By Khalid Muhammad
If one thing has become clear to the regimes of the Middle East, it’s that without Pakistan and her Army, they can’t win wars.
During the recent onslaught on Yemen, the Saudis, as well as the rest of the Middle East, learned that they don’t have the expertise or battle-readiness to fight a real war. We have been quiet about the whole situation since the Parliament vote to stay out and the knee-jerk response from the Arab states to the democratic vote, but it’s time we take a look at the failures of the regional military strategy.
While many analysts in the West are concerned about the alliance between the Saudis and Turkey, both power players in the region, in Syria to defeat the Assad regime with rebels and al-Qaeda fighters, this should not be of any real concern. This two-nation alliance will not withstand the tests if they defeat the Assad regime. Both have their own interests in seeing that government dissolve, but neither is willing to sacrifice those interests for another’s.
“If the Iraqis are not willing to fight for the security of their country, then we cannot do it for them,” was what Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic said, but when they invaded they decimated Saddam’s military forces.
With the fall of Ramadi, and other key cities, to ISIS, it has become clear the $25 billion invested by the US into training and equipping the armed forces has been an exercise in futility. With between 50,000 – 140,000 serving soldiers, the Iraqi armed forces are in a state of disarray, suffering from both desertion and unpreparedness for the true war.
It’s one thing to take a standing army and provide them with additional training to make them battle-ready for new challenges that a region presents. It’s a completely different thing to take untested “volunteers” and prepare them for more than police actions, which was the key operational mission after the US withdrawal. This fact is evidenced by the embarrassing defeat of 30,000 Iraqi troops tasked to protect Mosul by a few hundred ISIS fighters. Even Tikrit, which was recaptured in March, is completely desolate now three months later.
First, many of the battle-hardened commanders and generals that had served for decades with Saddam Hussain were either arrested or executed. Some of those who survived are working with ISIS, against the newly formed Iraqi Army, with a freedom to operate that was never available during Saddam’s regime. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has delegated command responsibility to his field commanders who spent 12 years moving in and out of Anbar fighting American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces. Their knowledge of the region and intelligence networks are extremely precise and personal because they grew up in these regions.
Second, the decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 gave ISIS a long-term advantage on the battlefield. This mistake in strategic planning not only left thousands of soldiers unemployed and angry, but also created the security vacuum within Iraqi society and helped in the fermentation of support for ISIS when it emerged. The mistake of appointing Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister meant that the armed forces were further weakened to protect against any potential coup. Maliki, like so many other tinpot democrats, removed the strong military commanders that had been appointed and trained by the US forces in favor of political pawns drawn from his Shia brethren, ending any hope of developing a merit-based system of promotion. The army and police behaved and operated as a sectarian militia, brutally silencing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the Prime Minister’s office.
Lastly, Iraq is no longer unified. With Kurdistan operating as an independent country, the Sunni population living in ISIS controlled territories and the Iraqi government cooperating with Iran, the military is a stark reflection of the failure of nation building, governance and nationalism.
The Unified Arab Force
We saw many states come together to fight for their own interests in Yemen against the Houthis. I have written a great deal into the rationale behind the reasons for the war, which you can read in other posts here. The most telling act of these countries was the creation of a 40,000-strong Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield coalition force, armed with the best American weapons that money can buy, to defend the Arab states. While many believe that this force has the ability to defend the region’s regimes, I don’t share the same belief.
Let’s understand why.
First, they are not battle tested. The Arab militaries are designed to protect the monarchies from unarmed pro-democracy activists, not fight actual wars. When they have been asked to fight other nation’s armies, they have come away with much worse than a black eye. From the 1960s when Gamal Nasser launched the Egyptian invasion into Yemen to the current Syrian Army being pushed back by nationalist rebels, al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS, the Arab armies have never been able to find the strength to defeat any enemy they have faced. Well, without foreign assistance, as we have seen with the involvement of US forces in the current Yemen campaign. And we have yet to see if they will be able to win Yemen, even with US support.
Second, they are not willing to fight for their country. To fight for a nation, you must have something, anything, invested in the success and growth of that nation. In the Middle East, the Western powers have done their best to maintain the monarchies, while giving the people no representation in the governments. The majority benefit from the flow of petrodollars is to one family, not the entire nation. This is not to say that they don’t spend on their people, but when you get used to getting an education for free, and preference in employment and facilities where you have paid little to no taxes, what mentality have you craved out from the citizens?
In the Middle East, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and the free lunch leads to a sense of entitlement.
Why the Arabs will always need Pakistan
The Arabs have always looked to Pakistan in their times of need, and while the relationship has been mutually beneficial, protecting the Arabs is not at the top of Pakistan’s priority list.
Having spent the past 12 years fighting an insurgency and terrorists within their own borders, the Pakistani military is one of the best battle-tested armed forces in the world. The commanders and soldiers have repeatedly proven their air and ground superiority against the forces that are indigenous to the battlefield regions, whether it be in FATA or Baluchistan. Had they not been, the TTP would have already overrun Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Instead, they aren’t even able to approach Peshawar with any strength.
The command of Pakistan’s armed forces has never been penetrated by the political appointees, no matter how many times the democratic governments have tried. The ability of the command to withstanding these interferences has kept the leadership and the soldiers united.
This has, in turn, strengthened the standing army of approximately 800,000 well-trained, motivated soldiers. The Pakistan army is well-prepared for any conflict. While many within the country would like to undermine the military, it has shown its resilience during both democratic and military governments to maintain its structure, discipline and preparedness. The army continues to be the only truly merit based institution in Pakistan.
Unlike the Arab regimes, the Pakistan armed forces have continually fought to defend the nation, no matter whose government is in Islamabad. By maintaining a fluid structure of governance, Pakistan’s army has always fought for a nation, not a family or a regime. They have been involved in police actions regularly, due to the failures of the democratic governments to maintain law and order, but have also been involved in major conflicts against foreign armed forces and proxies.
This is a military that is tried, tested and battle-hardened.
Looking at these factors, it is easy to understand why the Arab reaction to Pakistan staying out of the Yemen conflict was difficult to digest. They knew then, as they are understanding with greater depth now, that their military forces are not ready to fight a war against a motivated, trained militia or rebel group, much less a foreign army.