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.


In a review-essay in the Wall Street Journal, James Traub makes a number of important points about the Islamic State.[1]

Al Qaeda Classic misunderstood the appeal of ISIS just as much as did Western observers. Western powers at least had the excuse that they were busy with many things and on many fronts. Al Qaeda had much easier contact, but still under-estimated its rival.

Americans have debated whether “nation-building” is possible in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Billions of dollars already have been lavished on the effort in both countries, yet it would be hard to claim that the effort has been a success. However, ISIS appears to demonstrate that it is possible, and on a shoe-string budget compared to what Americans have spent. Recent reports have suggested that ISIS has begun to encounter al sorts of problems, so they may be presiding over the start of a “nation un-building.” Even that will not solve the problem of nation-building however. Can there be an effective alternative approach formulated by the West?

Former Baath Party members have been venting their rage at the Americans for more than a decade, often in alliance with radical Islamists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How long can this alliance between the former supporters of a secular regime and religious extremists survive? By their excesses, the jihadists once drove many Sunnis into alliance with the Americans and—tacitly—with the Shi’ites. Subsequently, the Shi’ites returned to a policy of persecuting the Sunnis. Nouri al-Maliki gets the blame for this in American media, but the reality is that he had wide support among Shi’ites. This makes it difficult to imagine that the Sunnis will readily abandon the Islamists. So long as it is directed against Shi’ites and Americans, the alliance ought to be able to paper over any other divisions. At least neither party will abandon the alliance until after victory has been won.

The Saudis and their Gulf clients see the struggle in Iraq as part of a larger confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’a Islam that has been going on for a long time. The rift has been open for centuries, but it has been particularly acute since the Iranian Revolution toppled the shah. Defeating ISIS so that the Shi’ite majority in Iraq can sleep better at night isn’t at the top of the Saudi agenda. The uncertainties about the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program will not make the Saudis more committed to opposing ISIS.

Could all this have been avoided had the self-satisfied, moralizing Baby Boomers who have run American foreign policy for the last twenty years or so been content to leave dictators in place? Saddam Hussein did not have to be overthrown. The Syrian rebels did not have to be encouraged to go on resisting after it had become clear that the Bashar Assad regime was going to hold onto power. The Gaddafi regime in Libya did not have to be bombed out of existence.

It has become a common belief that things would have gone differently had the Obama administration been willing to stay on in Iraq. Regardless of the truth of this belief, will the US be willing to stay on after the defeat of ISIS to prevent a return to stupidity? In ceding so much of the active role in opposing Iraq to Iran, is the US preparing the ground for a partition of the country. Will Saudi Arabia and Jordan absorb the Sunni parts of the country?

How serious a danger is ISIS? To the United States and other Western societies, ISIS is not very dangerous. It isn’t Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It may be a loathsome ideology, but it does not control a powerful state. So, a sense of proportion is needed. So, too, is patience. “Keep them penned in and wait for the food riots to start,” as one character in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition described America’s Cold War policy of containment.

[1] James Traub, “The Demonic Wellspring,” WSJ, 14-15 March 2015.

Islamism as a story.

The current theater of operations for ISIS lies in the midst of ancient and modern historical places. On the one hand, Tel Megiddo, in northern Israel, is the place identified with Armageddon in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Farther north, in Syria, Dabiq appears in the Hadith as the name of a village where a final confrontation between the armies of Islam and Christendom will fight to a decision. Dabiq is near the Syrian-Turkish border. In Summer 2014 it fell to the ISIS forces. In July 2014, during its own “surge” in Iraq, ISIS began publishing an on-line magazine called “Dabiq.”

On the other hand, it is commonplace for people in the Arab states to explain the decline from earlier Muslim power and prosperity by blaming Western intervention and exploitation.[1] Islamists extend this narrative. Islamists celebrate the breaking of the grip of the Byzantine Empire on Syria and Palestine, and the conquest of “al-Andalus” in the in the 7th and 8th Centuries. The Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates are held up as the ideal for what the Islamists hope to create. Similarly, the Medieval Crusaders are analogized to contemporary Western states.

The American invasions of Afghanistan in 2011 and of Iraq in 2003 certainly gave the proponents of this view a lot of material with which to work. Young Islamists have mastered modern social media just as well as have young non-Islamists, along with young everyone else. Al Qaeda led the way by launching a media campaign: audio cassettes, DVDs, and Internet forums preached the Islamist interpretation.

Recognizing that people like Anwar al-Awlaki[2] had played a role in fomenting and recruiting for terrorism, in 2011 the United States Department of State created a Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications (CSCC). One chief function of the CSCC is to engage in on-line debate with Islamists. The goal here is to dissuade young people from supporting or joining Islamist groups.[3] The CSCC has a Digital Outreach Team with members working in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Somali, and English.

The means to the goal is to propose a different narrative of history than the one upheld by many Muslims. The CSCC’s counter-narrative focuses on recent history, rather than on a more remote past. It emphasizes the tolerance of pre-Islamist Muslim society. This view clashes with both the restriction imposed under the Islamists’ version of sharia and the brutality with which it is enforced.

The question–not much addressed by Western scholars or journalists or counter-propagandists–is why the messages of either an “End of Days” or a revival of the Caliphate appeals so strongly to thousands of young Muslims. What are they missing about motivation?


Shatha Almutawa, “Historical Narrative in American Counterterrorism Operations,” American Historical Association, Perspectives, September 2014, pp. 12-13.

Noor Malas, “Ancient Prophecies Motivate Islamic State,” WSJ, 19 November 2014.

[1] This explanation ignores the pervasive weaknesses of Medieval Arab society that exposed the region to conquest by successive waves of Muslim Turkish tribesmen, followed by the long decline caused by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. Western imperialism had a much briefer period of influence. Not all of those influences were negative. However, the performance of the post-independence Arab states contrasts badly with those of other “developing” societies.

[2] See: “Just like imam used to make.”

[3] One might be forgiven for believing that another purpose is to draw them out so that their other communications can be tracked by the NSA. I’m all for it, but it could lead to “getting flamed” for some hasty remark—by a drone.

Peachy and Danny

Soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the Seventh Century AD, Arab Muslin tribes burst out of the Arabian peninsula to begin a wave of conquest that ran on for centuries. Muhammad’s successors as leaders of the Muslims took the title of Caliph (“Successor” to the Prophet). The single large Arab empire soon fragmented into multiple kingdoms. Sometimes the rulers claimed the title of Caliph. The last important ruler to claim the title was the Ottoman emperor. The title went unclaimed after the fall of that empire at the end of the First World War. As more and more of the Muslim world fell under direct or indirect control of non-Muslims, especially of European states, nostalgia grew for the days of Muslim power and unity.

Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai was born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971. He claims to be a descendant of Muhammad’s own Quraysh tribe. He earned a doctorate in religious law and set up as a preacher. Salafism was all the rage among Sunni Muslims at the time and he found himself attracted to it.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, al-Badri joined the resistance. In particular, he joined not the Sunni Iraqi tribesmen fighting against the Americans and the Shi-ite majority, but Al Qaeda in Iraq. This franchise of al Qaeda sought to foster war between Sunni and Shi’a in order to make the Iraq occupation a disaster for the United States. In 2005 American troops arrested him during a raid on a resistance group. He spent some time locked-up in Camp Bucca. In the United States prison sometimes serves as a sort of advanced education in crime and as an anti-social networking site. That seems to have been the case with Camp Bucca as well. Al-Badri got to know a lot of people with views similar to his own. As part of its effort to disengage from the war in Iraq, the Americans turned over many of their prisoners to the new Iraqi government. As part of its effort to mend fences with former opponents, the Iraqi government let many of them go. Badri was among those released.

He went back to the struggle against the Americans and the government they had created. During his time in prison, much had changed. Sunni tribesmen had grown weary of both the bloodshed and the strict Islamic fundamentalism pushed by al Qaeda. The “Awakening” movement among Sunnis combined with the American “surge” to put al Qaeda on the ropes. The survivors were rethinking the whole strategy of fighting Shi’ites instead of just the Americans, who were plainly eager to get out of Iraq in the near future. The newly-released Badri must have had a Rip van Winkle moment. He argued for sticking to the old course. When he saw that he wasn’t winning the argument, he started making his own contacts with the rich men in the Persian Gulf states who had funded al Qaeda. This gave him an independent source of money. He adopted the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr having been the father-in-law of Muhammad and the first Caliph.

Thereafter, Badri/Abu Bakr went on a rampage. He gathered fighters drawn to his ideas and his oratory. He moved his operations into the eastern parts of war-torn Syria, where a vacuum of power existed. Syria itself was full of jihadist enthusiasts, either Syrian ones or foreigners drawn to the struggle. Many of these fighters shifted their loyalty to what Abu Bakr now called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He emptied banks, exported oil from wells ISIS had seized, sold plundered antiquities, and taxed local people. With a huge war-chest and 10,000 enthusiastic followers, Abu Bakr set out to recreate the Caliphate.

History is unlikely to repeat itself, but there’s only one way to find out.

“The man who would be caliph,” The Week, 19 September 2014, p. 11.