Lessons for Iran: What the US should have done in Iraq
One of the great themes of von Clausewitz is the fog of war: the fact that nobody on either side really knows what's going in the mayhem and confusion. The New York Times carries an excellent article today, based on an official US military study of what really happened in the Iraqi War of 2003.
The article is a must-read, but I will offer here three basic lessons that come out of the article:
1. Saddam never feared the US military. Saddam was not impressed by the fact that the US rolled over his army in a matter of hours in the first Gulf War. On the contrary, the fact that the US had failed to pursue him to Baghdad in 1991, the fact that the US pulled back from wiping out the Iraq army when it had the chance, the fact the US allowed him to put down the domestic revolts that followed the war--all this convinced Saddam that the US lacked the will either to inflict or endure high numbers of casualties. These impressions were reinforced by the systematially weak response of the Clinton administration to the Iraqi provocations of the 1990s. As a result, Saddam never thought that the US was serious about war with him, and never seriously considered that he might be overthrown until the US tanks began rolling through Baghdad.
Now the fact that Saddam never feared US might is a failure of US military strategy. The purpose of war is to break the enemy's will to resist, and that means influencing his mind. The point comes up regularly in discussions of Reagan's Star Wars proposal and the end of the Cold War: nobody knows if Star Wars would have worked in practice, but the Russians feared that it would, and hence it played a key role in why the Russians caved in to the West.
The same principle applies to the Middle East--Middle Eastern dictators do not think like cool-headed graduates of Western war colleges: if you want to prove to Middle Eastern dictators that you're serious about war, you don't bomb empty buildings in Baghdad, and call it "Shock and Awe". You have to slaughter large numbers of his troops in a manner that shows that you will stop at nothing to remove him from power. Anything less than this simply convinces him that you lack the will to fight and win a serious war. Which is what happened to the US in dealing with
2. Unafraid of the Americans, Saddam Hussein's greatest fear was his own people. Up until the very end, Saddam Hussein was terrified most of a Shiite uprising in the south of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had little fear that the Americans would do any serious killing. The Shiites were another story. Hussein refused to blow up bridges that would have slowed down the US advance because he feared he would need those bridges later to put down a Shiite uprising. His Fedayeen were needed as much to launch a counterattack against the Shiites as against the Americans. The New York Times article goes into this in stunning detail.
3. The US should have tried the Shahristani approach before we went to war. Hussein al-Shahristani is an Iraqi physicist who was in exile after being tortured by Saddam Hussein (picture above). Strongly supportive of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, he did not think an invasion by American troops was the right tool to achieve that. In an interview with Newsweek he said:
Why did you oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq? I was supporting the removal of Saddam from power but I did not think an all-out war on Iraq was the best way of doing that. I would have liked to see the Iraqi people helped to free themselves from Saddam by declaring southern Iraq as a safe haven the way the northern part of the country was. That would have sent the right signal to the Iraqi people and it would not have taken a week before the whole southern part of the country would be free. Then we would not have to face an occupying army in the country and create friction between the local population and the occupation forces.
I first ran into the Shahristani view in 2004, a year after the war. As a strong supporter of the War in Iraq, I've been convinced ever since I read the interview that we should have at least tried the Shahristani approach before we sent in the troops. Today's New York Times article, documenting in detail Saddam Hussein's fear of his domestic enemies, strongly suggests that Shahristani was correct.
The point of this is not to engage in post-war breast-beating. The point is that we are facing a rather similar decision in Iran. The ayatollahs fear us even less than Saddam Hussein did: after all, the ayatollahs humiliated us in the hostage crisis of 1979, and they have seen little in our invasion of Iraq to suggest that anything has changed. The ayatollahs think they can survive any air strikes; they think the option of invasion is a joke given the insurgency in Iraq. But the ayatollahs do however fear their own people, again similar to Saddam Hussein.
If we link these points to the counsel of Sharistani, it suggests this: Rather than having only two military options for Iran, invasion or airstrikes, the Shahristani model indicates a third: create one or more safe-havens in Iran, enforced by a no-fly zone, for the domestic enemies of the Ayatollahs.
The Iranian government is highly unpopular at home, and StrategyPage reports that regional governments think they will soon be out of power. These regional governments might be wrong, but the internal revolution strategy is clearly the strategy that needs to be tried first.
Edward N. Luttwak notes that the ayatollahs fear their people with good reason:
Iran's minorities each resist the Persian-dominated central government. Just in the last month, guerrillas of Baluch nationality kidnapped soldiers in southeast Iran. Arabs of Khuzistan province next to Iraq detonated bombs in Ahwaz, and Kurds clashed with the rural police...
The Kurds, who account for about 9% of the population, have been encouraged by the example of virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq next door. Their demands for autonomy are becoming more forceful, and something of an insurgency seems to have started...
Smaller nationalities that are known to be disaffected because of recent examples of violent resistance include the Arabs at 3% of Iran's population and the Baluch at 2%. Little is known of the intensity of the national sentiments of the Turkmen and Lurs (2% each), and still less of the Gilaki and Mazandarani (8% in all), who may be politically more assimilated simply because they speak Persian dialects.
Along with the Kurds, all the smaller nationalities amount to only a quarter of Iran's population; but Turkic-speaking Azeris add another 24% all by themselves. Many Azeri families in Tehran especially are believed to be thoroughly assimilated, but the more numerous Azeris farther north are not, and national revival and separatist groups have become increasingly active among them. Since Azerbaijan just across the border gained its independence from the Soviet Union, the Azeris have a national home of their own, and it is not Iran.
Given the fact that, as Luttwak points out, Iran is an empire like the former Soviet Union, not a nation-state, there is a long list of ethnic groups, comprising nearly half the population, who would might rally if the US created a safe haven for them.
The Shahristani model could come in principle in a range of variants from creating one or multiple safe-havens on the one hand, to extending a no-fly zone over the entire country and declaring that the US will give military support to any group that overthrows the regime (parallel in effect to our success in Afghanistan).
The key points here are that diplomacy is not going to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon, and the US responses are not limited to invasion or air strikes. In the face of a country already one step away from revolution, the intelligent use of US airpower has the potential to push the country over the brink.
Moreover: it is quite likely that internal revolution is what the ayatollahs fear most. If American public debate focusses on the use of a no-fly zone to create an internal revolution, the ayatollahs are more likely to fear that than air strikes (which they can ride out) or an invasion (which they don't think is a threat given the situation in Iraq).
A no-fly zone then might well be the right answer to an Iranian terrorist regime seeking nuclear weapons. And if it failed, all the other options would still remain on the table.