Friday, July 28, 2006

Unlicensed, Too Ill

Earlier this week, William Kristol, writing in the pages of the Weekly Standard, made an attempt to diagnose the comparative "health" of a situation from long distance, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Bill Frist gave his medical opinion on Terri Schiavo from a far away television monitor. Said Kristol [emphasis mine throughout]:

"We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?....Yes, there would be repercussions -- and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement."

It's statements such as those that lead one to empathize with Tommy Franks and what he endured during his required interactions with Douglas Feith. Healthy repercussions? From a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities? Right now?

It's not that there wouldn't be any healthy repercussions, I suppose, it's just that the negative would so vastly outweigh the positive as to render the exercise an abject failure. That Kristol would advocate such an ill-fated move is, unfortunately, somewhat typical.

This is a time when our military is stretched thin and fortuitously positioned (from an Iranian perspective) right next door (in both Afghanistan and Iraq). Getting at us has rarely been easier for Iran in terms of geographical proximity. The thought that opening a third front at a time when we can't quite control the two already active ones would be 'good strategy' is really just confused and short-sighted on a fundamental level.

Do we expect the Iranians to sit back and take it? To not mobilize terrorist networks worldwide? To not lash out at our soldiers, via proxy, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Would they be reluctant to disrupt the world's oil supply? What forces could we muster to attack Iran if they escalated the engagement?

Most of these concerns have been well documented over the past couple of years, so I don't intend to reiterate them all (see, ie, prak's take on a James Fallows article from 2004). But there is an angle that I hadn't considered before that deserves mention.

Pat Lang, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, provides some insight into actual strategic considerations - not the magical thinking of the Green Lantern-ite neoconservatives like Kristol and Ledeen. Lang cautions us about how precarious the situation is in Iraq with respect to the supply lines our military forces rely on:

American forces in Iraq are in danger of having their line of supply cut by guerrillas. Napoleon once said that "an army travels on its stomach." By that he meant that the problem of keeping an army supplied is the prerequisite for the very existence of the force.

A 21st-century military force "burns up" a tremendous volume of expendable supplies and continuously needs repairs to equipment as well as medical treatment. Without a plentiful and dependable source of fuel, food, and ammunition, a military force falters. First it stops moving, then it begins to starve, and eventually it becomes unable to resist the enemy. [...]

American troops all over central and northern Iraq are supplied with fuel, food, and ammunition by truck convoy from a supply base hundreds of miles away in Kuwait. All but a small amount of our soldiers' supplies come into the country over roads that pass through the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq.

Until now the Shiite Arabs of Iraq have been told by their leaders to leave American forces alone....

Southern Iraq is thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian special operations forces working with Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Hostilities between Iran and the United States or a change in attitude toward US forces on the part of the Baghdad government could quickly turn the supply roads into a "shooting gallery" 400 to 800 miles long.

At present, the convoys of trucks supplying our forces in Iraq are driven by civilians - either South Asians or Turks. If the route is indeed turned into a shooting gallery, these civilian truck drivers would not persist or would require a heavier escort by the US military.

...Trucks loaded with supplies are defenseless against many armaments, such as rocket-propelled grenades, small arms, and improvised explosive devices. A long, linear target such as a convoy of trucks is very hard to defend against irregulars operating in and around their own towns.

The volume of "throughput" would probably be seriously lessened in such a situation. A reduction in supplies would inevitably affect operational capability. This might lead to a downward spiral of potential against the insurgents and the militias. This would be very dangerous for our forces. [...]

Compounding the looming menace of the Kuwait-based line of supply is the route followed by the cargo ships en route to Kuwait. Geography dictates that the ships all pass through the Strait of Hormuz and then proceed to the ports at the other end of the Gulf. Those who are familiar with the record of Iran's efforts against Kuwaiti shipping in the Iran-Iraq War will be concerned about this maritime vulnerability.

"Those who are familiar" with these matters don't write for the Weekly Standard. And if they do, they check their knowledge in at the door in favor of wishes, hopes and the meager substitute of "will."

Part of what made Lang's warnings particularly chilling is the fact that the current Israeli/Lebanese conflict could impact the situation in Iraq - possibly prompting attacks on the supply lines akin to those described in Lang's article with or without an attack on Iran.

Spencer Ackerman, for example, points to a certain Shiite figure who could spark such a series of attacks - and what his motivations might be:

A week ago, I entertained a nightmare scenario whereby Moqtada Sadr sends his Mahdi Army militia to fight alongside Hezbollah. The nightmare would be Israel attacking Sadr in retaliation for his attacks on the IDF or Israeli civilians, thereby prompting...increased violence against American troops in Iraq.

Last week, Sadr was merely grumbling about sending his fighters to Lebanon. Now, according to Sharon Behn of The Washington Times, he's ready to deploy:

A senior member of Muqtada al-Sadr's Iraqi Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army, says the group is forming a squadron of up to 1,500 elite fighters to go to Lebanon.

The plan reflects the potential of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah to strengthen radical elements in Iraq and neighboring countries and to draw other regional players into the Lebanon conflict....

Sadr's ultimate goal is to dominate Iraqi Shia politics. Unsurprisingly, he's using his now-declared response to the Lebanon war as a way to marginalize his Shia rivals in the Maliki government...

In such a "nightmare" scenario, southern Iraq could become a war zone, and our supply lines severed or at least severely snarled, even without our acting on Kristol's foolish advice. This, of course, is one more reason that forging a cease fire in Lebanon is more than urgent. Contra Condi and the Bush administration, we simply can't afford to wait. The violence in Lebanon has too many outlets and avenues ready to receive the raging spill-over.

As an unfortunate aside, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former Asst. Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chas Freeman, writing at Steve Clemons' place, suggests that the interplay of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel could be extremely problematic even after the immediate cessation of hostilities:

The irony now is that the most likely candidate to back Hezbollah in the long term is no longer Iran but the Arab Shiite tyranny of the majority we have installed in Baghdad. But that will not mean that the successors of Nouri Al-Maliki control Sheikh Nasrullah. Sometimes clients direct the policies of their patrons, not the other way around. This is a point exemplified by the dynamic of Israeli-American relations but far from unique to them.

One wonders if that is an example of what William Kristol had in mind in the Winter of 2002 when he was busy enticing the American people with all the "healthy repercussions" that would flow from the invasion of Iraq. With Kristol, it's a pattern. As such, it's well past time that we started ignoring his attempts at diagnosis, and prescriptions for cures. Above all, this doctor needs to heal himself.

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