Though the exercise had been long scheduled and was designed to improve military coordination between allies, it drew far more attention than usual given the deepening civil war across the border in Syria. Many press accounts, particularly on cable news channels like CNN, tried to connect the exercise to Syria's war. Among the wilder media speculation were claims Eager Lion was a dry-run for an invasion or cover for training Syrian rebels.
Those fanciful accounts are belied by the fact that Eager Lion 2012 was three years in the planning and amounts to an outgrowth of the annual bilateral "Infinite Moonlight" US-Jordan exercise that stretches back to the 1990s.
But war in Syria, or anywhere else in the region, is relevant in the sense that training exercises are about being prepared for an often unpredictable future.
Major General Ken Tovo of the US Special Operations Command, who was in charge of the participating US forces, explained the objective was to "build partnerships and friendships that will allow us to serve successfully together to meet any challenges that our nations ask us to.”
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, calls the timing of the exercise “a happy coincidence... I suspect they’re trying to get kind of a psychological operations bump by [publicizing] this exercise now; it puts more pressure on the regime in Syria. But this was planned from a long time ago.”
American and Jordanian military officials said Eager Lion is expected to become an annual event in the region. The first Eager Lion, a bilateral exercise between the US and Jordan, took place in the summer of 2011 – when the world’s attention was focused on Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, and the fledgling protests in Syria were just another blip on the radar.
Michael Rubin, an adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from 2002-2004 and now an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says the exercise is useful as a reminder that the US military presence in the region is still extensive.
“In Washington we can convince ourselves we withdrew [from Iraq] per political agreements, but a lot of the propaganda in the region, especially the Iranian-backed propaganda, suggests we fled in defeat,” Rubin says. “One of the perceptions we’re trying to reverse is the perception among many of the Gulf monarchs, and the king of Jordan, that we dumped Hosni Mubarak way too quickly."
“What this does is send a signal to many of the GCC states that we’re not simply going to turn our backs on all the monarchs,” Rubin says. And there other long-term concerns: building cooperation between Arab armies, he adds, is an important check against Iran’s military ambitions, and has been a US goal since the 1980s.
A very special operation
Mr. Eisenstadt points out that while the exercise included all branches of America’s armed forces, it had a particular emphasis on Special Operations Forces (SOF) one of the reasons that a Special Operations Command general was chosen to head the event.
“Admiral [William] McRaven, [the head of America’s special forces], has talked about building this global SOF alliance. This is part of his vision,” says Eisenstadt. Admiral McRaven told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that America is now fighting “insurgents, transnational terrorists, [and] criminal organizations” and said special operations forces will bear much of the burden of that fight.
Eisenstadt agrees. “That’s one of the lessons we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan: The value of conducting these intense campaigns against violent extremist networks. You can constantly conduct night raids, every night, over the span of months and years, and you constantly [deplete] their leadership cadre and their bomb-building cadre.”
Special operations, he said, is one of the few areas of the US military that is slated to grow in the coming years. It’s been frequently reported in the past decade that between 70 and 80 percent of America’s deployed special operations forces are in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in the greater Middle East. But there is need for them around the world, Eisenstadt says. He points to Uganda, where US SOF are helping local military in the hunt for Joseph Kony.
The Monitor got a glimpse of Eager Lion in Jordan’s southern desert, where Jordanian and US soldiers worked with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the Jordanian Red Crescent, and Jordan’s police and civil defense to simulate a camp for people displaced by fighting.
“Every hour or two you have a different scenario, and this forces the Jordanian Army, who are doing the role-play, to act as in real life,” says UNHCR Jordan head Andrew Harper, who was on-hand for the exercise. “It’s really working well on both sides. Certainly the Jordanians are finding out about how to work with humanitarian organizations, and we’re finding out how to work in this type of environment, too.”
“One of Jordan’s big training objectives is for their civilian affairs to interact with their military affairs,” explains Capt. Tom Gresback, a public affairs officer for the US Central Command. He says Eager Lion planners identified 1,300 different challenges to be worked on based on participants' priorities. Other countries wanted to work on countering chemical and biological attacks, while others were interested in learning more about operating in mountains or improving their naval search and seizure capabilities, he says.
Getting to know other militaries may seem less exciting than planning an invasion of Syria – but Rubin says it’s important.
In times of crisis, when political relations break down, “the military officers who have drilled together, had exchanges together... tend to do much better than diplomats,” he says. “Usually the back-channels are going to involve two people who were colonels at the same time, two majors at the same time, what have you. … The irony is it’s usually the military-to-military exchanges that do more to enable peace than anything else.”