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Robert Springborg

Building militaries in fragile states: Comparing the US and Iran

Syria's Assad (R) and Hizballah's Nasrallah on a poster in Damascus [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 April, 2018

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Comment: In comparison to Iran's remarkably successful record of building militaries and their associated states, the US has little to show, writes Robert Springborg.
For almost three decades Iran and the US have competed with one another to build militaries and states resting upon them in the Arab world, a competition which Iran has won hands down.

Its initial success was with Hizballah in Lebanon, with which it first expelled the US, then Israel, from the country. Hizballah was then charged with the task of capturing the Lebanese state, which required it to penetrate and neutralise the military and security services while building the country's most powerful political party.

Its defeat of combined but weak Druze, Sunni and Christian forces in May 2008 signaled the success of the first task, while election of its Christian ally Michel Aoun as president in October 2016 marked completion of the latter.

Iran then replicated its successful Lebanese formula of combining military and political capacity building within Shia communities elsewhere in the region. Iraq was the next test case, with the Tehran-nurtured Badr Organisation metaphorically parachuted into Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 US invasion.

Rapidly becoming the country's dominant political force in alliance with other Iranian surrogates, Badr and its allies, like Hizballah, seized control of vital cabinet portfolios, governorships and other administrative positions that provided them with government revenues and operational command of military and security forces.

When the latter proved inadequate in the face of Islamic State group (IS) military challenge in 2014, Badr with Iran's backing orchestrated the creation of the Hashd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, that presently underpin the organisation's political power while augmenting its military capacities within the regular armed forces.

It's not hard to understand Iran's success and America's failure in building militaries in the Arab world

As was initially the case with Hizballah, Badr and its allied forces mask much of their power behind political surrogates and weak actors who can be cast aside when and if the need arises.

Bolstering Bashar al Assad's Syrian government ran to a somewhat different script, in that Iran could work with an established state power and its various military and security forces. It is unclear whether or not Tehran has created loyalties and chains of command entirely autonomous from the Syrian government, although it is the case that the heavy presence of Hizballah and of other Shia fighters recruited from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran itself, render the Syrian government heavily dependent upon Tehran.

In that sense then, Bashar's nominally Baathist government is analogous to Hizballah in Lebanon and Badr in Iraq, in that it provides a local face for military and state capacities which would scarcely exist without Iran's backing.

Yemen's Houthis are the most recent application by Tehran of its Lebanon model.

Read more: Trump's 'Arab Force' more closely resembles a farce

Again its protege succeeded in first amassing substantial military power on the basis of a Shia militia-cum-popular-movement, then seizing control of the state apparatus and the resources, not the least of them being weaponry, it provided. 

That assistance, carefully calibrated to the threat level, has increasingly included sophisticated ballistic missiles, largely or entirely absent from active use in theatres in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

By comparison to Iran's remarkably successful record of building militaries and their associated states, the US has little to show.

In Lebanon it has tried and failed twice in the face of push-back from Hizballah and its backers in Damascus and Tehran, first in 1982-84 and then from 2005 to 2008. Both episodes ended with Hizballah exerting greater political influence and possessing more coercive power, whether in the form of its own militia or by virtue of its penetration of the army and security services.

Iraq is a similar story as is suggested if one substitutes the name Badr for Hizballah. The billions of dollars Washington committed to rebuilding the Iraqi military were graphically demonstrated to be for naught when it collapsed in the face of the IS challenge in 2014.

The billions of dollars Washington committed to rebuilding the Iraqi military were graphically demonstrated to be for naught when it collapsed in the face of the IS challenge in 2014

Badr picked up the pieces, both politically and militarily, now having greater political influence over Haidar al Abadi's government than previously, while having integrated its various militias partially into the army, which picks up the pay cheques for its soldiers.

The US effort to bolster Arab Syrian forces opposed to the Damascus government did not squander as much as the Iraqi counterpart operation, but if anything ended with yet fewer political and military results.

Simultaneous support for Kurdish forces, whether in Syria or Iraq, has had marginally better results, but they eroded virtually overnight in Iraq when government forces retook Kirkuk in October 2017 in the wake of infighting in the Kurdish Regional Government. They seem also to be presently eroding, if more slowly, along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Scattered US efforts in Libya in conjunction with various Europeans have not only failed to create a unified military force, but have been markedly less successful in capacity building than has General Khalifa Haftar's "National Libyan Army," which has benefitted from Emirati and Egyptian support, including substantial subventions by the former.

The US record of military capacity building in less fragile Arab states is better, although far from perfect.

Egypt has been the focus of the most intense, costly such effort. Its army's performance in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was abysmal, as has been its counter-insurgency campaign in the northern Sinai over the past four years.

A supporter of the Lebanese Shia movement Hizballah holds a poster bearing a portrait of Hassan Nasrallah
as she attends a rally in Baalbek to celebrate the return of its fighters after fighting a week-long
offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group on Syria's side of the Lebanese border [AFP]

Its armed forces' abilities to conduct joint operations with allies, whether the Emiratis, Saudis or others, are undermined by its poor training and inadequate, outdated communications resources. Its comparative success in coup making, subordinating the polity and economy to its dictatorial control, and systematically abusing the human rights of Egyptians, attests to the abject failure of US programmes intended to facilitate professionalisation and democratic control of Egypt's armed forces.

It is in the monarchies where American military support has paid the highest dividends. Jordan's land forces are pound for pound the best in the Sunni Arab world. Emirati and Saudi air forces have steadily grown in competence, although the campaign in Yemen has revealed various shortcomings.

In these and the other monarchies, including Morocco, the state's control of the armed forces is if not absolute, stronger than in the republics. Coup-proofing is thus not nearly as disruptive of building military capacity as it is in say Egypt.

The question then, is why should relatively parsimonious Iran be more successful than spendthrift America?

While the answer is "overdetermined" in that there are multiple causes, they can be boiled down to four.

Iran has essentially built the political organisations/militias upon which it relies in Lebanon and Iraq from the ground up

First, in every case Iran is building military capacity on a coherent political community comprised overwhelmingly of Shia Muslims who nurture grievances against Sunnis and fear the consequences of losing control to them.

Cohesive, they are ready to fight and die for their community. In the case of recipients of US military assistance, it is only the Kurds who share those characteristics, but their internal divisions are deeper, whether between the Barzani and Talabani clans in Iraq, various localist loyalties in Syria and their mixed relations with the PKK, or between national contexts in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

The armed forces that come closest to this model are those of Jordan, built as they are on East Bank tribesmen, who although somewhat divided by tribal ties are united by not being Palestinian and by the belief that the Hashemite monarchy is theirs.

Second, the Iranians have appreciated that military and state building must go hand in hand and that the gun commands the ballot box, if indeed there is one.

Their various militias that have absorbed states or are still trying to digest them, all combine political and military wings, much in the tradition of Mao's communist party. By contrast, the US has sought to tie fractious political components together by building a national military institution that would somehow cement new loyalties and dissolve existing ones.

Iranians have appreciated that military and state building must go hand in hand 

This is a utopian, unrealistic view in most, if not all Arab settings.

Those in power want to use their armed forces to consolidate their control, not to have them serve as the basis for diluting their position and rendering the system more pluralistic. For the past 200 years, therefore, Middle Eastern rulers have disagreed with external powers supporting their military capacity building.

The latter have wanted small, professional, competent militaries, while local rulers, largely indifferent to real military capacity, have wanted large armies to serve as their personal political base, as so cogently documented by Stephanie Cronin.  

Method and technique also play important roles. The Iranians have a high density of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in the theatre, essentially living with those they are training and fighting alongside.

By contrast, US trainers and troops embedded with local units have for the most part been proportionately fewer and most distant, linguistically, culturally and physically.

Moreover, their role has been more concerned with the application of high tech weaponry, especially air power, than with the development and utilisation of lower tech, asymmetric methods.

Whereas local combatants depend heavily upon US personnel for the application of the superior firepower controlled largely by those personnel to defeat their adversaries, those fighting alongside Iranian supplied forces depend much more directly on joint efforts conducted with weaponry that all are capable of using.

Finally, as Mara Karlin has argued, building military capacity without influence over the organisation of the armed forces in question, including recruitment and promotion, is difficult to impossible.

She attributes this lack of influence to the dramatic US failures in Lebanon and in Vietnam. By contrast, Iran has essentially built the political organisations/militias upon which it relies in Lebanon and Iraq from the ground up, while heavily influencing organisation and personnel in combat units in Syria and Yemen.

In sum, it is not hard to understand Iran's success and America's failure in building militaries in the Arab world. But whether the US could replicate that success is altogether another matter.

Iran is unencumbered by rhetoric about about democracy and freedom, and is willing to back its surrogates to the hilt, so long they respect Iranian control. By contrast, saddled with the legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and as foreigners in the region, the US must necessarily have a politically less intrusive approach, one predicated on what experience suggests is a misconceived hope that it is building a politically neutral military around which the Arab nation in question can gather.


Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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