Think about it for 10 seconds. Who ever won a war of attrition with a volunteer army? In modern history, wars of attrition are won by leaders who unflinchingly send large numbers of young men to their deaths. Think of Ulysses Grant, Stalin, or Ho Chi Min. When you reach the limits of your manpower and are still unable to turn the tide, which appears to be our situation in Iraq, then all those rhetorical flourishes about "stay the course" or "cut and run" or "redeploy our troops" seem utterly beside the point.
Yet I'm still amazed how few pundits and journalists apply some common sense 2 + 2 analysis to our situation there. Where I come from, the business and financial world, an enterprise's performance and likelihood of success are measured in numbers. It seems to me the numbers foretold the endgame a long time ago. If we look at the situation Iraq - in terms of troop strength, demographics, history, energy and financial resources - the numbers in their brutal honesty suggest that Iraq will become a satellite state of Iran, and that George Bush's adventures made us 100 times less safe than we were on 9/12.
Here's my take on the numbers, explained in detail below.
(a) U.S. troop levels cannot be sustained, nor can they restore order, whereas Iran's military has the manpower and the capability to fill the power vacuum and restore order.
(b) Most Iraqis would welcome Iran's involvement, given their longstanding historic and religious ties.
(c) U.S. efforts to block Iran's presence in Iraq, or to isolate Iran, will be ineffectual, because of Iran's improved standing in global energy markets.
Consequently, Iran's influence in Iraq will eventually supersede that of the United States or any other major power.
I. Troop Levels
The numbers say:
(a) The U.S. cannot sustain the current level of deployment.
(b) The current U.S. deployment cannot reduce the violence.
(c) Iran's army may be more effective than ours in terms of shutting down violence in Iraq.
A year ago, when we had 138,000 troops and 17 combat brigades in Iraq, General Barry McCaffrey said, "We will be forced into a drawdown and have 10 brigades or less on the ground by next summer [i.e. now]. The Army and the Marines are starting to come apart under this overly aggressive foreign policy." Eleven months later, when we had 127,000 troops and 14 combat brigades in Iraq, McCaffrey said, "The Army and the Marine Corps cannot sustain this level of deployment. So, politics aside, I think from a military perspective, we're going to be forced to draw down...[Rumsfeld's] views are increasingly irrelevant." Currently, we have 135,000 troops in Iraq.
Did Rumsfeld prove McCaffrey wrong? Others might say we're asking too much of our troops. A pentagon-commissioned study published last January said that the Army is "in a race against time" to adjust to the demands of war "or risk `breaking' the force in the form of a catastrophic decline" in recruitment and re-enlistment.
Regardless of anyone's opinion, the fact is we're left without troops to defend us at home or anywhere else. There is not a single non-deployed Army Brigade Combat Team in the United States that is ready to deploy. Also, more than two-thirds of the Army National Guard's 34 brigades are not combat ready.
And how effectively are coalition forces "standing up" for the Iraqis? About as well as you would expect from troops who don't speak the language, don't understand the local cultural signals, and don't understand their mission. Coalition troops inflict violence on innocent civilians on a daily basis, says Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki, who said soldiers "crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion." Last June, Maliki asked the U.N. to the end immunity from local law for U.S. troops. The current U.N. mandate authorizing coalition forces in Iraq expires December 31, 2006.
And if U.S. troops cannot arrest Iraq's downward spiral of violence, how could order ever be restored? For most Muslims in the region, the obvious precedent is (pre-June 2006) Lebanon, which suffered through scorched earth sectarian violence until Syria imposed its military occupation.
Power abhors a vacuum, and despite their various political and religious affinities, I suspect the vast majority of Iraqis share the sentiments of Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, who said (in an entirely different context), "You don't have any civil liberties if you're dead."
For reasons set forth below, Iraq's closest ally in the Middle East is Iran. Compared to the U.S., Iran has many more troops who would be more effective in restoring order. Estimates of Iran's military strength vary wildly. According to The Times in London, Iran has 768,000 active troops and 11,700,000 reserves. Its army is well equipped and disciplined, and it manufactures most of its own weapons.
The Library of Congress, Federal Research Division says the totals are lower, with only 540,000 active personnel in the regular armed forces plus 120,000 in the auxiliary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In addition there is a volunteer paramilitary force, the Popular Mobilization Army, with 300,000 personnel, mainly youths, with an estimated capability to expand to one million.
So, however you look at it, Iran has more bodies to put on the ground. And, most likely, more soldiers fluent in Arabic. Iranian soldiers may be in Iraq already, since the border is porous.
Ultimately, the U.S. can bomb the 68 million people in Iran back into the stone age. But then what?
II. Demographics and History
The numbers say:
(a) For most Iraqis, Iran is linked to their own religious and national identity.
(b) Most Iraqis feel closer to Iran than they do to the rest of the Arab world.
(c) Most Iraqis have good reason to believe that the Sunnis intend to stymie democracy in Iraq.
(d) Most Iraqis associate the United States with a history of betrayal.
"We believe that Iran supports the Iraqi government because most leaders of this government are allies and friends of Iran." Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (a Kurd), July 6, 2006
"Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak April 10, 2006
Mubarak's claim is highly debatable, yet it reflects the historic prejudices many Arabs hold against the Shiites. Shiites are, and always have been, a small minority (15%) among the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. They are an especially small minority in the Arab speaking world (7% excluding Iraq). Throughout the Arab world, they have faced discrimination and worse. Today in Saudi Arabia, "Shiites face discrimination in all walks of life," writes Amnesty International. In Kuwait, "The Government discriminates against the Shiite minority...[which] remain[s] disadvantaged in the provision of mosques, access to Shiite religious education and representation in upper levels of government," writes the Carnegie Endowment for the Peace.
So it's reasonable to make two assumptions about a Shiite in Iraq: 1. His minority status shaped his political consciousness, and 2. History matters. (Think of Catholics in Ireland 100 years ago.)
There are only two Arab-speaking countries where the majority of the population is Shiite - tiny Bahrain, which has 700,000 people, and Iraq, where about 16 to 18 million out of 27 million people (60-65%) are Shiite. There are only two other countries where Shiites are the majority population - Iran and Azerbaijan.
This is no accident. The Shiite center of gravity moved away from Iraq and toward Iran 600 years ago, when Shah Ismail I, founder of the 230-year Safavid dynasty, decreed that Shiite shall be the only lawful religion in his empire, which eventually extended over Persia, Azerbaijan and Iraq. From the time the Ottomans conquered Iraq, up until the defeat of Saddam in 2003, Shiites in Iraq were systematically prevented from asserting any political power.
Nonetheless, through all this time, Iraq remained a center of Shiite scholarship and culture. Here's a passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Despite the preeminence of Iran as a Shiite Islamic republic, Iraq has traditionally been the physical and spiritual center of Shiism in the Islamic world...In premodern times southern and eastern Iraq formed a cultural and religious meeting place between the Arab and Persian worlds, and religious scholars moved freely between the two regions. Even until relatively recent times, large numbers of notable Iranian scholars could be found studying and teaching in the great madrasahs (religious schools).
During Saddam's reign, many Iraqis spent years exiled in Iran. They include the previous Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the current Prime Minister, Nouri al- Maliki. They include refugees from Saddam's Arabization campaign in the 1970s. They include 100,000 refugees from Saddam's Shiite massacres in 1991. Here's how Vali Nasr, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, described the situation in last July's Foreign Affairs:
In the dark years of the 1990s, Iran alone gave Iraqi Shiites refuge and support. Since the Iraq war, many of these refugees have returned to Iraq; they can now be found working in schools, police stations, mosques, bazaars, courts, militias, and tribal councils from Baghdad to Basra, as well as in government. The repeated shuttling of Shiites between Iran and Iraq over the years has created numerous, layered connections between the two countries' Shiite communities. As a result, the Iraqi nationalism that the U.S. government hoped would serve as a bulwark against Iran has proved porous to Shiite identity in many ways.
Consequently, we may expect that Iraq's largest sectarian group would welcome an Iranian military presence, if such were needed, to restore order and safety.
Arab Sunnis probably fear an Iranian presence, but they have no clout to stop it. Arab Sunnis represent about 16-17% of Iraq's total population. Until Operation Iraq Freedom, Iraq's ruling class came exclusively from this minority group. Iraq's other Sunnis, the Kurds, mostly live in the north in a de facto sovereign state, described below. The Kurds are not part of the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites. In the relevant part of Iraq, Shiites outnumber Arab Sunnis by about 4 to 1.
Sunni leaders do not appear to be in a conciliatory mood. Professor Fouad Ajami, from Johns Hopkins University, made this comment at The Council on Foreign Relations on July 11, 2006:
"So the Sunni Arabs believe that Iraq today--ruled, as they see it, by the Shi'a and the Kurds, that's the way they see it--they believe it's a stolen country. That's really their conviction, that it's a stolen country.
"Then the Americans came in and upended this old order. And guess what--they would probably reconcile themselves to the logical thing had they not been surrounded by a large Sunni Arab world around them. So even though they're a minority in Iraq itself, they're a majority in the region. And as one of my witnesses in this book of mine I profiled, he said, 'Though they are a minority, they have the majoritarian mindset.'"
If Dr. Ajami is accurate, the outlook for Sunni acceptance of the new government is dim.
Still, as with everything in the Middle East, there are several sides to the story. It's probably unfair to claim that all Sunnis view the Shiites as their permanent underclass. Under Saddam's secular regime, it was common for Sunnis to pray at Shiite mosques and vice versa. Intermarriage was also common. As everywhere else, people are people. Now, an increasingly large number of Sunnis share an all-too-common experience with Shiites, Israelis and the Lebanese - they suffered the trauma of losing a loved one who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That kind of trauma can lead to an enmity lasting
generations. Finally, one small group of Sunni immigrants affects Iraq disproportionately. Members of Al Qaeda are Sunnis who also belong to the "takfiri" sect which believes all Shiites are heretics.
If the differences between the Shiites and the Arab Sunnis are irreconcilable, Iran may be the only power with the strength and resources to stop the violence.
The Kurds' historical memory is that The League of Nations promised them a homeland in 1920. But in 1923, that presumed homeland was divided among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. A turning point came in 1991, following Saddam's recriminatory killing of Kurds following the Gulf War. The U.S. and the British established a no-fly zone over which Saddam could not encroach.
In 1992, the Kurds in northern Iraq established their separate homeland, with the trappings of sovereignty that endure to this day. Kurdistan has its own parliamentary government, its own army and its own flag. Kurdish is the official language. No government ministry from Baghdad has an office there. Today, the Iraqi army is banned from going into this Kurdish territory, which covers the provinces of Dahuk, Irbil, and Sulaimaniyah. During the decade prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, life for the Kurds has been largely separate from the rest of the country ruled by Saddam.
Daily life in Kurdistan is still largely unaffected by the sectarian violence consuming Arab Sunnis and Shiites further south. Since the Kurds do not have as strong a stake in the sectarian battles affecting the rest of the country, they may view an Iranian occupation over the rest of Iraq as a pragmatic solution.
Since 1992, Iran's relationship with the Kurdish government has been similarly pragmatic. Iran extends a hand of friendship so long as Iraq's Kurds show no support for any effort to expand beyond Iraq's borders. Consequently, relations have wavered from amicable to hostile, based Iran's concern about the sanctity of its borders. About 5 million ethnic Kurds live in Iran.
America's Historic Legacy
You may think that Iraqis feel nothing but gratitude to the United States for liberating them from Saddam. For most Iraqis, and Shiites in particular, America's record is a mixed bag at best. They remember that, up until the first Gulf War and for the post-war massacre of 100,000 Shiites, the U.S. was Saddam's enabler.
In 1991, as we forced Saddam's army into full retreat from Kuwait, the first President Bush urged Iraqis to rise up. "The Iraqi military and the Iraqi people should take matters into their own hands," he said "to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south took Bush's words to heart, believing that the U.S. would provide some kind of support, or sanctuary, if they tried to overturn Iraq's government. They were fatally mistaken.
"You had this mantra being repeated in Washington, `We're not going to get involved in Iraq's internal affairs,' recalls Peter Galbraith, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who visited Iraq in March . 'This was a clear signal to Saddam that he could kill whoever he needed to kill to stay in power.'
Baghdad quickly deployed helicopter gunships against the poorly armed rebels -- violating the spirit of a cease-fire agreement -- and Republican Guards slipped out of Basra, under the noses of U.S. forces posted near main highways. As one senior officer puts it: 'We had overwatch of the traffic but we didn't interdict it.'
As reports of mass slaughter trickled out of Iraq, Pentagon officials drew up a plan for protecting the Shiites with a "safe haven" similar to the one that later shielded Kurds. But no one acted on it. "It was a non-starter. It ran into an administration which simply wasn't interested," says a Pentagon official familiar with the plan. "The attitude was, `the war's over, Kuwait's secured, let's get the hell out . . .'" "Forgotten Rebels: After Heeding Calls To Turn on Saddam, Shiites Feel Betrayed" By Tony Horwitz, The Wall Street Journal December 26, 1991
America's current failure to provide safety for ordinary Iraqis resonates.
Finally, there is the historic legacy that lies at the core of all Middle East politics for the past 90 years. If you don't know what it is, rent a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia and pay close attention. After World War I, when the Ottoman Empire lay defeated, the western powers stymied Arab hopes for self determination in favor of European commercial interests. They arbitrarily carved out protectorates with scant regard for the locals. Consequently, Iraq didn't emerge organically, it was cobbled together to assure British control of all the major oilfields in the area. For generations, many in the Middle East have viewed western intervention as an outgrowth of that post-World War I imperialism.
Last July, Iran hosted a conference on Iraq's security attended by ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, senior representatives of the U.N., the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Attendees made it clear that George W. Bush is not the decider of the U.S. military presence. The ministers noted
"the stated intention of the international community... to terminate the presence of multinational forces at the request of the government of Iraq ...[T]he ministers expressed their support for the transfer of all affairs to the elected representatives of Iraqi people, and underlined the need to raise the level of preparedness of Iraqi defence and security forces and the earliest transfer of defence and security responsibilities to them."
Go to iraqieconomy.org for a taste of commercial relations between Iraq and Iran. By the way, Iraq's and Iran's oil reserves, combined, represent over 20% of the world total.
The numbers say:
U.S. efforts to isolate Iran will continue to be ineffectual because:
a) The balance of power in world energy is eroding away from the United States and Europe,
b) In favor of Russia and Iran, so that
c) Russia's sponsorship of Iran enhances Russia's own strategic power with other countries.
d) Russia and China who want to do business with Iran. Now they have the economic resources to neutralize U.S. diplomatic moves against Iran.
The story of Iran's newly-gained economic and strategic power takes some explaining. Of course selling oil at $75 a barrel has something to do with it. But the primary driver is a structural shift in global energy markets.
To understand how the world's energy is produced and consumed, the best place to start is probably the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
Before getting into the global picture, let's start with a review of the U.S. and oil. First, some basics. Crude oil in the U.S. is used primarily for transportation - gasoline, diesel and jet fuel - with the remainder as feedstock for refineries and petrochemical plants. (Heating oil is only 4% U.S. consumption.) Nuclear, wind and solar power, which are used to generate electricity, have nominal impact on our consumption of oil, despite Dick Cheney's suggestions otherwise. Natural gas is used primarily for generating electricity and for heating.
Under the leadership of George Bush, America's addiction to foreign oil got a lot worse, by about 1.8 million barrels a day. In 2000, we imported about 12 million barrels of oil a day; in 2005, we imported about 13.8 million barrels a day, about 2/3 of our total consumption. Our addiction is getting worse, because our consumption keeps going up, by about 2% a year, while domestic production keeps falling.
Oil production in other developed countries is also falling. In 2005 U.S. daily production was 12% lower than it was in 2000. Norway's was also 12% lower, and in Britain 2005 production was 32% lower than it was in 2000. For these three countries, that's a drop of 2.1 million barrels a day.
Who made up for the shortfall? In large part it was Russia, which produced 6.5 million barrels a day in 2000 and 9.5 barrels a day in 2005, a 43% increase. In 2005 Russia produced about as much oil as Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar combined. Remember, in 2000, oil sold for about $30 a barrel; in 2005 it sold for about $56 a barrel, and lately it's been selling for $75 a barrel.
Current oil prices add to Russia's wealth, but its real strategic power comes from natural gas. Virtually all of Russia's natural gas is controlled by Gazprom, which is 51% government-owned. Five years ago, relatively little natural gas traded in global markets. But that's changing fast. Russia holds the world's largest supply of natural gas reserves, about 27% of the world total. Iran has the second largest reserves, or about 15% of the world total. America's ally, Qatar, is a close third, with 14% of the world's total. However, Qatar, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, cannot practicably sell its gas via pipeline. No other country has reserves of comparable size.
A Russia/Iran partnership could control the world market for natural gas. As Valery Yazev, a Russian legislator who heads the Duma's energy committee, said in Berlin last May, cooperation among the largest producers "may lead to the creation of a gas suppliers' alliance that will be more effective and influential than OPEC."
For perspective, Saudi Arabia has 22% of the world's oil reserves. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran combined have 43% of the world's oil reserves. If Russia teams up with Iran, the two countries would control 42% of the world's gas supply. That's a lot.
In that spirit, Gazprom offered to build a pipeline carrying Iran's gas to Pakistan and India. Here's how industry publications described the strategic implications of the deal:
"Russia aims to enter the South Asian gas market by giving Iran and Turkmenistan gas to market in Europe, in return for gas transported via the Iran-Pakistan-India and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipelines that Gazprom could sell inside Pakistan and India. The swap would avoid additional competition for Russia in Europe from Iran and Central Asia." International Oil Daily July 31, 2006
"Experts in New Delhi explained that the strategy, if successful, would make Russia an even more dominant supplier of gas to Western Europe, a situation with which some countries, such as Germany, may not be comfortable. Western diplomats pointed out that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is aggressively using oil and gas to enhance its grip and profile as a global power.
"'The Russian plan ... is a very smart move, both politically and economically,' one West European ambassador said. 'This will deepen the Russian influence all across Central Asia to Iran and Pakistan and India.'" Upstream July28, 2006
Washington's efforts to stop the pipeline seem to be falling on deaf ears. On August 15, 2006, the same day that US diplomat Steven Mann said the US "strongly opposes" the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, the Pakistani Ambassador to Tehran expressed hope that negotiations on the gas pipeline would soon be finalized so the two countries would develop a closer friendship.
Until recently, most natural gas was sold in regional, rather than global markets. The change was brought about, in part, by America's brand new addiction, imported liquefied natural gas, or LNG. LNG is very expensive to produce. (The gas is liquefied, transported in special high pressure container ships, and then converted back to gas before being shipped on a pipeline.) Still, every expert predicts that the U.S. will not have enough natural gas to keep fueling its gas-fired electric power plants, so it must import the more expensive LNG. All of a sudden, countries that had no viable market for their gas, because the cost of delivering it to a consuming market was too high, can now sell the gas as LNG.
The other primary catalyst for LNG development is the future demand from fast-growth economies in Asia. So while Iran, India and Pakistan still bicker over the price of gas on the new Gazprom-built pipeline, Iran knows it can walk away from the deal, because its fallback mode of distribution is an LNG plant. An LNG plant requires a huge capital expenditure, but the seller and the consumer need not worry about the risks of piping gas through not-too-friendly countries. Last July, Iran signed a deal with Thailand's national oil company of to sell 3 million tons of LNG per year. A group headed French oil giant Total will be building an LNG plant in Iran capable of handling 10 million tons of LNG per year.
Another big investor in Iran is China, Iran's third-largest export market for crude oil. China entered into a joint venture to develop Yadavaran, Iran's largest undeveloped oil field. China entered into a 25-year contract to purchase 110 million metric tons of Iranian gas. China and Iran set up a joint-venture to build large LNG tankers. Early in August, China announced that it would invest $2.7 billion to expand one of Iran's refineries. And by the way, China has been supplying missiles and missile technology to Iran for over 20 years.
All this explains why so many people, outside the U.S. anyway, were predicting that Iran would respond as it has to the U.N. Security Council's proposal on nuclear development. Iran kept stalling, and eventually came back with a counterproposal to keep on negotiating. Most Security Council members are loath to support military action, or even sanctions, so long as Tehran is willing to talk. The U.S., of course, will insist on greater political and economic sanctions.
Here's what the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote two months ago:
The difficulty for the U.S. is that this implicit threat [of sanctions] lacks credibility. Russia and China have already made abundantly clear that they do not intend to support UN sanctions on Iran, and the presence of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the recent Shanghai security summit (also attended by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin) reinforced that message, while giving the lie to claims about Tehran's isolation.
The U.S. has said that U.N diplomacy fails, it may act unilaterally. According to press reports, options on the table include military air strikes against Iran. Perhaps. But I'm reminded of something said by Ibrahim Sharif, a left-wing politician in Bahrain. People in Bahrain were becoming nervous about getting caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and Iran, since Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet - an obvious bombing target. "Iran does not need to attack Bahrain," Sharif remarked. "The weak link of the U.S. presence in the Middle East is Iraq. There are 130,000 men (US soldiers) in Iraq. It's a sitting duck in terms of inflicting damage."