So why, exactly, does outside involvement (either Syrian or Iranian) in the Iraqi insurgency make me worried?
Because there’s nothing we can do about it.
Bodies and Borders
I was talking to one of my friends a couple of days ago, and he asked me the popular question about Iraq: namely, do we have enough bodies on the ground?
Well, I happen to think that question’s been answered pretty conclusively in the negative this past week, with respect to the insurgents taking over several key cities in Central Iraq. No matter what the CPA says, I’d be very skeptical about claims that they’ve managed to retake those towns, just because there’s more to taking a town than taking over the TV station or the police HQ. As long as Sadrist and allied forces can operate at will in those streets, the town’s not taken. So far, what we can ascertain through the blinding fog of war there isn’t kind to the CPA line–so I’d hold off on celebrations for now.
In addition, the really worrisome part for me is that if our focus is in retaking towns like Kut and Karbala, then it becomes harder to maintain our focus in maintaining border security. Both in the Syrian border and the Iranian border, it’s rather difficult to ascertain where Iraq ends and the other countries begin. That’s more a difficulty with the Syrian frontier, but the Iranian border’s no piece of cake, either. It’s fairly mountainous, and it does provide ample opportunity for smugglers to hide and lie in wait.
And we really don’t have the personnel to both secure the borders and retake the cities. Either we do the one or the other, but unless we radically ramp up our presence in Iraq, the borders will remain extremely porous.
The best way to think of this is this. Back in May of last year, I believe, GEN William Wallace, who was then the CFLCC* commander, said something along these lines:
“Iraq’s the size of California. Would you expect me to secure all of California all of the time with 130,000 troops?”
Right now, it’s a wonder we can secure part of the cities part of the time. Our troops deserve a lot of praise, because they’ve been stuck in a hard place for some time now, and have managed to perform admirably. But it’s a bit like trying to douse a fire with a sieve, and we’re seeing the results now.
Back to the question of Iranian and Syrian involvement. If it’s taking place–and I hope it isn’t, but fear it is–then that puts us in an even more parlous situation. Why?
Because that means that, no matter what we do, the insurgents have a lifeline, and unless we cut that lifeline, they can continue resisting. It’s bad enough that Iraq is, in many ways, an ammo dump; it’s even worse if that ammo dump is continually replenished both by materiel and people. It wouldn’t take many to put our forces to an intolerable stress. I happen to think that we’re slowly approaching that point, and one of the reasons we haven’t attempted to take the cities by force is due to the number of casualties we would likely sustain in house-to-house fighting, which in turn would degrade our capabilities, especially if we were unable to fill the holes quickly enough.
Moreover, casualties aside, the resupply of our forces is fairly stressed right now. How do I know? I don’t, but I think that that the ceasefire worked to our benefit (in term of allowing us, even briefly, the use of a land supply route); plus, it’s standard practice that you seldom negotiate with insurgents, because doing so opens all kinds of worm cans. For starters, we’ve just legitimized al-Sadr’s collection of thugs, knaves, and punks as a military force, and allowed them a further opportunity to organize and consolidate their gains. If it’s a goal of ours to retake those cities, and I believe it is, then we’ve made it harder.
Moreover, the continued instability in Iraq, and our failure to quickly crush that insurgency, is a screaming invitation for both Syria and Iran to meddle in Iraq, even if it’s only by supplying the insurgents.
And if we’re that pressed in Iraq, then we won’t be able to do anything–beyond pro-forma protests–about that meddling. We certainly won’t go after Iran–if we’re having trouble securing Iraq, how in heckfire are we going to go after a country that’s three times larger?
So, in short, we’re hamstrung. And if that’s the case, then the Vietnam analogies become even scarier.
Ghosts in the Night
Finally, the nine missing Americans.
CENTCOM, earlier today, announced that seven contractors and two soldiers were missing. When I heard that, alarm bells started flashing in my head.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the big problems with using contractors in a war zone is that many, if not indeed most, companies have a hazardous-duty escape clause. That’s to say, if an area suddenly turns into a war zone, companies reserve the right to leave the area, no matter what difficulties their departure may cause.
If the contractors turn out to be either kidnapped (a real possibility, given the last few days) or dead, then we may be in for a real painful period, militarily speaking, as companies decide that Iraq is just too dangerous for them to be there, and start leaving in droves–not that I would blame them.
But it would place our ability to house, feed, supply, and maintain our troops and equipment in jeopardy for a while, because outfits like Bechtel, Raytheon, and Halliburton do all those things for us.
And for those of you who think that those guys wouldn’t skip town, think again–they’ve done it before, in Sierra Leone.
Really, the more I see things in Iraq, the more I think that we need to prepare for the possibility of a military “perfect storm”. There are too many things going south at the wrong time for us.