September 1, 2007  

When Muslim armies won

Lessons from yesteryear’s jihadi victories

When terrorists or insurgents in Iraq detonate a roadside bomb to draw out our forces in response, or when they stage a small ambush to lure us into a larger one, they’re pursuing a Middle Eastern way of war more than two millennia old, with roots in the techniques of tribes from the steppes. What’s surprising isn’t that the old lure-and-ambush technique is still in use, but that, after many centuries of Western experience with this particular hook, we remain prone to taking the bait.

While doing research for a history project, I was struck both by the enduring characteristics of jihadi warfare — even though yesteryear’s triumphant Muslim armies have been replaced by terrorist cells and irregular bands — as well as the specific military lore the Islamic world lost. Much of what Arab, Seljuk or Ottoman armies did in bygone campaigns to annihilate their enemies is now the intellectual inheritance of Western commanders — although cultural flaws that led medieval Christian armies to defeat remain with us, as well.

The use of atrocities to break an enemy’s will, the power of fanaticism and charismatic leaders, the value of surprise — even the need to defeat armored forces (in the form of mounted knights) were all there a thousand years ago. Lighter Muslim forces dealt with heavy armor above Alexandria, at Nicopolis and in countless other battles and skirmishes by drawing the armored vehicles of the day onto unfavorable ground where the knights could not maneuver or escape — much as our opponents attempt to do today in the alleys of Iraq.


The greatest advantage the better Arab and all Seljuk or Ottoman armies enjoyed over their Byzantine or European enemies was unity of command — along with a strategic unity of purpose and will. In countless Crusader encounters and Balkan battles, what undid the Western forces (often equal in size to their opponents) was a consistent inability to accept and obey a single commander: When the going got tough, the tough went every which way. Patchwork Western armies behaved centrifugally, while the better Muslim forces acted centripetally.

In the West, centuries of feudalism and chivalric codes (the ruggedest form of rugged individualism) reinforced local and protonational rivalries: The French argued with each other; they argued with the Burgundians; the Burgundians and French quarreled with the English and Germans; no one from Flanders would obey a Hungarian king, and nobody trusted the Venetians; while the Christian Byzantines were regarded as heretics — and this was the situation not in royal or ducal courts but in war councils on the eve of battle.

Today, Western militaries recognize the importance of unified command — although national contingents in coalitions often stipulate limits on their use. Nonetheless, in serious combat, the quibbling tends to stop. And within 21st-century Western armies, chains of command are clear and acknowledged. The West’s dilemmas today lie at the political level, where disunity and rivalries continue to hamper unified responses to Islamist threats as absurdly as they did in the Middle Ages — if with blessedly fewer consequences thus far. (From the early 16th century onward, the French generally aligned politically with the Ottomans to weaken the Habsburgs; plus ça change …)

For its part, the Muslim world has lost (or at least misplaced) this principle of unity of command for the direction of campaigns or even battles. Despots, such as Saddam Hussein, enforced a hollowed-out caricature of unity of command, but we are fortunate in the degree of inter- and intra-factional quibbling among our enemies in Iraq and elsewhere. Even charismatic figures such as Osama bin Laden enjoy a limited ability to command, because the cellular nature of terrorist forces, as well as geographic dispersion, makes him more of a figurehead and instigator than a field marshal. Arab terrorists praise him — then do whatever they want.

Even in the conventional-warfare realm, late-20th-century Arab armies were faction-ridden internally and suspicious of allies (whom they routinely tried to deceive, as in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel). This inability to pull together to achieve and sustain battlefield synergies has granted Western armies a signal advantage — and the one development in this sphere that should worry us has been Hezbollah’s ability to combine a cellular organization with discipline and unity of purpose — enabled by Hassan Nasrullah’s appreciation of the value of mission-type orders.

Terrorists do have a strategic unity of purpose — to kill as many Westerners, Israelis and liberal Muslims as possible — but the diffuse, essentially anarchic manner in which the goal is pursued leaves it, to be frank, a dramatic annoyance, not an existential threat.

By contrast, yesteryear’s Muslim armies were, indeed, existential threats to Europe, and given the long European genius for doing exactly the wrong thing in war, it should astonish us that the caliphate did not extend at least to the Shetland Islands.

When it comes to destructive rivalries and military incompetence, the Middle East and the West have changed places.


Another factor that empowered Ottoman armies, especially, was their superior organization, from unit design to logistics. A comparatively sophisticated sense of logistical needs helped Saladin’s Arab armies defeat overconfident Crusaders, but it was the Ottomans who first displayed a genius for organizing logistical feats that helped them crush European armies in battle — and take Constantinople. Whether hauling ships over hilltops, deploying disciplined artillery on the battlefield (a daunting undertaking in the days before true field guns), or sustaining enormous armies on the march, the Ottoman sultans in the century that included Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent harnessed the resources of their empires through effective administration and achieved logistical successes far grander than, and pre-dating those, credited to Wallenstein a hundred years later. Suleyman’s triumphant campaign that destroyed the Hungarian kingdom at the Battle of Mohacs was an organizational masterpiece.

In one of history’s not fully explicable twists, the Ottoman Empire lost its suppleness by the second half of the 16th century, calcifying and falling behind a rapidly developing Europe. Ottoman organization was more effective in the 15th century than in the 17th (perhaps the empire’s sprawl explains at least part of the decline). In a sense, the rise of Europe was the triumph of the clerks, as the once-lagging continent’s accounting and organizational procedures improved exponentially as they were forced to cope with the opening of the New World. In 1526, the Ottomans fielded the best-organized, best-trained and best-disciplined (and, arguably, the best-led) army in the world. A hundred years later, all of the Turkish gears were in reverse.

Today, logistics weaknesses plague all Muslim armies (a situation exacerbated by corruption), but terrorist organizations appear to have made an intellectual breakthrough, returning, in a sense, to their ancient nomadic roots, when traveling light and exploiting local resources was a life-and-death necessity. The ability of terrorists (and insurgents) to pluck the West’s common technologies, from cell phones to passenger jets, from cars transformed into bombs to the Internet, places them firmly in the raiding tradition of their ancestors, if in a post-modern form. This guerrilla force without a heavy logistics tail — but with great mobility — also represents a rejection of the Western way of war, to which Arab states had signed on in the 1800s. For two centuries and more, Muslim rulers attempted to copy the West’s military forms, only to fail with a 100 percent consistency. Now we may be witnessing, between Hezbollah and al-Qaida, a new synthesis of tradition and technology suited to the cultural environment in which our enemies operate.

We’re the masters of conventional logistics. Our enemies reject the conventions and pick up whatever they need at the local bazaar.


One lesson Middle Eastern Muslim forces, regular and irregular, have never forgotten is the value of surprise. Another legacy of their ancient raiding heritage, calculated surprises, gave Arabs, especially, their few glimmers of triumph in recent decades, whether speaking of the opening phases of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or simply the detonation of an IED along a roadway in Iraq.

Surprise is almost always effective — initially. But there’s a disconnect between the effects of surprise at the tactical vs. the operational or strategic level. It’s extremely difficult to recover when surprised tactically (although our well-trained forces do as well as any troops could), and the surviving victims are usually left bloodied, furious and frustrated. At the strategic or operational level, though, surprise lends only an initial advantage, as at Pearl Harbor or the Battle of the Bulge in our own military history, or, in the Arab case, the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal or Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Short, sharp tactical engagements can be decided by who shoots first (although, of course, that’s not always the case). But at the levels of campaigns and wars, residual strength and resources tell, as long as the victim of the initial surprise doesn’t simply surrender.

Today, surprise remains a primary tool in the Arab arsenal (as well as in other Muslim cultures), and the raid remains the model of Arab warfare. On the other hand, Muslim forces, regular or terrorist, in the greater Middle East tend to fare badly when they are themselves surprised. Although our disciplined forces can often recover, even at the tactical level, surprised Muslim forces usually fold, whether we speak of a successful dark-of-night raid in Iraq or the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Discipline and trust tell, and our troops are remarkably disciplined, and they trust each other and their leaders. Terrorist cells may have their peculiar forms of discipline, but, beyond that, Arab and other regional security forces and militaries are poorly disciplined in the conventional sense and are plagued by internal religious, tribal and ethnic rivalries: When things go badly, the fingers (and sometimes the weapons) start pointing internally.

Of course, there are exceptions. The Egyptian infantry has sometimes proven remarkably tenacious on the defense, and the Jordanian military includes genuinely professional elements. But the Islamic art of war seemed to have died with the Ottoman Empire, with the region returning to either a reliance on mass (as in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War) or post-modern forms of raids (the Madrid bombings or the attacks on police stations and recruiting centers in Iraq today).

In the past, surprise was connected to an instinct for choosing advantageous battlegrounds. That connection may remain, despite our superiority on most forms of terrain. The modern choice of terrain, the city, is really about the exploitation of masses of human beings (what I termed "human terrain" in an essay about urban operations a decade ago). Although urban warfare is a new phenomenon for Muslim warriors, they’ve taken to it with a facility that should worry us. We’re familiar with the hackneyed phrase "the urban jungle," but the cities of the Middle East may have become urban steppes, where tribes of raiders appear out of nowhere to strike and disappear again.

A last advantage yesteryear’s Arab and Turkic armies enjoyed over their Byzantine or European opponents was superior campaign intelligence. Although Byzantine armies deployed practiced scouts (and spies) and prized good intelligence during their centuries of glory, by the time of the Seljuk victory at Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine military system was in decline and even the veteran emperor-general, Romulus IV, neglected to push scouting parties deep into enemy territory. The result was a disaster.

Acute intelligence is, of course, crucial to achieving surprise or luring an enemy onto a particular killing field. By the Ottoman era, the great sultans (and the grand viziers serving the lesser ones) exhibited a much more sophisticated understanding of the exploitable weaknesses, composition, order of march and disposition of Western armies than the Europeans managed to achieve until the late 17th century. Careful to remain aware of the location and rate of advance of their antagonists, the Ottomans were able to move at much higher speeds (even with larger forces) and to fight effectively from the line of march (as at Mohacs in 1526).

Today, our enemies within the Muslim world, from the Nile to the Indus, display bifurcated capabilities in intelligence collection and, especially, analysis. At the tactical level, terrorists and insurgents are often quite good at identifying units and their behavior patterns, from the quirks of specific commanders to the movement discipline of a particular platoon. Obviously, they face an easier time of it than we do, because they generally operate in a familiar environment that’s profoundly foreign (and often unwelcoming) to us. All things considered, it’s impressive how much progress our tactical intelligence personnel have made since we arrived, goggle-eyed, in Iraq in 2003. But the home-court advantage still tells.

Terrorist intelligence performance at the strategic level is another story entirely. Identifying targets isn’t hard — the West offers plenty — but Islamist terrorists become psychologically imprisoned by their fervor, in their belief in the inevitability of their triumph. While such emotional intensity gives them deep reserves of will, it’s disastrous when they make intelligence estimates. The notion that the 9/11 attacks would bring the U.S. to its knees, the conviction that Washington was too cowardly to send forces into Afghanistan, or just the assumption that Iraqis would embrace their medieval version of Islam have all proven catastrophic for al-Qaida — and it isn’t just the terrorists who get it wrong. Saddam was certain that we wouldn’t invade in 2003, and the Turks utterly misjudged our conventional and logistical capabilities, as well as our determination. The penchant for power fantasies that Fouad Adjami captured so succinctly in the title of his (splendid) book, "The Dream Palace of the Arabs," has left both Muslim terrorist cells and general staffs inept at conducting strategic appreciations on the eve of war or in the prelude to a major terrorist strike.

Certainly, our own strategic intelligence performance has been mixed, at best (and occasionally susceptible to fantasies of our own); nonetheless, our culture of empiricism, our functional pragmatism and our internal self-criticism win through in the end: We may convince ourselves of stupid things, but we don’t stay convinced when the evidence shows overwhelmingly that we were wrong (certain political leaders excepted). Our enemies cling to their fantasies with a positively Rumsfeldian obliviousness.


None of the observations above offers a checklist for defeating our enemies. This brief historical analysis is meant only to provoke thought and, perhaps, an occasional shock of recognition. Moreover, the insights on offer apply to the situation today, in the summer of 2007. After centuries of inertia and ineptitude, we’re seeing the first glimmers of a new Islamic competence at alternative forms of warfare. The large field armies of the Middle East remain less than the sum of their ill-maintained parts, but innovative approaches to fielding combatant forces — exemplified on the high end by Hezbollah and on the lower by terrorist cells in Iraq — have posed unexpectedly solution-resistant challenges to English-speaking militaries, as well as to the Israeli Defense Force.

For centuries, Europe failed to adapt to the Muslim way of war, persistently clinging to doomed warfare techniques. Then the Islamic world took its turn at calcification, as a rejuvenated Europe leapt ahead for long centuries and, more recently, the U.S. fielded conventional forces impossible to defeat in a set-piece battle. Now, it appears that the Muslim world is adapting at last, pursuing innovative organizations, tactics and strategies, while brushing aside our insistence on the "laws of land warfare." We cling to the rules we know and value, while our enemies ignore them.

That’s exactly what the Ottoman Empire did — by refusing to adapt to new battlefield conventions — as it slipped into its long decline and ultimate fall.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and author of the new book "Wars Of Blood And Faith: The Conflicts That Will Shape the 21st Century."