April 25, 2019

Slow and Steady

Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare

Executive Summary

Since 9/11 the United States has struggled with how to respond to the challenges posed by ungoverned spaces in the Middle East, from which terrorist attacks and destabilizing mass refugee flows emanate. The collapse of state authority in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya has created security vacuums that extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda have used to develop local presence, to organize, and eventually to conduct attacks both inside these countries as well as in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, the refugee flows that have resulted from these conflicts have put tremendous pressure on neighboring countries and also caused a massive wave of refugees into Europe. The question facing the United States and other Western allies is how to deal with these challenges without getting sucked into complex and costly civil wars that the United States has little ability to end on its own.

The question facing the United States and other Western allies is how to deal with challenges in the Middle East without getting sucked into complex and costly civil wars.

Full-scale American-led counterinsurgency, stabilization campaigns, or other resource-intensive nation-shaping interventions attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven to be unsustainable models given the high costs, indecisive outcomes, and lack of political support at home. However, completely withdrawing U.S. forces and counting purely on intelligence collection to monitor threats and local partners to address them has been ineffective, as this approach leaves the United States vulnerable to attacks. The most successful effort the United States has launched to deal with these challenges in recent years has been the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, where it has succeeded in protecting U.S. interests at a reasonable cost by working “By, With, and Through” local actors. In this model the United States generally: (1) uses a comparatively small number of troops to train, equip, advise, assist, or accompany local forces with legitimacy on the ground; (2) provides airpower and some enablers and logistics; (3) uses its limited military investment as leverage for a broader diplomatic effort; or (4) invests in building local governance and providing aid on the ground.

This model could be improved if America’s Middle Eastern partners also became more adept at cooperatively countering the challenges posed by irregular warfare – especially those posed by Iran’s support for proxies in the region and Salafi-jihadist extremists. But initiatives designed to improve the capabilities of Arab militaries and regional cooperation among them have consistently failed. They do not trust one another. They also lack many of the necessary capabilities to counter irregular warfare individually or separately, and they focus their security investments too heavily on purchasing expensive weaponry designed for conventional threats. Further, there is mutual frustration between the United States and many of its Arab partners. They fear that the United States is leaving the region. And the United States is uncomfortable with some of the strategies the Arab states pursue, the most recent example of which is in Yemen, that come with a high civilian cost. Given these challenges, a multinational force to address the threats posed by terrorism – for example the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2015 – is unlikely to be effective. Even a comprehensive agreement such as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), proposed by the current administration, is not a viable option.

Instead, this study proposes an incremental approach that over time allows the United States and its Arab partners to come to multiple common understandings on the irregular warfare challenges in the Middle East and to flexibly develop common tools that can be used to address them.

This can be achieved through the creation of two layers of cooperation. At the policy and strategic level, the United States should work with the relevant Middle Eastern partners to create less formal, tailored working groups for various irregular warfare challenges. These groups should focus on: (1) producing common threat assessments; (2) developing joint strategies and campaign plans in response to these threats; (3) agreeing on a division of labor; (4) discussing ethical approaches to managing irregular warfare consistent with the laws of war; and (5) developing a common intelligence picture. Not all of the United States’ Arab partners need to be involved in every working group. Membership should be based on the threat prioritization of each country and limited to those that can realistically work closely with the United States as well as with each other on these problems. The first two working groups should address Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and Salafi-jihadist groups. In time, additional working groups, using this approach, can be added to address other challenges, such as those in North Africa and the Sahel.

At the operational level, U.S. efforts should focus on individually working with these countries and helping them improve their special operations forces. What has failed in the past is trying to wholly remake these militaries in the U.S. image. There has been more success in training and supporting elite forces such as the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) or the Lebanese Maghawir regiment. This work can also be supplemented with combined training and exercises to improve joint capabilities and increase cooperation.

Though the program the authors recommend in this report is designed to put more responsibility on U.S. Arab partners, it must be clear from the start that it will involve a meaningful and sustained American commitment.

Though the program the authors recommend in this report is designed to put more responsibility on these partners, it must be clear from the start that it will involve a meaningful and sustained American commitment. This must include consistent high-level engagement from the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, State Department, and Intelligence Community; long-term commitment of a discrete number of American trainers and special operators to the mission; a sustained air and naval presence in the region, though one that may be smaller than in recent years; and continued commitments by the U.S. government to support aid programs that can improve governance and stability in ungoverned spaces in the Middle East.

U.S. policymakers must also acknowledge that results will be uneven, and therefore the success of this strategy should be consistently evaluated along three criteria. First, how much success is the program having in lining up the strategies and approaches of U.S. partners with one other and with the United States? This will be a years-long effort, where progress will be incremental. Second, is the approach improving the capabilities of small groups of elite forces in these countries? Here progress can be achieved relatively quickly, and should be discernible in a couple of years. Finally, is the effort reducing the overall burden on the United States in tackling these challenges? Again, it may take a number of years to see meaningful progress on this question, and it may be difficult to measure. Moreover, it will never mean getting to a point where U.S. interests are so aligned with those of Arab partners and their capabilities are so good that the United States can eliminate its investment in countering the problem. But discernible progress within three to five years should be possible.

If this approach can be pursued effectively, it could improve the United States’ partners’ ability to respond to the asymmetric threats they face in the Middle East, while also getting the United States more on the same page strategically with its partners. Ultimately, it could reduce the burden on the United States in countering asymmetric threats in the Middle East.

  1. This study uses the use the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to define irregular warfare, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism. Irregular warfare is defined as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Foreign internal defense is defined as the participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security. Unconventional warfare is defined as activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. Counterinsurgency is defined as comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes. Counterterrorism is defined as activities and operations taken to neutralize terrorists and their organizations and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals. See DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, January 2019, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/dictionary.pdf. This study also uses the phrase “By, With, and Through,” understood as a non-doctrinal term used to describe an approach to achieve U.S. objectives via operations led by partners, both state and non-state; with U.S. enablers; and through a coordinated legal and diplomatic framework. See Diana Dalphonse, Chris Townsend, and Matthew Weaver, “Shifting Landscape: The Evolution of By, With, and Through,” RealClear Defense, August 1, 2018, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/08/01/shifting_landscape_the_evolution_of_by_with_and_through_113676.html; and Joseph L. Votel and Eero R. Keravuori, “The By-With-Through Operational Approach,” Joint Force Quarterly, 89 no. 2 (April 2018), https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-89/jfq-89.pdf?ver=2018-04-19-153711-177,%20%2040%E2%80%9347, 40–47.
  2. Mara Karlin, “Why Military Assistance Programs Disappoint,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-10-16/why-military-assistance-programs-disappoint.
  3. Ken Pollack, “The U.S. Has Wasted Billions of Dollars on Failed Arab Armies,” Foreign Policy, January 31, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/31/the-u-s-has-wasted-billions-of-dollars-on-failed-arab-armies.
  4. For a more detailed discussion of how to measure the success of such programs, see Ilan Goldenberg, Alice Hunt Friend, Stephen Tankel, and Nicholas Heras, “Remodeling Partner Capacity” (Center for a New American Security [CNAS], November 14, 2016), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/remodeling-partner-capacity.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

  • Kaleigh Thomas

    Former Associate Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Kaleigh Thomas is a former Associate Fellow for the Middle East Security Program and 2020 recipient of the 1LT Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., USA Award at CNAS. She also serves as th...

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