Western elite as exemplified by the recent history of Iran and Turkey. One example is the frequent use of the term westoxification as a pejorative term for “Eastern” elite who aspire to inject Western values into Middle Eastern culture. It is used to disparage almost anything Western in origin, including civic military education.

[83] The Arab “warrior” trait often stated by Saddam as compensating for inferiority in many other aspects of military strength is a frequent appellation applied across the Arab world. Frequent references in Arab political tracts to the inadequacy of Western training or weaponry are two indicators of the this.

[84] DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes.”

[85] Arab governments in purchasing military are not only hampered with a system riddled with corruption but also based on balancing international support for the government.

[86] Dehumanizing the West, its people and its values has come to be called “occidentalism. It is well covered in the book by Ian Baruma and Avishai Margaulit, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies, (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

[87] The Iraqi historian and social Scientist Ali al-Wardi called the Bedouin versus the townsman mentality as producing a kind of “dual personality” among the Iraqis. One can extend that to peoples of all the Fertile Crescent. Ali Al Wardi, The Character of the Iraqis. Excerpts translated by Samah al Momen.

[88] Nothing could be more illustrative of this attribute than the continuing popularity of the Saddam image among the Sunni communities across the Arab world.


Norvell B DeAtkine

Why Arabs Lose Wars, Twenty Years Later


August 2018

Southern Pines North Carolina


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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