Friday, June 13, 2008

Andrew Sullivan Asks a Pretty Good Question

But I don't think it gets to the real heart of the matter.

What I fear is that the Bush administration and many neo-conservatives are claiming one thing, while planning for another; and after the last eight years, the trust level is low. I fear they want a permanent presence in Iraq to reassure Israel; and to pursue the option of war with Iran. I fear the bases are there to detain, contain or attack the regional Shiite power, Iran, and to reassure the regional Sunni powers that the US military will protect them. If this is the agenda, please let us know. Let the American people examine and debate it. Have McCain own this position rather than refer to it as a premise as if we already know what it is.

I'm not going to get into Sullivan-bashing, because what good would that do?

Up front--this is the most critical point--the US Army cannot fight anywhere at full strength right now. The force is exhausted, the equipment is stretched to the breaking point, and the troops are not trained for an invasion; they are seasoned after five years of occupation duty, not invade-and-destroy-another-army duty. It would require at least 5 mechanized (heavy) divisions to attack Iran, or, roughly, at least twenty-five to thirty mechanized brigades at full strength in order to overwhelm the Iranian army sufficiently. You can't do it all by air, and light forces would have to move in and occupy or hold ground behind the heavy units. That's another 15 brigades, along with a massive support infrastructure to supply and maintain an invasion force that would have to travel behind them. The Iranian Army would likely disperse and reform BEHIND or on the flanks of an advancing army. And five divisions is barely enough as it is. In order to invade Iran, anyone who says less than a million men is not being realistic at all if they want to achieve anything. We'd be lucky to field a force of 170,000 men, if that. We would have to abandon most of Iraq.

The problem with the assertion that the US is planning to have 58 permanent bases in Iraq is that there's almost no way for the US military to attack Iran from those bases in Iraq, not by surprise and not without risking military failure. We initially attacked Iraq from bases in Kuwait--and a mechanized army on the attack has to move forces into place, stage them as briefly as possible in long lines or deployed formations, and move to the attack with a large logistics and supply chain behind them.

Iraq already attacked Iran in this way, so the Iranians know every major approach and every area of defense. It is 430 miles from Baghdad to Tehran. The original US invasion that kicked off in 2003 was a movement from Kuwait to Baghdad of roughly 300 miles. The Iranians have rough terrain to defend, not just desert. They can arrange a token defense of their frontier and we will see a brief replay of the stalemated Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. No question--the US Army would overwhelm the Iranian Army, but it would have to move through rough terrain to invade Iran from Iraq.

An uprising by any of the Shia forces in Iraq aligned with Iran--the Badr brigade, for example--would mean that the US Army would move into hostile territory and overwhelm Iran's military in a ground invasion while leaving its bases in Iraq either lightly defended or empty and the massive logistical supply train very vulnerable to attack. Think of IEDs and fuel trucks, trying to move from Iraq into western Iran--and you get the idea.

It's almost impossible to invade a country when you're stuck in a quagmire in the country next door. US troops would have to move hundreds of miles into attack formations and almost certainly would be attacked while doing so by forces seeking to disrupt or delay an invasion of Iran. Iraq would have to be placid and safe--as Kuwait was in 2003--for that to work.


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