Kenneth Pollack’s New History of Arab Armies

February 10, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: WarMilitaryArmyPoliticsCulture

Kenneth Pollack’s New History of Arab Armies

Why have Arab armies performed so poorly? Kenneth Pollack offers an answer.

His views on the malign nature of civil-military relations aside, Pollack postulates that politicized armies are those “where there are major malfunctions in the relationship between the civilian and military chains of command.” He organizes what he terms “politicization” into three sub-categories: “praetorianism,” after the Roman Praetorian Guard that seated and unseated emperors; “commissarianism,” the Soviet system of embedding political overseers in the military; and “palace guardism,” the employment of the military primarily to guard and protect the regime from internal threats. Pollack argues that the characteristics of each of these sub-categories have a negative effect on military performance, notably morale, but none is a determining explanation for Arab military ineffectiveness.

Pollack accepts that the near constant military coups in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s certainly affected Arab military performance in those years. Surprisingly, in making his case that “praetorianism” was not the dominant reason for Arab military failures, he does not point out that from the late 1960s until the Arab Spring, which did not emanate from the military, Arab regimes were remarkably stable, yet their militaries were no more successful. Perhaps he fails to focus on this phenomenon because, as in so much of this book, he draws primarily on decades-old sources and observations.

Pollack could also have buttressed his case by noting the difficulties that the Syrian Arab Army, tightly aligned with its governing regime, has encountered in the current civil war. Despite the use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing, the Syrian army has had to rely on Hezbollah fighters and Russian trainers, advisors and pilots in order to roll back the various groups that constitute the Syrian opposition.

Pollack barely mentions the Syrian conflict, now in its eighth year. Instead, he reviews Egyptian performance during the Yom Kippur War—repeating much of what he had written in a previous chapter but failing to note the impact and importance of the American airlift of supplies that Israel desperately needed in order to turn back the Egyptian assault into the Sinai.

Pollack also devotes a chapter to the effects of politicization on the conduct of Iraqi military operations in the eight-year war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War and the Iraqi Army’s military collapse in the face of the 2014 ISIS offensive. Somewhat surprisingly, however, half of his chapter on politicization and Iraqi military performance deals with the earliest of these three conflicts, while it barely mentions Iraqi performance in the face of the American-led coalition in 2003 and describes in but three pages and a map the Iraqi military’s failure to roll back ISIS in 2014. Pollack does demonstrate that politicization of both the Egyptian and Iraqi armies hampered their performance on the battlefield, while depoliticization during the course of the wars resulted in only marginal tactical and operational improvements. Nevertheless, a volume that seeks to analyze present and future Arab military performance should have reversed the relative attention that these conflicts commanded, devoting more space to more recent conflicts and less to those of past decades.

Pollack acknowledges that “many of the Arab world’s most catastrophic defeats correlated with Arab militaries that were heavily politicized.” He does not apply the term “correlated” in its technical statistical sense, however. He does not explore the actual degree to which politicization has mattered more, or less, than some of the other factors he examines. To what extent is politicization a major factor, even if not the primary factor, that has affected how Arab militaries have fared? Or is it no more important than other factors? These questions remain unanswered.

Having asserted that politicization is not the primary determining explanation for Arab military failures, Pollack then devotes two chapters on the operations of non-Arab armies—those of South Vietnam and Argentina, the latter in the Falklands War— to demonstrate that politicization does not necessarily undermine tactical military performance. These discussions seem to prove that there is some negative correlation—never actually measured—between politicization and performance on the battlefield, that is to say, high levels of politicization do not correlate with defeat, as Pollack argues is the case with Arab militaries. As with his prior discussions of North Korean and Cuban operations, however, Pollack may have delved more deeply than necessary into the details of the Vietnam and Falkland Wars if his objective was purely to demonstrate that highly politicized forces could still perform well in battle.

Pollack then turns to rebut the argument that poor Arab military performance derives primarily from the economic underdevelopment of Arab societies. He argues that economic underdevelopment does not fully explain the overall ineffectiveness of Arab militaries. What he does not do, and could have done, was apply some rigorous analysis to his hypotheses.

Pollack offers the reader a table entitled “socioeconomic development of selected Arab and non-Arab states.” The variables that he lists include per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, percent of workforce in agriculture and inhabitants per physician, automobile and telephone. Yet he does not analyze which of these factors might have the greater impact on military performance. For example, do farmers fight more bravely than city folk? Does not having a television really matter? Moreover, the per capita GDP of most Arab economies—with the possible exception since the 1970s of the smaller Gulf States—does not reflect a normal distribution of individual wealth. Instead, these economies are heavily skewed toward a small elite with a negligible middle class and an impoverished majority. The table cries out for the kind of analysis that Pollack does not provide.

Pollack provides a similar table comparing the economies of Libya and Chad when he discusses the poor performance of Libya’s forces against those of Chad, one of the poorest nations on earth. He rightly points out that on the basis of comparative economic statistics, Libya, by far more highly developed, should have crushed the Chadian forces, but that was not what took place. Instead, Chad was able to repel every one of Libya’s incursions in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, in making his case, Pollack again fails to account for the anomalies in income distribution that plague Arab states. Were Libyan forces all drawn from the wealthier segment of its population? If not, might poor performance have been more a function of incompetence, intense politicization by the Qaddafi regime and the absence of morale, which more than offset Chad’s economic weakness?

Pollack also glosses over the critical interventions of both France and, to a lesser extent, the United States, in support of the Chadians. Yet absent these interventions, and, in particular, French tactical air-to-ground operations, Libya might well have defeated the Chadian forces. Finally, despite his lengthy chapter on the protracted Libyan incursions into Chad, Pollack does not offer any conclusions as to how the various elements of economic development, or lack thereof, directly or even indirectly affected the actual operations of the opposing military forces.


To buttress his case that economic underdevelopment does not correlate with military performance, Pollack provides a protracted discussion of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) creditable performance against South Korean and United Nations forces after Beijing entered the Korean War. Yet Pollack does not mention the fact that the PLA was stocked with veterans of the Chinese civil war, which had ended but two years earlier. These men had successfully defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces by developing operational concepts and tactics that did not rely on the types of modern equipment that the People’s Republic of China did not possess. Without additional analysis, therefore, it is difficult to evaluate the extent to which this factor might have affected Chinese performance.

Given his inclination to buttress his arguments with case studies of non-Arab military performance, it is most surprising that Pollack chose to investigate PLA performance in the Korean War but did not address China’s more recent conflicts, with India in 1962, and of greater relevance to his analysis, with Vietnam in 1979. The latter war was one between two Communist states, with Vietnam receiving support from the Soviet Union. Although both countries claimed victory, it was the Chinese who penetrated deep inside what had been North Vietnam. Pollack’s discussion of the link between politicization and military operations would have benefitted from an evaluation of the relative performance of both of these highly politicized armies.

Pollack’s overview of Chinese operations in the Korean War repeats much of what he has already written in a previous chapter, though from a slightly different perspective; repetitiveness is one of the more annoying shortcomings of the entire volume. Finally, while Pollack also focuses on the possible relationship between economic development and Syrian performance in its various wars with Israel (again repeating much of what appears about those wars in prior chapters), he entirely ignores any lessons about the impact of economic development upon military success that might have been learned from Iraq’s defeat in 2003, Hezbollah’s standoff with Israel in 2006 or, for that matter, the poor performance of the Saudi Arabian air force in its ongoing operations against the Houthis of Yemen.