Is This the Best the Arabs Can Do?

All right, I will play devil’s advocate here and ask: do the Iraqis have any strategy at all?

I am not suggesting by any means that I prefer this be a long, drawn-out bloody fight. That I want to see Iraqi forces battling with appalling ferocity to increase to the number of American casualties or fatalities. But with the war essentially in its final phase (you heard it here first!), we can safely start the pre-Day After analysis.

The Iraqis did not really put up much of a fight. Yes, American and British forces (I will dispense with the “coalition forces” fiction) had great difficulty securing previously secured areas like Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah, but that was probably more due to hubris that these areas could be bypassed on the way to Baghdad than some grand strategy of the Iraqis. The war has hardly been the cakewalk that it was gleefully predicted to be by the neo-conservative cabal running Bush’s brain and the media. But with amazing ease, American forces occupied great swaths of terrority with hardly any sense that the Iraqis had something resembling a strategy. The highway to Baghdad wasn’t blown up prior to the initial invasion; important dams weren’t blown up to slow down any army and no one has seen the “tough and feared” Republican Guard doing anything interesting.

Of course, how much actualy information we’re getting is an important qualifier. And it’s equally important to mention that the rapidity of American capture of Iraqi terrority has a great deal to do with the inherent weakness of the Iraqi military. Whether the media would agree or not (and they won’t), they lead the public to believe this would be a clash of the titans. That only those loyal to Saddam Hussein would prove their mettle and fight ferociously. The media conveniently never bothered to educate the public on how small and outdated the Iraqi military was: the lack of training, viable command structure and overall effectiveness. Sure, we were told of the hundreds of thousands of Republican Guards, but it would appearly unseemly if the point was driven to the American people that Iraq is a miltiarily weak adversary.

And that brings me to the point of the overal uselessness of Arab armies today. Before the hostilities broke out, I said to a friend, “What war has any Arab army won in the war last fifty years?” The answer is none. Arab armies are good for only one thing: military parades. For use in actual combat, well, you can draw any conclusion you want from the loud silence. The Arabs bitterly complain that in their bouts with Israel, American support gave the Jewish State an unfair advantage and with out, the Arabs could have beaten the Israeli Defense Force. It’s a refrain that’s become a cover for the general incompetence of the Arab armies. True, some Arab forces have fought rather well against the Israelis, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Given the opportunity, Arab soldiers would rather be anywhere else.

There’s been an ocean of ink written about the Israeli military over the last few decades. Hardly a peep about the Arab armies. Part of this is due to the fact that archives are not open to researchers and given the closed nature of most modern Arab states, it might be a long while before any monograph in English appears. But the point has not gone unnoticed among militant Islamist groups, who put no faith in state-run armed forces. Indeed, many of those forces have been battling Islamist groups for years, futher proving how corrupt Arab governments truly are. Armed Islamist groups know they are outnumbered against armies but parity isn’t the point: the fact that God is on their side more than levels the battle field.

But there is a dangerous development here. After twenty plus years, Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon in a move that its principal enemy, Hizbullah, exulted in as an Israeli defeat. The point did not go unnoticed among the Palestinians and others in the Arab world, who interpreted the event as one of triumph: you don’t need a modern army to beat one. Hizbullah’s persistent attacks on Israel proved to be too costly and too bloody for the Israelis to stand. Fueled by an ideological framework that heavily relied on Islamic concepts of resistance, Hizbullah’s tactics were considered successful and deserving of that success: the secularist regimes in the Arab world have weak armies that are easily defeated, whereas groups like Hizbullah or even Islamic Jihad have the proper understanding of resistance and are able to rout their enemies despite being massively outmanned and outgunned. In short, Islam is the way.

It’s that potential that makes the occupation of Iraq vaguely dreadful. An American victory might well be a foregone conclusion even for the Iraqis, but the resulting occupation could be where things start to bog down measurably. The media promoted a fantasy that the Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators -- reality has been very different. The Bush Administration has tried to act as though this won’t be an occupation but a re-building effort, but one doubts that sincerity very much. The spectacle of American troops occupying a former Islamic capital is recruiting material indeed, concomitant with the idea that a godless Iraqi army is doomed to fail, but an Islamic “army” is all one needs to get rid of the infidels. After all, it worked against the Soviets in Afghanistan, right?

Unfortunately for the American public, all attention will be focused on the military victory when it’s the political win that matters most. The Bush Administration will attempt to portray itself as the liberator of the Iraqi people and downplay how difficult it will be to re-mold the entire country. It has not prepared the public for the occupation at all, and the potential for suicide bombings that kill scores of American soldiers. And no matter what the Administration claims, don’t believe for a second that the United States will be out of there in under five years.

So the question is not whether the United States can transform Iraqi into some kind of democratic utopia, but if its prepared to battle the Islamist groups that will be coming its way. Only then will can we claim victory.