Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Robert Kaplan on the new Middle East

Robert Kaplan on the new Middle East

Kaplan delivered this talk as the keynote in FPRI’s two-day History Institute for Teachers on the New Middle East held October 16-17, 2004. Other speakers included Beth Baron, City University of New York; Eric Davis, Rutgers University; Michael S. Doran (see video), Princeton University; Najib Ghadbian, University of Arkansas; Bernard Munk, FPRI; and Harvey Sicherman (video available), FPRI. Dr. Paul Dickler, a Senior Fellow of FPRI’s Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education and a history teacher at Neshaminy High School, provided “tips for teachers.” Video files of selected lectures are posted on The conference was supported by grants from Mason Crest Publishers, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Fox, and the Annenberg Foundation.

Mr. Kaplan addressed the challenges that the U.S. military is facing in the greater Middle East and elsewhere, basing his comments on his experience over the past eighteen months as an embedded journalist with U.S. Army Special Forces, the Marines, and other military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, and other areas.

The sad tactical truth, he observed, is that the war on terrorism after 9/11 began too soon. The American military was not far enough along at that time in its transition from an industrial-age beast suited to fighting big world wars with mass infantry invasions, to a light and lethal force suited to dealing with unconventional insurgencies and hunting down small clusters of combatants. The age of mass infantry warfare is coming to a close. Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 merely shaped the battlefield for the real war, which began afterward. The diplomatic and political requirements of invading a country with over 100,000 troops in an age of global mass media is now so great that it will happen less and less as time goes on.

Indian Country

In essence, he said, the U.S. military is back to the days of fighting the Indians. In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. Army had to fight large numbers of Indian groups — from different tribes and with different languages and cultures — of which there were almost as many as there were ethnic groups around the world. It had the job of hunting them down and fighting them in small numbers and unconventional conditions. Success was wrought by people who knew the language and understood the culture: the pathfinders and mountainmen.

The pathfinders and mountainmen, Kaplan noted, proved that before you could defeat an enemy, you had to understand them and their culture and speak their language. The U.S. Army never really learned how to defeat the Indians this way, by making itself a light and lethal force, but won thanks to the railroads and other factors. Its large groups of horse- drawn cavalry were the equivalent of Humvees today, bristling with weaponry that were easily immobilized by small clusters of Indians on foot, or just one lone bicycle bomber in the case of Iraq. Around the world today we face not uniform conventional armies, but small clusters of combatants hiding out in big third-world cities, jungles, and deserts who no longer require an economy of scale to produce and deploy a WMD. Combating these adversaries involves intelligence and linguistic work, among other things.

“Indian country” is a term our armed forces use a lot, and very specifically, Kaplan noted. They not only mean no disrespect to Native Americans, but greatly admire them, hence their radio call signs such as “Black Hawk,” “Comanche,” “Apache,” “Red Cloud,” and “Sitting Bull.” “Indian country” is set to expand, because as dictators pass from the scene, particularly in the Middle East, what are left are weak, neither/nor democracies. In the Middle East, the emerging generation of leaders will not have the luxury of ruling as autocratically as the passing generation, after fifty years of tremendous economic, social, and demographic change. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Middle East was largely a rural desert society. Today, its mega-cities — Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca, Damascus — have many millions of people and sprawling suburbs.

Urbanization is inseparable from the rise of extremism, Kaplan noted. As large numbers of people migrated into these cities in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, their sons in particular suddenly faced all the challenges of urban environments that lacked police, street lighting, sewage, and water. There were ample incentives for juvenile delinquency, and yet the Muslim Middle East remained nonviolent in terms of common random crime. This was because the society adapted by intensifying to a more austere, ideological religiosity designed to deal with an impersonal urban environment. This alas had the unintended consequence of creating a fertile breeding-ground for the emergence of terrorist groups.

Over the years, various “enlightened dictators” kept a lid on this boiling pot. But, as modern middle classes emerge, the greater Middle East is on the brink of epic political change, which has not kept up with all the economic and social change. Most countries are ruled by the same systems they’ve had since the 1950s. Egypt, for instance, is still governed by the emergency law passed in 1954, when Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power. Political change has to catch up, and it will do so very dramatically and tumultuously.

That will lead initially to an upsurge in terrorism. When a system collapses, there is an initial security vacuum. In the Muslim part of Southeast Asia—the Indonesian archipelago, the southern half of the Philippines, the island of Borneo in Malaysia—the passing of military regimes such as Marcos and Suharto has led to the emergence of terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyya and Abu Sayyif that have taken advantage of the security vacuum created by the passing of these regimes.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, then, Kaplan predicted that the initial liberalization of the Middle East will lead to more terrorism rather than less, until these newly emerging systems gather the institutional strength that the passing dictatorships had. In Russia and South Africa, where oppressive systems collapsed, for the first 5-8 years there was a tremendous upsurge in violent crime. In the Middle East, the collapse provides new oxygen for the terrorist groups. There’s no easy path to liberalization. And so “Indian country” as the U.S. military defines it is going to intensify and enlarge.

Global Media

The insurgency in Iraq signifies political and military failure on Washington’s part, Kaplan said, but in this day and age, there’s something else that also signifies political and military failure, which is the arrival of the global media. Because the aim of the U.S. military around the world—particularly in Colombia, the Philippines, the horn of Africa—is to deal with problems before they get onto page 1 of the newspapers. As soon as something becomes a page-1 problem, the “rules of engagement” are restricted under the klieg light of the global media.

Kaplan spent last spring in Fallujah with the Marines. Last April, the Marines were given the order to assault and take the city, after four American contractors were brutally killed. However, about six days later, after the Marines were inside the city about only a day or so away from taking it, a ceasefire was announced. The administration called a halt just as the Marines were about to be victorious. This was policy incoherence at the highest level, and it shows the effect the global media had on Fallujah. Everything had unraveled exactly as planned, with the Marines taking the city street by street, picking their shots. Because the Marines were so professional, the level of civilian casualties was extremely low. But the few civilian casualties were exactly what the global media put all their focus on. This put political pressure on the Iraqi authorities, so that the administration had to pull the plug on the operation.

Could the administration have foreseen this? Yes. But the point is that the elements of the global media such as Al- Arabiya and Al-Jazeera that concentrated on, even exaggerated, the civilian casualties are products of the liberalization of the Middle East. When countries begin to liberalize and get independent television and radio stations, these independent news organizations cannot be expected to think the way we do. Their prejudices, passions, and insecurities will emerge out of their own historical and geographical experience. Just as we could all argue about what the prejudices of Fox News or CNN are, the Middle East’s television stations reflect the conspiracy theories, hopes, dreams, and exaggerations of their respective societies. The irony is that the more liberal the Middle East becomes or the less dictatorial, the more restricted the U.S. military is in how it can behave.

This change is inevitable. It can’t be stopped or put on a different course. Therefore, Kaplan said, the U.S. military increasingly must win without firing a shot, by the time- tested rule used by the British, French, Romans, and others, which is to operate indirectly. You train the indigenous army and let them do the work. You’re right behind them, crediting them for any successes. You stay in the background. Their own militaries gain legitimacy, which helps the state arise, which helps the newly emerging democratic state gain legitimacy.

Forming Social Bonds

One of the many things that went wrong in Iraq was that soon after the occupation, much of the training of the new Iraqi security forces was put in the hands of private defense contractors, who trained them in an impersonal way in large camps, then put them on buses and sent them out to the villages, where they promptly deserted whenever there was a hint of trouble. Months ago, we went back to the time-tested Green Beret/Marine way of training, which is to embrace your Indian brothers. You train with them all day, watch videos with them at night, go out with them, and sleep in the same hootch for months. This bonding is why the Iraqi special forces performed so well in Ramadi in October. Ramadi was the first specific sign we had that there are Iraqi security forces coming off line who really can fight, be disciplined, go into sensitive situations like mosques without killing civilians, and accomplish their mission. This is one positive narrative occurring in Iraq.

Based on his own observations, Kaplan said that the smaller the U.S. military deployment, the more successful it tends to be. The smaller the number of troops and the size of the unit, the more low-profile, the more we tend to get done, from Mongolia to Somalia and Colombia to the southern Philippines. The 10,000 troops in Afghanistan have treaded water very well, and finally we have a success with the presidential elections. In Iraq, 138,000 have not prevented a deteriorating situation.

That is because the U.S. military as a whole is still organized for fighting an industrial-age war. The deployment constellation of bases around Iraq is better suited for Korea or World War II, while the adversary that we’re fighting has been fighting like the Indians or the Viet Cong. In the future, we’re going to have to operate in the Middle East the way we’ve been operating in the horn of Africa, which is more like Lewis & Clark in the French- Indian Wars than it is like World Wars I and II and Desert Storm combined. You send out small groups of highly trained officers to go into small villages here and there and just explore. Find out what the citizenry wants, needs, and fears, any foreigners who have been taking up residence, you drum up intelligence even as you draw up plans for humanitarian aid projects.

The best, most actionable intelligence is generally obtained when some form of humanitarian assistance is involved, Kaplan remarked. People will tell a lot to someone who is treating their children for malaria, scabies, and other diseases and establishing a positive social relationship with them. The main point is that you use small units, forward deployed, making decisions on their own, finding things out, totally immersed in the local environment, because the enemy is no longer ten thousand troops with tanks.

This means that the State Department and the Defense Department will have to effectively collapse into each other. The tasks they face break down the barriers between what the State Department does and what the Pentagon does. The biggest enemy Washington has is its rigid bureaucratic divisions. We cannot afford a Defense Secretary’s riding roughshod over a Secretary of State or vice versa. The two really have to work in tandem at all levels.


Mr. Kaplan concluded by addressing how he sees Iraq influencing Iran and other places. Iraq, he said, may have been the bridge too far in America’s post-Cold War, imperial democratic progress. We started off in Central Europe after the Berlin Wall fell and easily democratized nations such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Those nations were heir to the Habsburg and German enlightenments and had large industrial bases and significant middle classes prior to the ravages of Nazism and communism. With high literacy rates and low birth rates, the only problem those countries had was that the Red Army was deployed on their soil.

The Balkans were more troublesome, because they were not heir to any enlightenment. They were run by the poor, chaotic Ottoman/Turkish empire, which on the eve of World War I had feeble, small middle classes, vast peasantries, and little industrial development. Even their communist regimes were more oppressive, less developed bureaucratically, and more corrupt than the communist regimes in north-central Europe. So it made sense that the Balkans’ transition to democracy would be more troublesome than Central Europe’s. Yugoslavia collapsed, and Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria all had difficult transitions bordering on anarchy at times. The outlook now is better but for some fifteen years it was touch and go.

In Iraq, we’ve taken on the poorest portion of the former Ottoman empire, an area that’s even more geographically and historically challenging. The Balkans were next door to Central Europe, a logical place for the expansion of NATO and the EU; Iraq is surrounded by Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the poorest part of Turkey.

In the most troublesome third of the country, the Sunni Triangle, in early October, we saw one big city, Samara, retaken by mainly Iraqi special forces, with a very low casualty rate. It was the easiest city to retake, but it was a starting point. We have begun to divide the resistance in Fallujah, because the more that Shiites come together to form political parties for elections, the more pressure there is on the Sunnis in the Triangle to do the same, or else they’re going to lose out.

But already, the northern third of Iraq, Kurdistan, is no longer in the news, because it’s a success story. The southern third, the Shiite south, is less and less in the news, because we’re succeeding there. The work that the Army and Marines did in Shiite cities such as Najav and Karbala recently has been astounding. They created a military situation that forced one group of Shiites to take the other Shiites in hand. So that the Shiites are forming political parties, they’re getting ready for elections. This is a narrative that is palpable, it’s developing, and yet the media has not reported it and Washington hasn’t laid it out. All the public sees is the car bombs. Beyond the static of specific incidents of violence, they’re not seeing any positive picture emerge.

Iran is the big elephant in the Middle East for the next few years. Iran is not a regime that you topple with an invasion. It’s a whole developed system with different centers of power. Iraq has 23 million people, Iran 69 million. It’s much more urbanized. Iran may be one of the only countries in the world where student demonstrations are implicitly pro-American. Almost any political change in Iran would be positive for us. The Iranian regime is not unlike the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and Chernenko: it’s old, calcified, out of touch with its population, and narrowly based. There will be political evolution in Iran, and the best way we can fast-forward that is by concentrating on consolidating Iraq. The principal job of the next administration is going to be to consolidate Iraq. Then a lot of other situations will improve. The better Iraq looks, the better change is going to look in countries such as Syria, Iran, and Egypt.

When the shah fell, Iran was a very centralized state, and his regime was replaced by another centralized state. The Shiite clerisy was finely developed and had an impressive bureaucratic structure. But this may be the last really strong, centralized Iranian state. Whatever ultimately replaces it is likely to be much more decentralized, and that will let the genie out of the bottle for the 26 million Azeris in northwestern Iran to realize their ethnic identity, for Turkomans to do the same; the evolution of all the Muslim lands of Central Asia will be affected.

Central Asia is still in a Soviet phase. Its rulers are ex- Brezhnev-era central committeemen who have reinvented themselves as independent khans. But these are still very repressive, Soviet-style states. When you’re in Central Asia, the closest truly sophisticated, aesthetic urban area is Iran, which holds a powerful cultural attraction for these people. But the current political system in Iran repels Central Asians. As the system begins to change, we’re starting to enter a period of epic movements.

As to whether history will judge the invasion of Iraq as having been the right or wrong thing to do, Kaplan noted that a close reading of the Duelfer Report convinces one that we should have invaded, while a partial reading suggests otherwise. Ultimately, the invasion will be judged positively or negatively based on how it affects change in the larger and more important Iran. If Iraq can be semi-stabilized and that that stabilization leads to internal change in Iran, the invasion of Iraq is going to look very good historically.

In north Africa, Kaplan noted, Algeria is improving and Morocco is evolving. Tunisia has lagged behind, but it has a large middle-class and no ethnic disputes, so when the Tunisian government opens up, impressive change should be seen there. Of course, this more open society is leading to a greater terrorist threat in the Sahara region: the opening of societies throughout the African Sahel, the Sahara and north Africa is creating new oxygen systems for terrorists.

Kaplan concluded by noting that in its activities throughout the Middle East and all over the world, the U.S. military has been given one of most thankless tasks of any military in history: providing the security armature for an emerging global civil society. The more it succeeds, the less respected and acknowledged it will be by the very society it has created. If it weren’t for the military’s backing up America’s security guarantee, none of the liberalization in places like Qatar and other Gulf sheikdoms that allowed for the creation of Al Jazeera in the first place would have happened. So the job of the American military empire—using the word “empire” because the only historical comparisons are with great powers in the past who had global responsibility—is to seek its own obsolescence. The closer it gets to that, the less appreciated it is going to be by people around the world, particularly in the Middle East.