Thoughts on a Possible American Misadventure
“Spain at that time was far behind all the other countries in Europe. Napoleon considered the Iberian Peninsula another world - with people from the Dark Ages - dominated by clergy, according to Napoleon, who were illiterate, ignorant, and fanatical. He thought that there would be no resistance whatsoever. Napoleon didn’t take the trouble to study the country he was going to invade. He didn’t think the Spanish people had the will to hold on to their independence.” (Nicole Gottieri, Chief Curator, National Archives, France)
In 1808 Napoleon entered Spain expecting to be proclaimed a liberator of the oppressed
Spanish people. Instead he found himself embroiled in a six-year counterinsurgency effort which tied up 118,000 French troops, that in the end exhibited levels of barbarism on both sides which were unseen in Europe up to then (thanks to LCOL Peter Ahern’s article, Cultural Understanding: The Essential Ingredient for Developing War Time Intelligence.) Historical lessons for what we’re now engaging in Iraq seem to have been either unknown, ignored, or misunderstood at the Pentagon. When it comes to winning the war and then having to stand one’s ground in the conquered country to affect “regime change”, or “bringing democracy to the people”, it’s a matter of understanding the culture, not the terrain that will sway matters of life and death, and success or failure.
Iran and Iraq are vastly different countries. For any invading army the terrain of Iran is difficult and hazardous, and militarily so would be the people. Unlike the Iraqis the Iranians share a cohesive culture and history that stretches back for thousands of years. Unlike the Iraqis the people of Iran are responsible for putting in place the current leadership; there was no coup d’etat as there was in Iraq, the 1979 Islamic Revolution was a people’s movement. That said, it’d be reasonable to assume that many Iranians don’t care for the current intersection of religion, politics, and governance, and very likely they will one day change what they live under, but for now enough are happy under the government to assure its stability, and it’s a sure bet it would be supported if ever there was military action taken against the country.
For however much there is talk about the current Iranian president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad being “Hitleresque or a demagogue, he was elected by the people in an election first against 7 candidates, one of whom was a reformist like the previous and largely ineffectual president Khatami, and then in a runoff election against Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a previous president who wasn’t nearly as “hard line” as Ahmadinejad, though shrouded in a cloud of corruption and cronyism which increased the appeal of his opponent. The democracy of Iran may be tainted with theocratic heavy handedness, but the presidential election was considered fair and representative of what the people of Iran wanted. The reasons for this are complicated but however one looks at it Ahmadinejad was elected by the people, not the clerics. There are many good reasons to want to see Ahmadinejad not re-elected, and one would hope this will be the case, but as we first saw in Iran, and as we’re seeing in other parts of the world, the machinery of democracy does not always spit out what American policy would like to see or live with.
Militarily the Iranians would be fierce fighters and unlikely to evaporate when confronted with an imposing American military. Iran fought off the Iraqis during the 1980 – 1988 Iran-Iraq war in spite of a larger, better equipped and trained Iraqi military, which was also receiving intelligence help from the U.S. (Pre-revolution Iran was arguably militarily better than that of the Iraqis, but post-revolution purges of the military decimated the Iranian army and air force, which was largely what prompted Sadaam Hussein to invade Iran.) By any measure Iraq should have vanquished the then disorganized Iranians and, at a minimum, annexed a large chunk of southern Iran. The ferocity and fanaticism of the Iranian defenders, and the professionalism of those Iranian Air Force pilots not killed in the initial revolutionary purges, threw back the Iraqi invaders early in the war, resulting in a stalemate that lasted for nearly six years and no Iraqi gains. Any foreign army entering Iran today would find a vastly better organized military than that in 1980, and would be up against Iranians who while otherwise positively inclined towards the U.S. would not tolerate a U.S. invasion.
There are those in Washington who cling to the notion that the Iraqi people will overthrow the Ayatollahs and the hard line conservatives if only we provide them a pretext around which to do so. Iranians living in the U.S. who advise that the Iranian people are simply waiting to be mobilized to throw off their government should be given as much merit as anyone in retrospect would their Iraqi predecessors. Unfortunately the administration seems to buy their urgings as it recently won congressional approval to spend $75 million to fund “Iranian Opposition Groups”; one can certainly be forgiven a certain sense of déjà vu.
In Iraq many of our problems are laid to misunderstanding the consequences of our actions, woefully misunderstanding the Iraqis themselves, and inadequately training and sensitizing our military to the socio-cultural environments in which they were to be thrown into. We will never cause regime change with laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles, techno-centric and highly mobile ground forces, and certainly this will never happen with a military ill-suited to serve in the role of occupiers and counterinsurgency operatives. Weapon systems don’t win hearts and minds; well-intended, well-trained, and honorable people who are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the people they’re interacting with might, but even with the utmost best of intentions American steel or boots on the ground in Iran will come at a terrible cost (to get a good sense of how much of a cost I recommend reading Richard Clarke’s and Steven Simon’s article in the Sunday NY Times, Bombs That Would Backfire) and never be accepted by the vast majority of the Iranian people, and the people in the surrounding region.