From 1899 until 1961, Kuwait remained, in effect, a British protectorate. A succession of amirs of the Al Sabah ruled the country, but the handling of its foreign affairs was a British prerogative, and Britain guaranteed the security of the amirate. Kuwaiti forces consisted of the amir's royal guard plus a small domestic police force or constabulary under the British administration. During the 1920s and 1930s, British protection became particularly important in deterring Saudi encroachment and later in blocking Iraqi territorial claims. By independence on June 19, 1961, the British had converted the 600-man constabulary into a combined arms brigade of 2,500 men trained by a British military mission. Small air and naval forces were also established in 1961 under British tutelage.
With its small size and enormous oil wealth, Kuwait occupies an uneasy position at the head of the gulf. One of its powerful neighbors, Iran, only forty kilometers away, had proclaimed its aim of exporting its Islamic revolution; the other powerful neighbor, Iraq, had repeatedly challenged Kuwait's legitimacy. Fearful of the radical leadership in Iran, Kuwait aided Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War by permitting the transshipment of goods across its territory and by loans of about US$6 billion. Kuwait responded to terrorist bombings and other violence inspired by Iran by intensifying its military cooperation with the GCC and by building up its own forces. Although formally neutral and reluctant to become involved with the great powers except as a last resort, Kuwait turned to the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain for naval protection of its tanker fleet after twenty-one ships were attacked in the gulf in the six months preceding April 1987.
Iraq's surprise attack and occupation of Kuwait caused the virtual disintegration of the Kuwaiti armed forces. Large numbers of personnel were killed, captured, or dispersed, and most Kuwaiti equipment was destroyed or taken over by the Iraqi armed forces. The minister of defense said that 90 percent of military installations had suffered major damage. By early 1992, most army barracks were again usable, and the naval base was in operation but needed rebuilding. The air force flew temporarily from the civilian airport near the city of Kuwait while the air bases were being reconstructed in 1992. Kuwait expected to spend about US$9 billion--six times the prewar defense budget--in 1992 to replace destroyed equipment and installations.
In a sharp departure from previous policy, Kuwait entered into a ten-year defense cooperation agreement with the United States in September 1991. The agreement included United States port access, military equipment storage, and joint training and exercises. The agreement did not provide for the stationing of United States service personnel in Kuwait; 1,500 personnel remaining after the gulf war were scheduled to leave within a few months. Similar but less extensive ten-year cooperation agreements were subsequently concluded with Britain and France. Unlike other Persian Gulf states, Kuwait has a conscription system that obligates young men to serve for two years beginning at the age of eighteen. Educational deferments are granted, and university graduates serve for only one year. In practice, exemptions are liberally granted, and most young Kuwaitis are able to avoid military duty. Estimates are that only 20 to 30 percent of the prewar military ranks were filled by Kuwaiti nationals. Military and security forces had been purged of Shia personnel during the 1980s. At the outbreak of the gulf war, Palestinians filled many technical positions, supported by thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, and Filipinos in maintenance and logistic functions. Officers on detail from Britain, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan provided military expertise. Lower ranks in the army and security forces were occupied predominantly by bidun who had taken reasonably well to military life but were poorly prepared to absorb training in operating and servicing modern equipment.
In spite of reports that many bidun fought well against the Iraqis, many were expelled from the army in 1991 for alleged collaboration. Because of their removal and the removal of Palestinians and other non-Kuwaitis, the ranks of the services became seriously depleted. Few Kuwaitis volunteer for military service, and conscription is not regarded as an acceptable option. Under the circumstances, Kuwait will be hard pressed to meet its goal of a postwar armed strength of 30,000. A relaxation of the policy toward bidun was hinted at by the statement of the minister of defense that people of "unspecified nationality" may be retained after screening for loyalty and may even be given Kuwaiti citizenship. With respect to conscription, the minister of defense in July 1991 said that the system was being reviewed to make it more effective.
Most Kuwaiti officers are members of the ruling family or related tribal groups. Education standards are high--many are graduates of Sandhurst--and living conditions, pay, and benefits are excellent. The Kuwaiti Military College accepts secondary school graduates for eighteen months of cadet training in army, air force, and navy programs. The United States provides pilot training and assistance in developing a flight training facility within Kuwait. United States, British, and French military missions and civilian contractors provide training for more technologically advanced systems. A small Soviet advisory group provided training in the use of Soviet missile systems before the Persian Gulf War.
Traditionally, the officer corps--with its close links to the ruling family--was considered to be a loyal and trustworthy defender of the regime. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, however, there were displays of discontent among officers arising from the inadequate response of the armed forces to the Iraqi invasion and the failure to launch postwar reforms. Many of the 6,000 officers and men taken prisoner by the Iraqis were prevented from rejoining the armed forces and were angered at their treatment by senior officers who fled to Saudi Arabia. In June 1991, some officers of the resistance group known as the Second of August Movement petitioned the amir to dismiss the former ministers of defense and interior from their cabinet posts and to investigate the reason the Kuwaiti army was not mobilized or on the alert when the Iraqis attacked. The petition also called for removal of the army chief of staff and his immediate staff and as many as twenty generals and seventy-five colonels.
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