How The Lessons of The Last Wars Can Prepare Us For The Wars To Come
In the days following the escalation between Iran and the United States, many expert voices on the region have begun to discuss scenarios of what a war would look like, how it would start and what, if anything, can be done to avoid it. This is the conversation that should happen with any escalation with a foreign power and while I am not a Middle East expert, I am glad to have contributed a small piece to that conversation with my last post. However, voices on the American Left and the Right began pushing back on a potential war with the Islamic Republic: refusing to even consider the conversation and instead demanding that, under no circumstances, do America declare war. This, I believe, has the exact opposite affect and makes a war more likely and more dangerous since such calls ignore the last twenty years or so of our history.
Let’s begin here: the idea that Iran does not want war with the United States is folly. War, in and of itself, is an inevitability of humanity and if anyone knows that, it’s the civilization that developed chess. So, if there is ever going to be direct conflict between Iran and the United States, the Islamic Republic would prefer a conflict that it can win. This has been the guiding idea behind their proxy wars with Saudi Arabia for the last six years. They have succeeded in creating a combustible situation in the region alongside their allies in Russia and China. Now, they want to be the ones to tell the world they can fix it. However, for Iran to assume hegemonic authority in the Middle East, they cannot lose against the US or our allies for the foreseeable future.
Now we in America have to ask ourselves what kind of war can the Iranian government pull us into that we’re almost guaranteed to lose. The answer is anything that hints at a long-term engagement. This is the core of my theories about how a war with Iran could start, both a nuclear and non-nuclear scenario would force the United States into long-term conflict: ten years minimum just to address the current proxy wars in the region. We would also have to consider potential major ground operations outside of the Arabian Peninsula and in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon if such fronts are formed. From there we would have to worry about minor ground operations, restricting the ability of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to influence remnant loyalist factions to continue recruiting and fighting, as well as making the call on whether or not to push beyond the current theaters of war into Iranian territory. Any conflict with Iran will be the second longest military campaign the minute it starts: ironically placing it just after the Barbary Wars (read my post here to find out how you’ve been misinformed about that conflict).
Iran knows this: we don’t. The American people will not be able to stomach the length of this conflict without a concurrent Iranian attack on American soil. Which is why they believe it is a war they can win and if they’re going to antagonize us into it, they’re going to do it now.
When I brought all of this up on Twitter, someone immediately threw Iraq at me as if it were a curse and I imaging that’s the case for most of the American population. Most wars America has fought in since World War 1 are not framed by their stated objectives and the realities of the regions they are in, but in how it fits within domestic politics (which I analyzed here). In the nearly twenty years since the beginning of the War in Afghanistan and over a decade since the start of the War in Iraq, we have yet to have a conversation about those conflicts outside of the prism of our personal politics. And the fact we’re talking about those wars and not our more recent military actions in Syria and Libya says a lot, but that’s neither here nor there. It has weakened our ability to function on the global stage and it will destroy us if we do not address it.
So, let’s address it.
The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified in strategic terms, but ugly in execution. The United States could not allow for the Taliban government in Afghanistan to exist and continue funding the largest terrorist network at the time. As for Iraq, beyond the threat of a rogue state developing means of biological, chemical and nuclear warfare, Saddam Hussein was overseeing a massive ring of corruption with the United Nations as a cover that directly funded terrorism. I’ll leave the more humane contentions to those with better hearts. After September 11th, allowing him to continue operating a state-financier of terrorism was unacceptable even if some were on the fence about allowing him to stay in power.
In practice, a lot of mistakes were made in both campaigns. The ‘De-Ba’athification’ of the Iraqi government and military was incredibly consequential. When the insurgency started, all of those with the experience and respect to gather and repel Al-Qaeda in Iraq were sitting at home: making the job much harder for our armed forces. Similarly, our inability to understand the complex cultural identities and practices in Afghanistan kept us from effectively breaking the back of the Taliban after overthrowing them. Even having a Pashtun native in Dr. Khalilzad guiding policy on these issues was not enough to crack the traditions of the country, which kept the Taliban just beyond our reach and the group a consistent threat to the point where we are now seriously negotiating peace with them without the support of the elected Executive Branch of the Afghanistan government.
With each war, the mistakes we made are clear: we don’t understand the people we’re fighting or trying to protect. Our ignorance as a nation is our biggest weakness and it has led to us repeatedly snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Why? Because we cannot take a break from the rigidity of the Democratic/Republican Nationalists frame to understand just how little we know about the world we claim to lead. The overall victories America got in both countries and how close we repeatedly got to stable, democratic governments have become secondary to each side trying to get a petty win. This hasn’t helped Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Libya and it is the weak spot Iran, really any of our adversaries around the world, will exploit.
We at now at a point where our continued ignorance is a liability that has to be addressed. Tension in the Persian Gulf will continue to grow, the Iran-Saudi Cold War will only get hotter, and sooner than we are ready, we will be at war with Iran. The sooner we open our minds and commit ourselves to actually learning the lessons of the past and rebuking our own ignorance, the sooner we can make a real stand against the forces that wish us harm.