Published on Truthout (http://www.truth-out.org)
Nick Turse: Did the Pentagon Help Strangle the Arab Spring?
Tuesday 13 December 2011
by: Nick Turse, TomDispatch  | Report
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
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 “
Four days earlier, the very demonstrators the president sided with had marched in
"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,
About a five-hour drive south, another gathering was taking place under far more hospitable circumstances. In the seaside city of
“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,
Getting Friendly With the Kingdom
In January, for example, the government of
On February 19th, just three days after those arrests,
Eager Lights and Lions
As the Arab Spring brought down U.S.-allied autocrats in
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,
In November, Human Rights Watch’s Christoph Wilcke took
At around the same time,
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,
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
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 U.S. 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 number of
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
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