We continue from U.S. Debacle in Iraq? Part 1.
The situation has rapidly evolved. (CNN) Trump orders killing of key Iranian commander in Baghdad airport strike, killing Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
I tend agree with the implication of Peter Bergen’s op/ed, The killing of Iran’s General Soleimani is hugely significant; the decision to target was the consequence of Trump’s temperate response to previous aggression, most notably the Aramco attacks of 9/14/2019. Sadly, a temperate response can encourage aggression. Would I have made this choice? After hearing about how U.S. forces have for years been Soleimani ‘s victims, I might be unable to say no.
Events are racing ahead in this situation, which has no close historical parallel. There is some resemblance to the ethnic fragmentation of Europe which occurred in periods of Europe. Before World War I, ethnic tension existed in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bismarck’s design on Alsace-Lorraine. which he obtained in the Franco-Prussian War.
To the above, add an Iranian belief of “entitlement” to Iraq. In each case, there is a weak empire or state, with segments and layers like an orange, and a power that wants to do some peeling. In the present case, Iran’s deeply complex peeling strategy has been complicated by U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Nothing quite like this has come before, but it’s still useful to note some of the historical strategies used by great powers:
- Overthrow the dictator, and replace him with your own man. The minimal requirement for this is an incompetent army of mercenary character that you indirectly pay through your man. Multiple instances at the end of the colonial period in Africa, notably, in the former Belgian Congo.
- Invade, depose the dictator, and hope for democracy. This wish fulfillment actually happened in Panama, in 1989. In Iraq, it has taken 15 years to see even the possibility.
- Save a country from foreign domination by destroying it — Vietnam War, 1955-1975.
- Empower a popular revolt to change a regime — Libya, in 2011. The result was chaos.
- Buy loyalty and alliances, and use these as tools to assemble principalities into a whole. A resounding success, the British Raj of India, 1858-1947.
- Repel the invader with military force, and till fertile ground for democracy — the Korean War, 1950 – 1953.
- Empower the youth without hope for a future. This is not an historical choice.
These are patterns, so few they are worth noting. They do not apply to Iraq because the country is enmeshed in hyper-acute politics, reminiscent of the early French Revolution. Ethnic groups whose relative positions were formerly defined by Saddam now haggle it out in a feverish tribal system with trappings of democracy. Those who buy into it are participants in various “rewards programs.”
The fervor of Iraq is nothing like the quiet that followed the 2003 invasion. Then, as in Japan in 1945, a fresh start was possible. In Iraq today, the structure can’t be dismantled; Iran owns a good part of it. The most telling part of the U.S. Embassy attack was the aftermath. On leaving, the attackers cleaned the area. Iran’s message: We have total control. You have nothing.
The disaffected Shiite young, who have been left out of the rewards program, are last on the list. The movement may have started in Basra, a town with especially miserable municipal services, and spread north. If it were possible to develop this group, it would be a counterbalance to Iran. But they are not organized. An organization can be enabled; a mob cannot.
Nothing besides the possibilities of disaffected youth is remotely suggestive of methods to improve the hospitality of Iraq towards U.S. forces. There is a parliamentary initiative, which Iran is trying to rig, to expel them. Although the embassy cannot be seized, Iran can make it useless.
As before, the opponent is Machiavellian. Iran’s retaliation will involve urban sanctuary for weapon emplacement. U.S. retaliation resulting in collateral casualties would be very helpful to Iran. Attempts by the U.S. to develop domestic allies would be met with assassination.
The cause of unwanted war is the failure of one or both sides to apprise the core interests of the opponent, and the amount of pain it is willing to take. Even though Qasem Soleimani deserved the ultimate sanction, Iran’s ultimate fuel is not oil; it’s martyrdom. It is central to Shiism, and their religious myth: Ali ibn Abi Talib died in battle, the first martyr of this branch of Islam. The declaration of martyrdom of Soleimani gives Iran’s religious establishment a powerful tool to sell war to the recently demonstrating Iranian youth. It also gags criticism.
Since in Shiism, a life is more valuable once martyred, while a sunken tanker is worthless, I might have argued for a material, deniable response. And if I seen a list of U.S. dead at Soleimani’s hands, I might have changed my mind again.
We shall soon see if each side understands what the other is capable of. Iran may commit ground forces to Shiite urban areas, from which they cannot be removed except by ground assault and urban warfare, including:
- Qatif and Al-Ahsa, where the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia is concentrated.
- Mortar attacks originating from within the urban sprawl of Baghdad.
- Hostage abduction, car bombs, drones, and the like.
From the Vietnam War on, the chief adversarial assumption has been that the U.S. cannot accept casualties even on what might be a favorable exchange ratio. We might ask an analogous question of Iran’s infrastructure.
The swarming small boat naval threat, with ship-borne missiles, and Silkworms near the Strait of Hormuz, have been long anticipated. Does Iran anticipate that their naval forces and oil infrastructure would survive retaliation?