The Hidden Danger of Escalation
Well, the President made his speech last week and it pretty much went the way I thought it would. But he did manage to throw in one surprise: some language that sounded like a direct threat to expand the war into Syria and Iran if they are clearly shown to be providing support and materiel to the Iraqi insurgency:
Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge.
This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.
We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region.
We will expand intelligence sharing, and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies.
Aircraft carriers and Patriot missiles don’t have much to do with fighting insurgents with roadside bombs, so these moves are pretty clearly intended to bolster our ability to fight a war against an adversary with a capable conventional military — like, say, Iran.
This language has raised alarm bells for many people, mostly because of our manifest inability to actually back it up with meaningful force — our Army is so strapped for troops that it can’t even fulfill its mission in Iraq, much less take on one or two additional countries as well. But there’s a deeper reason why we should be concerned with this prospect: war with Iran could mean losing all 150,000 troops we currently have committed in Iraq.
Allow me to explain.
To understand the risk, you first have to understand the geography of Iraq. Iraq is a country whose borders are, for the most part, difficult to negotiate. In the west, the borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia are empty deserts. In the north, the border with Turkey is rugged and mountainous.
In fact, the only easily accessible border of Iraq is in the southeast, where a narrow spit of land provides the country’s only access to the sea. At the ports of Umm Qasr and Basra, ships can dock and unload their cargo – and just to the south of there is Kuwait, where more port facilities are available. These are the only points where cargo can be shipped by sea directly into Iraq.
As a result of this, Iraq’s road network is primarily designed to facilitate moving cargo from these ports and Kuwait up into Baghdad and the rest of the country. Take a look at this map of Iraq’s transportation network prepared by the United Nations and you’ll see what I mean: with a few exceptions, all the paved roads begin in the southeastern ports and run up the country from there.
This is important because our Army in Iraq requires such a weight of supplies that it can only be supplied practically from the sea. Currently the main supply line for our troops starts in Kuwait, where ships unload, and then goes by truck up those highways to Baghdad and the rest of the country. Every day, 600+ trucks make this journey, and it’s a dangerous one: insurgents regularly attack the convoys. But the attacks haven’t been strong enough to close the roads, so the supplies still (for the most part) get through.
If we went to war with Iran, though, that situation could change in a heartbeat. That narrow strip of land that connects Iraq to the sea sits right on the Iranian border. Just beyond it — less than 20 miles from Iran — are the ports of Kuwait, where our supply ships unload.
All the talk I’ve heard about war with Iran has been concerned with what would happen if that country used its air force and anti-ship missiles to close the narrow Persian Gulf to shipping. That would be pretty bad. But there is a worse scenario — what if the Iranians stormed across southeast Iraq, closing off the highways which carry supplies to our Army?
It’s eminently possible; in fact, they’ve already tried it once. In 1982, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian forces (in what was called "Operation Ramadan") launched an offensive to try and capture Basra. It was beaten back with great loss of life by the Iraqi Army. Today, though, the Iraqi Army doesn’t exist, and Basra and the southeast are defended only by the Multi-National Division (South-East) — a motley collection of approximately 10,000 troops from six countries of the "Coalition of the Willing", with almost all of those (about 7,000) coming from the UK. (American forces operate in the north, in places like Baghdad, Anbar province, and Iraqi Kurdistan.) The British sector has been mostly quiet, so the UK has been pulling its troops out gradually; Prime Minister Blair made clear after the "surge" speech that this policy has not changed and that Britain will continue to draw down its troop commitment.
What would those 10,000 troops — many military police and other civil-affairs specialists, the types of soldiers who specialize in fighting insurgents — be up against? An Iranian army with approximately 350,000 front-line troops. If they committed even a third of that to such an offensive, it would mean Coalition forces in the area would be outnumbered 10 to 1.
So there’s not much military force in the southeast to stop a determined Iranian push. The terrain, while marshy in some places, is generally flat and open, presenting no topological barrier. What would happen, then, if the Iranians did seize the southeast?
Disaster, that’s what. Loss of the supply route from Kuwait would force the Army to use alternate routes — and there are no alternate routes that can move supplies as quickly as by truck from Kuwait. Offloading them in Turkey would require them to be trucked over the mountains — a slow process. Offloading in Saudi Arabia or Jordan would narrow the supply lines to just a couple of roads, and trucks would have to contend with the harsh conditions of the desert. And all the other routes go through countries that wouldn’t deal with us — namely, Syria and Iran.
The only alternative would be to try to supply the Army by air. But there simply isn’t enough transport capacity in the Air Force to supply 150,000 troops by air for an indefinite period; one estimate is that only 25% of the required supplies could be delivered by air, and that would be in a major push. (This is because moving supplies by cargo plane is much more expensive than moving them by ship; ships and trucks are cheap and have cavernous cargo holds, while planes are expensive and have relatively small capacities.)
This would put us in an extremely dangerous situation. Our troops in Iraq could try to fight their way out and retake the southeastern ports, but that would require tired, hungry troops running short of fuel and ammunition to face and defeat a fresh opponent — a difficult proposition. They could try to retreat out of the country, but that would require falling back through the mountains of Turkey or the Saudi desert, all the while being harried by insurgents. We could attempt to relieve them with a new force, but where would the troops for that come from? Nearly all our combat units are committed already, and by the time a draft could produce a new army, it would be too late for the troops in Iraq.
Or they could do nothing — and either starve to death, eventually, or surrender to the Iranians when hope ran out.
It would not be the first time an army was defeated when its supply lines were cut. The German army in Stalingrad, for example, was destroyed in just such a way: while it was tied up in the streets of the city fighting partisans, the Soviets launched an enormous pincer movement around the city, cutting the Germans off from their supplies. The Luftwaffe attempted to provide the supplies by air, but they could not lift the volume required; so the army starved to death. By the time they surrendered to the Soviets, an army of hundreds of thousands of troops had dwindled to a mere 90,000.
I do not doubt that we would prevail in time in a war with Iran. And our air power could inflict terrible casualties on any Iranian offensive. But could you imagine what the world would be like if the air power wasn’t enough, and our army in Iraq were cut off and captured — or, worse still, destroyed entirely? It would be a military disaster unmatched in American history; worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than First Manassas, worse than any setback we have ever experienced as a nation. It w
ould mean, essentially, building a new Army from scratch before we could take the field again. And it would send a powerful message to the rest of the world that America’s days as a military power were over for good.
I believe this outcome to be a very real risk, if we should draw Iran into our war. Hopefully the President considered it before he chose to rattle his saber. Hopefully.
UPDATE: When originally posted, this essay cited "more than 20 countries" as contributing forces to the Multi-National Division (South-East). This was incorrect; while 26 countries contribute forces to the overall Coalition effort in Iraq, only six (the UK, Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania and Romania) operate with the Multi-National Division. My apologies for the error.