Protesters in Bahrain this February.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
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 bases and 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 US 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.
US 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 US 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, US 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, US 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."