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Did the Pentagon Help Suppress the Arab Spring?

As the Arab Spring blossomed, the Pentagon was busy forging ever deeper ties with some of the most repressive regimes in the region.

| Tue Dec. 13, 2011 1:39 PM EST

Eager Lights and Lions

As the Arab Spring brought down US-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, US 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 US 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, US 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, US troops took part in Lucky Warrior, a four-day training exercise in Kuwait designed to hone US 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 US, Jordanian, and Turkish air forces at Shaheed Mwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan.

The US 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 US 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 US 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 Presse reported that Bright Star, a biannual training exercise involving US 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 US 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 TomDispatch 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. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the third in his new series on the changing face of American empire. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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