CrISIS 3.

Robert H. Scales (1944- ) grew up in an Army family, went to West Point, went into the field artillery, served in Vietnam, won the Silver Star for his actions when an NVA attack over-ran his fire-base, and then climbed the greasy pole to the rank of Major General. This involved a combination of education (Ph.D., History, Duke University); field commands (South Korea, Germany); staff appointments (V Corps, Training and Doctrine Command); and teaching (Artillery School at Fort Still, Army War College at Carlisle Barracks). He is the author or co-author of six books. Two of those books are Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (1994), the official history of the Army in the First Gulf War; and The Iraq War: A Military History (2003), a history of the initial military defeat of Iraq in 2003.

General Scales has thought a lot about warfare in the Arab world, so his opinions are worth consideration. Some of them are at odds with the dominant beliefs that appear to have led to a series of disasters, so they are worth careful consideration. You never know. We might learn something. Stranger things have happened.

He has argued that Arab armies don’t do “modern warfare” very well.[1] Western armies (Britain, France, Israel, United States) have beaten up on Arab armies a whole bunch of times. So far, “Westernized” Arab armies (Syria, Iraq) have not performed well against ISIS. General Scales is NOT arguing that Arabs lack courage or ability as soldiers. Rather he argues that Arab culture differs markedly from Western culture. Arab culture centers on powerful loyalties to “family, tribe, and clan.” The “nation” is a more remote concept. As a result, Arabs fight best when organized in groups based on sub-national loyalties. He cites the example of the long defense of Ramadi against ISIS (October 2014-May 2015), although Western media focused chiefly on the final ISIS victory. In Scales’ view, such troops fight best on defense and markedly less well on offense. However, the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War shows under what conditions Arab conventional armies can be successful. The Egyptian attack set limited, specific, and achievable goals; it relied on careful training of troops and rehearsal of movements; and it accumulated over-whelming fire-power on a circumscribed battlefield.[2]

General Scales offers his advice on future operations in Iraq against ISIS. The next campaigning season starts in April-May 2016. What needs to be done? First, stop trying to build a “Western” army for Iraq. Acknowledge the power of sub-national loyalties. Build an army that includes militias based on the real loyalties in Iraq. Second, the attack on ISIS cannot be a drawn-out battle of attrition. It has to be prepared on the model of the Egyptian 1973 offensive. Third, the Americans are going to have to commit an immense amount of airpower to support this attack. Air support will have to be on the level of Operation Desert Storm. Fourth, the objective must be to break the will to fight of ISIS, not merely to retake territory.

All this sounds persuasive. Still, a couple of questions arise. First, if Arabs fight best for “family, tribe, and clan,” then why is ISIS doing so well? If Arabs don’t fight well on the offensive, how has ISIS over-run so much of Syria and Iraq? Second, sub-national loyalties can also be anti-national loyalties. Is defeating ISIS still going to lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

[1] Robert H. Scales, “The Iraqi Army Can’t Be Westernized,” WSJ, 26 June 2015.

[2] For the Egyptians, that meant a lot of surface-to-air weapons to negate the Israeli air superiority over the battlefield and a lot of anti-tank weapons to negate the Israeli armored advantage on the battlefield. The Egyptian offensive went awry when they moved out of the reach of their air defenses, when the US poured in aid to Israel, and when the Israelis proved exceptionally resolute.

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