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Did the Pentagon Help Strangle the Arab Spring?

by NICK TURSE

As the Arab Spring blossomed and President Obama hesitated about whether to speak out in favor of protesters seeking democratic change in the Greater Middle East, the Pentagon acted decisively.  It forged ever deeper ties with some of the most repressive regimes in the region, building up military basesand brokering weapons sales and transfers to despots from Bahrain to Yemen.

As state security forces across the region cracked down on democratic dissent, the Pentagon also repeatedly dispatched American troops on training missions to allied militaries there.  During more than 40 such operations with names like Eager Lion and Friendship Two that sometimes lasted for weeks or months at a time, they taught Middle Eastern security forces the finer points of counterinsurgency, small unit tactics, intelligence gathering, and information operations — skills crucial to defeating popular uprisings.

These recurrent joint-training exercises, seldom reported in the media and rarely mentioned outside the military, constitute the core of an elaborate, longstanding system that binds the Pentagon to the militaries of repressive regimes across the Middle East.  Although the Pentagon shrouds these exercises in secrecy, refusing to answer basic questions about their scale, scope, or cost, an investigation by TomDispatch reveals the outlines of a region-wide training program whose ambitions are large and wholly at odds with Washington’s professed aims of supporting democratic reforms in the Greater Middle East.

Lions, Marines, and Moroccans — Oh My!

On May 19th, President Obama finally addressed the Arab Spring in earnest.  He was unambiguous about standing with the protesters and against repressive governments, asserting that “America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.”

Four days earlier, the very demonstrators the president sided with had marched in Temara, Morocco.  They were heading for a facility suspected of housing a secret government interrogation facility to press for political reforms.  It was then that the kingdom’s security forces attacked.

“I was in a group of about 11 protesters, pursued by police in their cars,” Oussama el-Khlifi, a 23-year-old protester from the capital, Rabat, told Human Rights Watch (HRW).  “They forced me to say, ‘Long live the king,’ and they hit me on my shoulder. When I didn’t fall, they clubbed me on the head and I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the hospital, with a broken nose and an injured shoulder.”

About a five-hour drive south, another gathering was taking place under far more hospitable circumstances.  In the seaside city of Agadir, a ceremony marking a transfer of military command was underway.  “We’re here to support… bilateral engagement with one of our most important allies in the region,” said Colonel John Caldwell of the U.S. Marine Corps at a gathering to mark the beginning of the second phase of African Lion, an annual joint-training exercise with Morocco’s armed forces.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Pentagon’s regional military headquarters that oversees operations in Africa, has planned 13 such major joint-training exercises in 2011 alone from Uganda to South Africa, Senegal to Ghana, including African Lion.  Most U.S. training missions in the Greater Middle East are, however, carried out by Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees wars and other military activities in 20 countries in the Greater Middle East.

“Annually, USCENTCOM executes more than 40 exercises with a wide range of partner nations in the region,” a military spokesman told TomDispatch.  “Due to host-nation sensitivities, USCENTCOM does not discuss the nature of many of our exercises outside our bilateral relationships.”

Of the dozens of joint-training exercises it sponsored these last years, CENTCOM would only acknowledge two by name: Leading Edge, a 30-nation exercise focused on counter-proliferation last held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in late 2010; and Eager Resolve, an annual exercise to simulate a coordinated response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high yield explosive attack, involving the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

However, military documents, open-source reports, and other data analyzed by TomDispatch offer a window into the training relationships that CENTCOM refused to acknowledge.  While details of these missions remain sparse at best, the results are clear: during 2011, U.S. troops regularly partnered with and trained the security forces of numerous regimes that were actively beating back democratic protests and stifling dissent within their borders.

Getting Friendly With the Kingdom

In January, for example, the government of Saudi Arabia curtailed what little freedom of expression existed in the kingdom by instituting severe new restrictions regarding online news and commentary by its citizens.  That same month, Saudi authorities launched a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.  Shortly afterward, six Saudi men sought government recognition for the country’s first political party whose professed aims, according to Human Rights Watch, included “greater democracy and protection for human rights.”  They were promptly arrested.

On February 19th, just three days after those arrests, U.S. and Saudi forces launched Friendship Two, a training exercise in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia.  For the next 10 days, 4,100 American and Saudi troops practiced combat maneuvers and counterinsurgency tactics under an unrelenting desert sun.  “This is a fantastic exercise and a fantastic venue, and we’re sending a real good message out to the people of the region,” insisted Major General Bob Livingston, a National Guard commander who took part in the mission.  “The engagements that we have with the Saudi Arabian army affect their army, it affects our Army, but it also shows the people of the region our ability to cooperate with each other and our ability to be able to operate together.”

Eager Lights and Lions

As the Arab Spring brought down U.S.-allied autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, the Kingdom of Jordan, where criticizing King Abdulluh or even peacefully protesting government policies is a crime, continued to stifle dissent.  Last year, for instance, state security forces stormed the house of 24-year-old computer science student Imad al-Din al-Ash and arrested him.  His crime?  An online article in which he called the king “effeminate.”

In March, Jordanian security forces typically failed to take action, and some even joined in, when pro-government protesters attacked peaceful activists seeking political reforms.  Then came allegations that state forces had tortured Islamist activists.

Meanwhile, in March, U.S. troops joined Jordanian forces in Eager Light 2011, a training exercise in Amman, the country’s capital, that focused on counterinsurgency training.  Then, from June 11th to June 30th, thousands of Jordanian security forces and U.S. troops undertook Eager Lion, focusing on special operations missions and irregular warfare as well as counterinsurgency.

In November, Human Rights Watch’s Christoph Wilcke took Jordan to task for the trial of 150 protesters arrested in the spring on terrorism charges after a public brawl with pro-regime supporters.  “Only members of the opposition face prosecution. The trial… is seriously flawed,” wrote Wilcke.  “It singles out Islamists on charges of terrorism and casts doubts on the kingdom’s path towards genuine political reform, its commitment to the rule of law, and its stated desire to protect the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.”

At around the same time, U.S. troops were wrapping up Operation Flexible Saif.  For about four months, American troops had engaged in basic mentoring of the Jordanian military, according to Americans who took part, focusing on subjects ranging from the fundamentals of soldiering to the essentials of intelligence gathering.

Who Are Kuwait’s Lucky Warriors?

Earlier this year, Kuwaiti security forces assaulted and arrested “Bidun” protesters, a minority population demanding citizenship rights after 50 years of stateless status in the oil-rich kingdom.  “Kuwaiti authorities… should allow demonstrators to speak and assemble freely — as is their right,” wrote Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.  More recently, Kuwait has been cracking down on online activists.  In July, HRW’s Priyanka Motaparthy wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that 26-year-old Nasser Abul was led, blindfolded and shackled, into a Kuwaiti courtroom.  His crime, according to Motaparthy, “a few tweets… criticizing the ruling families of Bahrain as well as Saudi Arabia.”

This spring, U.S. troops took part in Lucky Warrior, a four-day training exercise in Kuwait designed to hone U.S. war fighting skills particular to the region.  The sparse material available from the military mentions no direct Kuwaiti involvement in Lucky Warrior, but documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that translators have been used in past versions of the exercise, suggesting the involvement of Kuwaiti and/or other Arab nations in the operation.  Pentagon secrecy, however, makes it impossible to know the full extent of participation by the Pentagon’s regional partners.

TomDispatch has identified other regional training operations that CENTCOM failed to acknowledge, including Steppe Eagle, an annual multilateral exercise carried out in repressive Kazakhstan from July 31st to August 23rd which trained Kazakh troops in everything from convoy missions to conducting cordon and search operations.  Then there was the Falcon Air Meet, an exercise focusing on close air-support tactics that even included a bombing contest, carried out in October by U.S., Jordanian, and Turkish air forces at Shaheed Mwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan.

The U.S. military also conducted a seminar on public affairs and information operations with members of the Lebanese armed forces including, according to an American in attendance, a discussion of “the use of propaganda in regards to military information support operations.”  In addition, there was a biannual joint underwater demolitions exercise, Operation Eager Mace, carried out with Kuwaiti forces.

These training missions are only a fraction of the dozens carried out each year in secret, far from the prying eyes of the press or local populations.  They are a key component of an outsized Pentagon support system that also shuttles aid and weaponry to a set of allied Middle Eastern kingdoms and autocracies.  These joint missions ensure tight bonds between the U.S. military and the security forces of repressive governments throughout the region, offering Washington access and influence and the host nations of these exercises the latest military strategies, tactics, and tools of the trade at a moment when they are, or fear being, besieged by protesters seeking to tap into the democratic spirit sweeping the region.

Secrets and Lies

The U.S. military ignored TomDispatch’s requests for information about whether any joint operations were postponed, rescheduled, or canceled as a result of Arab Spring protests.  In August, however, Agence France Pressereported that Bright Star, a biannual training exercise involving U.S. and Egyptian forces, had been canceled as a result of the popular revolt that overthrew president ally Hosni Mubarak, a Washington ally.

The number of U.S. training exercises across the region disrupted by pro-democracy protests, or even basic information about the total number of the Pentagon’s regional training missions, their locations, durations, and who takes part in them, remain largely unknown.  CENTCOM regularly keeps such information secret from the American public, not to mention populations across the Greater Middle East.

The military also refused to comment on exercises scheduled for 2012.  There is nonetheless good reason to believe that their number will rise as regional autocrats look to beat back the forces of change.  “With the end of Operation New Dawn in Iraq and the reduction of surge forces in Afghanistan, USCENTCOM exercises will continue to focus on… mutual security concerns and build upon already strong, enduring relationships within the region,” a CENTCOM spokesman told us by email.

Since pro-democracy protests and popular revolt are the “security concerns” of regimes from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to Jordan and Yemen, it is not hard to imagine just how the Pentagon’s advanced training methods, its schooling in counterinsurgency tactics, and its aid in intelligence gathering techniques might be used in the months ahead.

This spring, as Operation African Lion proceeded and battered Moroccan protesters nursed their wounds, President Obama asserted that the “United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region” and supports basic human rights for citizens throughout the Greater Middle East.  “And these rights,” he added, “include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.”

The question remains, does the United States believe the same is true for those who live in Amman, Kuwait City, Rabat, or Riyahd?  And if so, why is the Pentagon strengthening the hands of repressive rulers in those capitals?

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, where this article originally appeared. His latest book, The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books), which brings together leading analysts from across the political spectrum, has just gone into its second printing. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His website is NickTurse.com.

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