Monday, February 12, 2007

Armageddon worried

The American military's announcement that Iran is supporting Shi'ite militias in Iraq is more significant for its being made, than for any insight it offers. For anyone who had looked at a map for five minutes before the idiotic invasion could see that, of course, as soon as Sadaam's vicious Sunni regime was destroyed, the Persians would trickle down the mountainsides, across the border and begin supporting their co-religionists in the fertile crescent below. Its an incusion as old as civilisation so it should not surprise anyone that its happening again.

But when the American military announces something of this kind it generally is not in the form of a idle observation. It usually means that the American military is planning to do something about it. Something unpleasant.

And combined with sabre rattling over Iran's development of nuclear weapons it is definitely very concerning. Altogether it suggests that regardless of the results of the mid-term elections the Commander-in-chief is not above lighting the blue touch paper even as the sun sets officially on his presidency.

Worst case: we could be looking at World War Three. The question is how twitchy the Russians, who have always regarded Persia as their backdoor, would be about having Americans bombing near by. I suspect the answer would be very twitchy indeed. Then all it would take is for Hezbollah (Iran's army in Lebanon) to get a nuclear device or any other WMD and use it on Israel. Preventing Israel from retaliation would be all but impossible. Next stop, Russian - Israeli confrontation with the US siding with Israel. One wrong move and the MADness begins.

Hopefully the worst case is also the unlikely case but unfortunately there are plenty in religious right who are fundamentally armageddonists - and I'm not just talking about the religious right in the US. Iran's president Ahmadinejad is just as ideologically committed to the end times as extremists in Bible belt.

What to do? Should the US attack Iran? Should it stay in Iraq? Or should it withdraw?

Optimists in the Administration would hope that an attack on Iran could topple the hated Mullahs. This might be so if "Shock and Awe" were as good as its advertising. But even the military know it isn't. Asked by one exasperated senator who had led questioning suggesting that the US Airforce could knock a flea off a dog from five miles up what the airforce could do, the reply was a sobering "kill people and destroy things in the name of the United States of America"." Unfortunately the fact is the United States is not God. It is not omniscient, nor is it omnipotent. Its capability for "surgical" strikes is actually quite limited and anything which is not surgical will merely inflame Persian nationalist sentiment - which since the ousting of Mossadegh has never been wildly pro-American anyway. The US has had enough difficulty dealing with 16 million deeply divided Iraqis. If it had to contend with 60 million outraged and united Persians it would simply lose.

If as Senator Obama has proposed the US simply withdraws Iraq will collapse. The Kurds will want a separate state which will, defacto become a satellite of Turkey, and the Shi'ite Iranians and Sunni Arabs will fight a long and bitter civil war by proxy. The only difference if the US stays is that the fighting will be more covert and more Americans will be killed in the cross-fire.

It is instructive at this point to look back in history at the record of the British Empire in this region. The British combined brutality and Machiavellian politics to achieve some quite stunning successes. The most important of these was the war in Aden where communists fighting an insurgent war completely failed to beat a British led coalition. The basic reason for this was the British enlisted support from the Royalty of the region who were, not surprisingly, most unhappy about a communist revolution on their doorstep. This meant the British led coalition spoke Arabic, operated both by helicopter and embedded among the people on the ground and aligned themselves with the values of the inhabitants. In the end they were more popular than the communists were. Nobody could say that of the Americans in Iraq.

Another lesson is the way the British extracted themselves from India. Yes it resulted in a bloodbath, but both the Pakistanis and the Indians retain a soft spot for the British even today. Why? Because they both thought they'd won, when in fact it was the British who ended up with all the wealth and none of the costs - just as they did later in Africa.

The fundamental trick the British always used was to get locals to do local dirty work. They de-escalated slowly but shrewdly until the web of intrigue allowed them to extract themselves under cover of someone else's war. Honorable it was not. Effective it certain was, as it always led someone (usually one of the losers) to wish for the days when the British ran things.

The American invasion of Iraq was a travesty of the legacy of President's Roosevelt and Truman who established the United Nations. It was an unprincipled military action of industrial greed. It makes no sense for the Administration to haul up the star spangled banner and let fall a tear in the name of duty now. Iraq is a battleground as old as civilisation. No number of American "cops" are going to pacify it, just as no number could pacify Vietnam. Only a British style withdrawl has any hope of de-escalating what could soon be a global war back into a tribal one.

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