The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.
The Bush administration made no public announcement of the politically delicate seizure of the Iranians, though in response to specific questions the White House confirmed Sunday that the Iranians were in custody.
Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said two Iranian diplomats were among those initially detained in the raids. The two had papers showing that they were accredited to work in Iraq, and he said they were turned over to the Iraqi authorities and released. He confirmed that a group of other Iranians, including the military officials, remained in custody while an investigation continued, and he said, “We continue to work with the government of Iraq on the status of the detainees.”
It was unclear what kind of evidence American officials possessed that the Iranians were planning attacks, and the officials would not identify those being held. One official said that “a lot of material” was seized in the raid, but would not say if it included arms or documents that pointed to planning for attacks. Much of the material was still being examined, the official said.
We’re going start seeing this sort of thing more and more as elements of the administration makes the case to move into Iran.
Earlier in the day, Undersecretary [of State] Nicholas Burns said the Bush administration will try to persuade Russia, China, Japan and the European Union to take more vigorous action, including cutting off lending to Iran.
“We don’t think this resolution is enough in itself. And we’re certainly not going to put all our eggs in a U.N. basket,” said Burns in a teleconference with reporters.
The Democrats’ approach to national-security issues through the fall campaign was to hide under the bed and ignore them as much as possible. That worked politically, so they are likely to stick with it.
The Bush administration, for its part, will be tempted to do what small men have done throughout history when in trouble: try to escalate their way out of it. The White House has already half-convinced itself that the majority of its troubles in Iraq stem from Iran and Syria, a line the neocons push assiduously.
The elephant in the parlor is, of course, the fact that Israel wants an attack on Iran, and for Republicans and Democrats alike, Israel is She Who Must Be Obeyed. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ran to Washington as soon as the election was over, and the subject of his discussions with President Bush is easy to imagine. Who will do the dirty deed and when? Iran has already announced that it will consider an attack by Israel an attack by the U.S. as well and respond accordingly, so the difference may not much matter.
That response should concern us, to put it mildly, for that is where a war with Iran and the war in Iraq intersect. The Iranians have said that this time they have 140,000 American hostages, in the form of U.S. troops in Iraq. If either Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran, we could lose an army.
How could such a thing happen? The danger springs from the fact that almost all the supplies our forces in Iraq use, including vital fuel for their vehicles, comes over one supply line, which runs toward the south and the port in Kuwait. If that line were cut, our forces might not have enough fuel to get out of Iraq. American armies are enormously fuel-thirsty.
One might think that fuel would be abundant in Iraq, which is (or was) a major oil exporter. In fact, because of the ongoing chaos, Iraq is short of refined oil products. Our forces, if cut off from their own logistics, could not simply fuel up at local gas stations as German Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Corps did on its way to the English Channel in the 1940 campaign against France.
There are two ways, not mutually exclusive, that Iran could attempt to cut our supply line in Iraq in response to an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The first would be by encouraging Shi’ite militias to which it is allied, including the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades, to rise up against us throughout southern Iraq, which is Shi’ite country. The militias would be supported by widespread infiltration of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who have shown themselves to be good at this kind of thing. They are the people who trained and equipped Hezbollah for its successful defense of southern Lebanon against the vaunted Israeli army this past summer.
The Shi’ite militias already lie across our single supply line, and we should expect them to cut it in response to Iranian requests. We are already at war with the Mahdi Army, against which our forces in Iraq have been launching a series of recent raids and air strikes. A British journalist I know, one with long experience in Iraq, told me he asked the head of SCIRI, which controls the Badr Brigades, how he would respond if the U.S. attacked Iran. “Then,” he replied, “we would do our duty.”
Iran has a second, bolder option it could combine with a Shi’ite insurrection at our rear. It could cross the Iran-Iraq border with several armored and mechanized divisions of the regular Iranian Army, sever our supply lines, then move to roll us up from the south with the aim of encircling us, perhaps in and around Baghdad. This would be a classic operational maneuver, the sort of thing for which armored forces are designed.
At present, U.S. forces in Iraq could be vulnerable to such an action by the Iranian army. We have no field army in Iraq; necessarily, our forces are penny-packeted all over the place, dealing with insurgents. They would be hard-pressed to assemble quickly to meet a regular force, especially if fuel was running short.
The U.S. military’s answer, as is too often the case, will be air power. It is true that American air power could destroy any Iranian armored formations it caught in the open. But there is a tried-and-true defense against air power, one the Iranians could employ: bad weather. Like the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, they could wait to launch their offensive until the weather promised a few days of protection. After that, they would be so close to our own forces that air power could not attack them without danger of hitting friendlies. (This is sometimes know as “hugging tactics.”) Reportedly, the Turkish General Staff thinks the Iranians can and will employ this second option, no doubt in combination with the first.
Perhaps the greatest danger lies in the fact that, just as the French high command refused to consider the possibility of a German attack through the Ardennes in 1940, Washington will not consider the possibility that an attack on Iran could cost us our army in Iraq. We have made one of the most common military mistakes—believing our own propaganda. Over and over, the U.S. military tells the world and itself, “No one can defeat us. No one can even fight us. We are the greatest military the world has ever seen!”
Unfortunately, like most propaganda, it’s bunk. The U.S. Armed Forces are technically well-trained, lavishly resourced Second-Generation militaries. They are today being fought and beaten by Fourth-Generation opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan. They can also be defeated by Third-Generation opponents who can react faster than America’s process-ridden, PowerPoint-enslaved military headquarters. They can be defeated by superior strategy, by trick, by surprise, and by preemption. Unbeatable militaries are like unsinkable ships: they are unsinkable until something sinks them.
If the U.S. were to lose the army it has in Iraq to Iraqi militias, Iranian regular forces, or a combination of both, cutting our one line of supply and then encircling us, the world would change. It would be our Adrianople, our Rocroi, our Stalingrad. American power and prestige would never recover. Nothing, not even Israel’s demands, should lead us to run this risk, which is inherent in any attack on Iran.
There is one action, a possibility opened by the Democrats’ electoral victory, that would stop the Bush administration from launching such an attack or allowing Israel to do so. If our senior military leaders, especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would go public with their opposition to such an adventure, the new Democratic majority in Congress would have to react. The public that put it in office on an antiwar platform would compel it to answer or lose all credibility. While the Joint Chiefs would infuriate the White House, they would receive the necessary political cover from the new Democratic Congress. The potential is there, for the generals and the Democrats alike.
For it to be realized, and the disaster of war with Iran to be averted, all the generals must do is show some courage. If the Joint Chiefs keep silent now and allow the folly of an attack on Iran to go forward, they will share in full the moral responsibility for the results, which may include the loss of an army. Perhaps we should call it “Operation Cornwallis.”