February 26, 2011
The Ties That Bind
America’s armed forces may sometimes succeed where its diplomats cannot
NOBODY knows whether Egypt’s army will steer the country to free and fair elections. But there is less doubt about its role in minimising conflict during the demonstrations that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak, the country’s president. The army would not use lethal force against the crowds in Tahrir Square. Instead they provided protesters with some defence against the regime’s thugs.
Critics of America at home and in the region lamented the Obama administration’s apparent powerlessness during the unrest in Cairo. But some think the close ties between America’s and Egypt’s armed forces played a critical role in helping the new military council become a force for social cohesion rather than repression. How far do other, similar relationships between military establishments provide a back-channel when conventional diplomacy is not enough?
The cornerstone of America’s “mil-mil” relationship with Egypt is the $1.3 billion in annual foreign military financing that it has handed over since 1979 as “untouchable compensation” for Egypt’s peace with Israel. Over 30 years the Egyptian armed forces have replaced Soviet-era weapons with top-notch American kit, such as F-16 fighters and M1 tanks. How much influence this buys the Americans is debatable: they tread a fine line between giving advice and appearing to dictate. But the example of Iran, which saw its advanced American weapons rapidly fall into disrepair after the fall of the Shah, is a warning of what could happen to Egypt if ties with America go irretrievably wrong.
The links are personal too. While demonstrations in Egypt escalated there was frequent contact between the secretary of defence, Robert Gates, and his Egyptian counterpart, Field-Marshal Muhammad Tantawi. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was also talking to the Egyptian army chief, Lieutenant General Sami Enan, who had been at the Pentagon only in late January for discussions about combined training.
Mr Gates and Admiral Mullen were urging their Egyptian chums to do exactly what they so far have done—gently shove Mr Mubarak to the exit, restore calm and preside over an orderly transition while reiterating support for peace with Israel. Major General Robert Scales, a retired commandant of the US Army War College, argues that the passage of large numbers of the best and brightest Egyptian officers through American war colleges has suffused the army with American values. He recently said: “They learn our way of war…but they also learn our philosophies of civil-military relations.”
America also has close military ties with Pakistan. But that relationship is more troubled. Admiral Mullen has worked hard to reforge links with Pakistan after they splintered in the 1990s due to the end of the cold war and sanctions triggered by the country’s nuclear programme. During his three and a half years as chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mullen has flown to Pakistan well over 20 times for meetings with the head of the army, General Ashfaq Kayani, in an effort to build a personal rapport with the man widely seen as the most powerful in the country.
Last year, in a speech to Pakistani officers at the National Defence University in Islamabad, Mr Gates said that the severing of ties between the two countries’ armed forces had been a “grave strategic mistake” that had “tainted the perception of the United States in Pakistan.” As a result, the two countries had struggled “to work together to confront the common threat of extremism”. Mr Gates believes that America is still paying a heavy price for having had no military dealings with a generation of Pakistani officers who are now reaching the top.
Pakistan’s stance towards Islamist extremism remains ambivalent. Plenty of evidence suggests that the Pakistanis are happy to offer America limited military co-operation while providing safe havens for Afghan Taliban insurgents. But Admiral Mullen believes his bond with General Kayani (and the promise of a $2 billion military-aid package) has brought the countries closer together. He points to the Pakistani army’s campaigns against insurgents in the tribal areas of Swat, Bajaur and South Waziristan since 2009 as evidence that the military relationship is working.
Despite their differences, America’s military ties with Egypt and Pakistan have a lot in common. Both countries have relatively underdeveloped civil societies. In both, the army is the most respected institution in the country and has some capacity for autonomous policy-making. And in both instances, America can lubricate the relationship by providing modern weaponry and at least some of the money to buy it. The more democratic a country, the less influence is likely to be exerted through military connections. An example is Turkey, which was bound closely to America when its generals were running the show, but which has become a more awkward ally since the rise of the moderately Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party.
Of all the links between armed forces, the most complicated are those with strategic rivals. Mr Gates argues that a military relationship is not a reward for good behaviour but an instrument of statecraft that benefits both sides—even when there is friction. This seemed to work with Russia. After the shock of its invasion of Georgia in 2008, less than a year passed before Admiral Mullen and his Russian equivalent, General Nikolai Makarov signed a new framework for mutual engagement.
On the other hand, Mr Gates worries about China’s tendency to break off its ties with the American military whenever America does something it dislikes. In January last year the Chinese suspended military exchanges after America said it would sell arms to Taiwan. Mr Gates reckons reliable links with the People’s Liberation Army helps to “reduce miscommunication, misunderstanding and the risks of miscalculation.” And he made some progress on his visit to Beijing last month.
But the Chinese are not wholly convinced that close military ties with America are to their advantage. They fear that Chinese officers on exchange visits will be intimidated by American military might, whereas American officers doing the same thing will learn too much about China’s shortcomings. The Chinese think of military co-operation as the fruit of mutual trust. Mr Gates sees it as a way to establish trust when it is lacking. It is hard to bridge that gap. But Mr Gates is surely right to believe that no form of diplomacy succeeds without consistency, patience and long-term investment.