Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice…

There is the old saying, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. As a former manager once told me, “I am quite happy for you to make mistakes; that means you’re being active and learning. But if you make the same mistake again, you have learnt nothing from the first”.

On a geopolitical level, the Western nations seem to have made mistakes again and again, and yet are constantly surprised and amazed at the predictable result. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US and the UK found themselves again on the front lines of the Cold War. The Place, Afghanistan. The Enemy, Russia, and the Communist backed government of Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Americans flooded Afghanistan with sophisticated weapons, including MANPAD systems, explosives, and small arms. Along with the arms came money. Millions of dollars were poured into the country through the ISI in Pakistan, all for the purpose of “liberating” the country. Americans such as Charlie Wilson and the Right Wing Christian movement pushed vigorously for increased support to the Afghan Mujahedeen.

Along with weapons and money can support in the form of a public image campaign. American and British movies, from Rambo to James Bond, all portrayed a heroic struggle by a simple yet courageous people against a brutal government.

Support came also, from all over the world. Arab and Muslim fighters flocked to Afghanistan, where they enlisted in the call to Jihad against the infidel Soviets. Along with the droves of fighters came a wealthy Saudi Arabian man who dreamed of using his talents, his money, his connections, and his whole life to advancing the cause of Islam. His name of Usama Bin Laden. Usama, and many others like him, found their true calling in life in the fires of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. CIA and SAS units were eager to arm and train anybody who would fight against the Soviets. Along with these arms came valuable training in explosives, assassination, sophisticated weapons systems, and other black arts. These lessons were learnt all to well by the young Muslim recruits, who then used them to great effect against the Soviets.

 

Bin Laden in Afghanistan 1980s

The Americans were successful. Through their proxy armies, they had defeated the Soviet Union, turning Afghanistan into a Russian Vietnam. Indeed, the defeat, and the expense incurred, was instrumental in bringing down an increasingly weak USSR some years later.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Deputy Direction of the CIA Richard Kerr

But as the victory celebrations died down, warlords such as Hekmatyar, Massoud, and other individuals realized that they now had to govern a power vacuum. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, but politics and power do so even more. The weapons and training which had driven out the Soviets now were turned on each other, as the warlords fell to fighting each other for power.

In this vacuum arose a new power. Hailing from the religious schools on the Afghan border with Pakistan, and fired with religious zeal from the Whabbist schools of thought in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban swept into Afghanistan from the east, capturing Kabul, and controlling most of the country except for the northern areas held by Massoud and the Northern Alliance.
Having no love for the West, the Taliban imposed a strict view of Sharia upon the whole country, plunging the country back into the Dark Ages.

Others, though, had a more globalist view of the Jihad they had just won. Men like Bin Laden, Khalim, Basayev, Khattab, and al-Zawahiri were veterans of this war, which imbued them with the confidence to take on the West. After all, they had defeated one Superpower. Why not another one? When Bin Laden formed Al Qaeda in the 1990s in response to what he saw as American aggression towards Muslims and a desecration of Islam, he had a large source of recruits to choose from. Men who had fought with him in Afghanistan found themselves with a set of skills which could be very easily turned against their former benefactors, the United States. The Jihadists built up their experience and skills in Africa, in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban, in Pakistan, in Chechnya, in Palestine, in the Balkans, and in the Philippines. The view of Bin Laden was to leverage the contacts he had made in Afghanistan into a worldwide network to bring the fight to the West. Bin Laden came full circle when he returned to Afghanistan with Al Qaeda. Safe in the country, he established training facilities, to which a new generation of aspiring young men who sought the glories of Jihad flocked.

The reason we have discussed this history is that it bears very serious lessons for American foreign policy today, which are being very quickly forgotten by the current Administration. The Neo Conservative idea under President Bush was that if America only removed dictatorial regimes from power in the Middle East, other regimes would fall like dominos, creating a wave of freedom across the region. America put this theory to the test in Iraq, with a far less than satisfactory result. Rather than embracing freedom and democracy and the American way, Iraqis first turned against the American invaders and then against each other. More than any place on earth, the Middle East cannot have a political vacuum present without some group attempting to fill it. In Iraq, the Americans soon found that they lacked both the support and the political know-how to even consider filling the political vacuum they had created with the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

As a result, Al Qaeda moved in force into Iraq, carrying on both attacks against American forces, and then against Shiite Muslims in the country. Iran responded by filling the power vacuum with Shiite supporters such as the Madhi Army. These two groups brought Iraq into the verge of Civil War, before the Sunni backed Al Qaeda was pushed out of the country.

America should have learned valuable lessons from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Regime change in the Middle East is often the prelude to anarchy, violence, and greater bloodshed. And dictatorial regimes can be seen as being far superior to the violence which follows their demise. American styled Democracy does not take root easily in the Middle East, as has been seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

Instead, the current American strategy is still to support and fight for regime change. In the case of Libya, this was successful, and a military campaign ousted Gadhafi from power, leading to his death and the formation of a new government. Around the same time, Mubarak fell from power in Egypt, bringing in new “democratic” elections.

The Arab Spring was touted by pundits, activists, and neoconservatives as being an amazing example of “People Power” rising up against oppressive regimes and overcoming them through willpower and the might of the population. It was seen as being a new wave of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Very few voices, in the days of Libya’s revolution, sought to criticize the movements in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. After all, were not the governments in question corrupt, violent, and despotic? Isn’t the rule by the people the best kind of government?

American writers, bloggers, political scientists, and activists were not the only ones watching and rejoicing at the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda was watching events very carefully also. With the death of Usama Bin Laden, and on the run worldwide, Al Qaeda was in dire need of another safe haven, where they could regroup and plan their comeback. The Arab Spring gave them exactly this. It was a movement which posed serious threats to the secular, despotic governments who had so often waged war against them. In every country which has seen regime change, or attempted regime change, the Governments have waged an often brutal war against Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Libya, Egypt, and Syria had all sought to destroy their influence and power. And with these governments now crumbling, Al Qaeda saw the creation of more political vacuums. And as we have seen before, whenever there is a vacuum, the Jihadists are quick to try and take advantage of the opportunity.

In a four part series, we will discuss the impact of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups on the Arab Spring, their current successes in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, and the bleak future it poses for the region as they have seized power. Al Qaeda is back with a safe haven. It now has another battle to fight, it now has another source of recruits for their war, and another battle ground to test their skills in. And ironically, they are now fighting on the same side as an often well meaning but hopelessly ignorant America.

 

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Lessons from the Omani Conflict – Winning Hearts and Minds

Modern theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency theory have developed a list of characteristics of insurgencies which will impact on either the success or failure of an insurgency movement. While all of these drivers and attributes of an insurgency will be present in almost all cases in varying degrees, this essay seeks to analyse the Omani Insurgency in the 1970s by the characteristics of popular support, sanctuary and external support, and weapons.

The conflict in Oman existed from the 1950s until the 1970s, even as the contestants and insurgents changed and reformed their form and goals constantly. Even though early insurgencies ended in failure, the oppressive and corrupt rule of Sultan Sa’id Bin Taymur resulted in discontent across the country, especially in the region of Dhofar in South Oman

Dhofar had long been considered the personal property of the Sultan, and was his place of residence year round, even though the government capital was in Muscat, 500 miles to the northeast

The Sultan sought to keep Oman closed off from the rest of the world, banning all forms of modern or Western technology or thought. Any who left the country for education were forbidden to return. The Sultan refused to invest in Oman’s infrastructure, creating a nation without functioning hospitals, schools, communications, or civic services

In this environment, an underground resistance movement began in Dhofar in the early 1960s. Influenced by Arab Nationalism, and seeking reforms in government, they began a small scale resistance campaign based in Salalah, the provincial capital. In 1965, Iranian forces intercepted and arrested armed Dhofari rebels in a ship attempting to enter the country. The intelligence gained from this group aided the Sultan’s forces in cracking down on the resistance in Salalah, forcing remaining resistance fighters to flee into the mountainous Jebel of Dhofar. From their new sanctuary, they formed the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) with the express purpose of establishing a separate Dhofari state.

Popular Support:

Originally, popular support in Dhofar was on the side of the insurgency. Initially, the DLF were committed to establishing an independent state which would end the hated rule of the Sultan, and thus achieved fairly wide popular support. The Suntan’s counterinsurgency also alienated the general population with crude tactics such as cordon and search programs, indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, and collective punishments for communities expected as being rebel supporters. In a Government report in 1970, the military described the counterinsurgency campaign as being a purely military campaign, with no attempts to win hearts and minds, no amnesty agreements, no civil projects, and no police or intelligence support to the military.

After the DLF merged into the left wing PFLOAG, the insurgents received external funding and weapons provided from a number of Communist countries, and sanctuary across the border in Yemen. Due to this, the insurgents were on the verge of possibly overthrowing Salalah, the last remaining bastion of the Sultan’s support in Dhofar.

In 1970, Sultan Saíd Bin Taymur was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his son, Sayyid Qabus bin Said. Qabus, Sandhurst educated, had been placed under arrest by his father upon his return to Oman, but with British support and backing easily wrested control of the country from his increasingly besieged father.

Once in control, Qabus embarked on a rapid policy of openness and modernization in a five pronged strategy which illustrated his understanding of the whole of government approach to the counterinsurgency campaign. His plan included a rapid development of the country through the increase of civic services, especially in the Dhofari regions. Also, he offered a general amnesty to all insurgents who surrendered and embarked on a diplomatic campaign to isolate the rebels and their supporters in Yemen from other Arab nations.

These popular reforms went far in gaining support from the local population for the government position. Civic development teams would enter communities and provide medical and schooling care, as well as veterinary attention for the farm animals owned by the primarily farming based population

The British especially embarked on a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim based population. By playing upon religious sentiment, the general population was led to reject the Communist insurgents as atheists and infidels.

In return, the rebels responded against the population supporting the government with harsh attacks, further losing public support.

Translation: “The Hand of God Smashes Communism”

At the end of the campaign, both internal and external support for the insurgency had dried up. This is primarily due to the success of the new Omani government in winning the hearts and minds of the disaffected population.

Some authors, such as Thompson, believe that the attempt by the Rebels to force the general population to renounce Allah was the greatest alienation between them and the population. Once the Communists resorted to torture in order to attack the Muslim faith held by most of the population, their attempts at gaining popular support would always meet a measure of resistance.

External Support:

Externally, the DLF received little support initially. Egypt and Saudi Arabia provided advice, however the real external support started in 1968 from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Using the PDRY as a base, other communist countries, or leftist leaning regimes, such as China, Libya, Iraq, Cuba, and the USSR funnelled through weapons and equipment over the Yemeni border. In addition, a small contingent of Yemeni troops supported the rebels in their operation.

This influx of equipment and weaponry evened the odds initially, and put the PFLOAG on the offensive against the Sultan’s forces. Before the arrival of support and equipment, the DLF’s tactics consisted primarily of ambushes and small raids. The better armed PFLOAG was able to level the playing field, and given similar numbers would often defeat the Sultan’s forces in engagements.

From the Government’s side however, Sultan Qabus relied heavily on British forces, particularly the SAS counter insurgency forces who were able to organize an effective counter insurgency campaign against the rebels. By building on the failure of the PFLOAG to gain popular support, they formed effective tribal units to hunt down the insurgents holed up in the Jebel. The British also provided heavy weapons and equipment such as helicopters and armoured personal carriers to the Sultan.

Sultan Qabus also worked strongly to bring Oman into the Arab league and isolate the PFLOAG and the PDFY from Arab support. On a military front, the British forces cut off the outside support to the rebels through use of the Hornbeam Line, which intercepted shipments of arms from Yemen, thus denying outside support to the rebels.

Weapons:

As discussed previously, the PFLOAG became a decisive force through external support by leftist movements who provided the rebels with modern Soviet arms. These included AK-47 Kalashnikovs, 60mm and 81mm mortars, Rocket Propelled Grenades, 122mm Katyusha rockets, and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. The primarily smuggling route for these weapons was over the Yemeni border by camel trains into the Jebel.

Armed to this extent, the insurgents became more than a match both in firepower and numbers against the government troops. In contrast, the government soldiers were armed with inadequate uniforms and gear, no heavy weapons, and with WWI and WWII rifles and Bren guns.

After the change of government to Sultan Qabus, the tide of the insurgency turned in favour of the government forces. Rebel supply lines were targeted, cutting them off from outside support. Additionally, the amnesty program put in place by Said was remarkably effective in encouraging the surrender of insurgents. As public support turned more and more against the insurgency, the last remaining members fled across the border into Yemen in 1976, effectively ending the insurgency.

In conclusion, the deciding factor in the Omani Insurgency was the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people. Initially, the public support for the insurgency guaranteed them early victories. However, as the insurgents failed to follow up on their opportunity, and indeed drove the general public away from them through acts of terror, support was gained by the government forces, ultimately resulting in a failed insurgency.


[1] Peterson JE, “The Experience of British Counter-Insurgency Campaigns and Implications for Iraq”, Arabian Peninsula Background Note No APBN-009

[2] McKeown J, 1981, “Britain and Oman: The Dhofar War and It’s Significance”, University of Cambridge

Ladwig W, 2008, “Supporting Allies in Insurgency: Britain and the Dhofar Rebellion”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol 19, No 1, March 2008

White Jim, 2008, “Oman 1965 – 1976”, Small Wars Journal Online Publication, 2008

Fine W, 2010, “Winning the Hearts and Minds in Counterinsurgency: The British Approach in Malaya and Oman and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan”, University of Kansas 2010

Thompson, L, 1996, “Ragged War: The Story of Unconventional and Counter-Revolutionary Warfare”, Arms and Armour Press, London, UK