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Strategic overwatch or regional liability?

March 14, 2012

The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq last year has left many uncertain and worried about the country’s future role in regional and global policy. With the Iraqi political system crafting an independent foreign policy, Syria descending into civil war, and Iran continuing to defy U.S. pressure on its nuclear program, there is no small degree of concern over whether or not the U.S. ceded vital geostrategic turf by retrenching its posture in the Persian Gulf. Peter Feaver, at Shadow Government, argues for a “strategic overwatch” force. A residual force, in his argument, would:

  • Have more coercive military options vis-a-vis Iran without the need to trumpet them.  The complicated diplomatic signaling that the Obama administration has been struggling to send to Iran — “we are serious, but not that serious, and we are determined, but not so determined as to act right now and we sure hope Israel isn’t so determined as to act without us, but if they do, know that we tried to persuade them not to…” — involves a lot of bluster and double talk. President Obama likes to invoke Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Wouldn’t a residual strategic overwatch force in Iraq have given him a bigger stick, allowing him to speak a bit more softly?
  • Have what the Cold War experience demonstrated was the predicate for successful containment and extended deterrence: forces in theater. There is a lot of loose talk about  containing and deterring Iran, and some of the loosest treats those as relatively easy assignments, given how the United States was able to contain and deter the Soviet Union. Very rarely do containment enthusiasts address the awkward fact that the Cold War success involved the costly deployment of a substantial tripwire.
  • Have greater reassurance for our Iraqi partners who are still struggling to forge an enduring political order.
  • Have a richer menu of more options, and at a lower cost, for confronting Syria. At a minimum, to the extent that coercive diplomacy might influence Assad’s actions, having the ground forces there would bolster those efforts. At a maximum, the more daunting scenarios of securing Syria’s WMD would seem a tad less daunting if the U.S. had substantial forces in theater.

Firstly, it is by no means clear what kind of new coercive options vis-a-vis Iran a residual force in Iraq gives us. The United States already has a very large amount of coercive military options against Iran because of the many forces it has stationed in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. retains a massive naval and aerial capability and actual or potential bases in the Gulf States. All of these bases are in far better standing with their local governments than U.S. bases would be with Iraq’s, and indeed they are at more likely risk of closure from U.S. queasiness over the human rights records of their hosts than the hosts themselves taking action against them. More importantly, though, what on earth is a limited ground force (perhaps two divisions) in Iraq going to do to coerce Iran, particularly over its nuclear program? Is the U.S. planning on launching a rapid offensive to the Zagros or Khuzestan? As for logistical and intelligence assets, the United States has significant capabilities in theater already in the other Gulf states. What is the added benefit of putting them in Iraq?

Overwatch, in the original – tactical – sense, is one unit holding a useful position to protect another unit as it maneuvers. Strategically, troops in Iraq can’t really perform this function. If U.S. assets in the Gulf states come under attack from Iranian aerial, naval, or irregular capabilities, what will two divisions in Iraq do to help? Unless the goal is to open up a “second front” on the Iranians by pressuring them on land, an overwatch force that remains in Iraq can really only protect U.S. assets in Iraq – i.e., the overwatch force itself.

Secondly, an overwatch force would hardly be reassuring to Iraqi politics. Even in countries which felt they were under actual threat from communist aggression, there was often resentment and political difficulty arising from the presence of armed foreigners. The issue has less to do with the permanent or temporary nature of the base and more with the base itself. While the base might embolden some factions in Iraqi politics, it would cause problems with many more, and indeed, quite possibly make it difficult for some politicians to work with the U.S. Even in Europe during the Cold War, NATO presence attracted insurgent groups and attacks on personnel – the only U.S. flag officer ever kidnapped by a terrorist group, James Dozier, fell victim to Italy’s Red Brigades. Basing issues in Japan have ruined political careers – just ask Hatoyama, who had to bow out after a humiliating concession to the U.S. But the U.S. presence in Iraq would be victim to even more suspicion than in Japan (during the Cold War or now) because it has a vested interest in Iraqi domestic political disputes. In an emergency scenario where the Iraqi military must maintain order, it would be difficult for many Iraqis to believe that America would simply sit it out and neutrally arbitrate, rather than use its leverage.

Thirdly, the Syrian option, while the most plausible use for a regionally-focused “overwatch” force of the ones outlined, is still questionable in value. Iraq’s government has more of an interest in sealing up the Syrian border than helping overthrow Assad. For one, Iraq is not eager to knock over Assad, which would complicate its relationship with Iran. For another, further destabilizing Syria by supporting the rebellion or toppling Assad outright would open up new space, and provide new resources to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is of course an immediate threat (and it might also trigger an influx of refugees – among them much of Iraq’s old Christian population) back to Iraq. As with the very deployment of troops there in the first place, an overwatch force crossing into Syria assumes political preferences that simply don’t seem to exist within the Iraqi government. Even then, I would be hesitant to deploy U.S. ground troops deep into Syria to secure WMD facilities except as part of a much larger operation, which would need support from Jordan and Turkey, not just Iraq. While this is the most realistic option, I’m not sure if the mission it would contribute to is all that plausible or worth pushing for.

Finally, though, there is the issue of “forces in theater” for containment. Forces in Iraq are not enough to deter Iranian political meddling in Iraq – 140,000 troops weren’t enough to do that. They are not enough to deter Iranian irregular warfare activity. They are certainly not going to deter Iranian aggression outside of Iraq. What they might deter would be an Iranian invasion of Iraq, but it seems very unlikely Iran was ever planning this anyway. Forces in theater during containment often served a deterring role not because they were strong enough to actually repulse incoming forces, but because, as Feaver notes, they were tripwires. Soviet and North Korean planners feared what the retaliation to contact with these tripwires would be, not the forces being used as tripwires themselves. American soldiers stationed in Berlin or Korea were almost certainly likely to be beaten back by initial attacks, if not wiped out in the Berlin case, which would ensure that the U.S. had skin in the game and followed up with more conventional forces, or even tactical or strategic nuclear strikes. Of course, this is all academic because Iran cannot conduct a rapid mechanized offensive with a perceived high probability of success against Iraq, or, for that matter, almost all its other neighbors. But what about the kind of offensives Iran is more likely to contemplate – naval seizures of the straits or irregular attacks on the Gulf monarchies and Western forces stationed in them?

Part of the fault with this lies, of course, with the advocates of containment in Iran in general, as Feaver rightly notes. The meaning of the phrase for Iran policy has never really been fleshed out, nor what it accomplished during the Cold War ever fully understood. Containment is separate from deterrence, and instead should be understood as part of a cumulative strategy, as should the modern challenge of Iran – which Adam Elkus thoroughly explains in an older post. Nor should we be confused about what the tripwires in Europe actually accomplished. They prevented a Soviet ground offensive into Europe and a North Korean ground offensive into the South. They did not deter Soviet proxy warfare and irregular attacks or state-sponsored terrorism. Despite the presence of a robust ground force in South Korea, for example, North Korea attacked U.S. aerial and naval assets, such as the EC-121 shootdown and USS Pueblo seizure during the 1960s (or the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of disputed islands since its nuclear program), and conducted terrorist attacks such as the Blue House Raid and various bombing attempts. In other words, Iran’s preferred methods of aggression could easily sidestep the American tripwire.

But Iran doesn’t even need to avoid the tripwire when using irregular forces and state-sponsored terrorism. After all, the IRGC’s Qods Force backed a diverse network of proxies to target American troops during the Iraq war. However, the U.S. lacked satisfactory retaliatory options, and had to focus much of its effort on bringing to bear killing power and intelligence against QF partners and QF personnel themselves within Iraq. A “strategic overwatch” force is the opposite of a deterrent – it is a found, fixed enemy which the Iranian QF can choose to engage at will. Indeed, even if Iran were to trigger the tripwire and bring more forces to bear within Iraq itself, this would be at disproportionately higher cost to the United States. Maintaining a big fat target in Iraq plays right into well-known Iranian preferences for the use of irregular warfare to bleed American troops.

Containment of communist irregular threats was never the job of the tripwires or conventional forces in theater. It became the job of a much uglier, nastier side of the security policy world. In Europe, the Gladio program mutated from a stay-behind force to wage insurgency against the Red Army to active cells and proxy forces for European governments seeking to counteract communist subversion and insurgency. NATO’s Southern Command and its many assets were not the preferred instrument for dealing with the Brigatte Rossi – the Italian deep state and its proxy capabilities were. In South America, Operation Condor targeted communist cells while in Central America, U.S. backed governments and proxy forces, including paramilitaries, death squads, and CIA unilateral action elements did most of the heavy lifting. In Vietnam, the targeting of the covert infrastructure of the Viet Cong was that of the Phoenix Program, which involved just a few hundred advisors on the U.S. side.

Essentially, containment of Iran with conventional forces should be oriented around deterrence of the most likely forms of Iranian attack and maintaining the capability to respond to them. As things stand, a ground force with supporting aerial and logistical capabilities in Iraq would not just be irrelevant to the more likely Iranian use of irregular power projection or maritime access denial, but likely a distraction for the U.S. as it is forced to account for potential vulnerability to irregular attack in Iraq when it should be focusing on countering the IRGC with clandestine, proxy and irregular assets of its own or counteracting U.S. actions to the Gulf. Even in higher-end scenarios where Iran does launch conventional military offensives into Iraq, it’s unclear that they would proceed so rapidly that the United States forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would not function as a deterrent. Even in cases where deterrence fails in the Gulf – and deterrence has failed in the Gulf before – the task of logistically preparing to repulse or retaliate against Iranian action would fall more heavily on the Gulf states than Iraq anyway, since the most pressing U.S. interests – the follow of energy, control of sea lanes, and Gulf partner monarchies – all lie there. Deploying troops into Iraq just provides another vulnerability where Iran can broaden the irregular battlefield, as it did virtually anywhere in the neighborhood where the U.S. deploys troops.

While the Syria case is an example of potential flexibility an overwatch force in Iraq could offer, it is important to weigh opportunities with their costs in the broader regional and strategic context. An overwatch force is not very useful if it does not hold a position it can use to assist the maneuvering unit. Similarly, an Iraqi overwatch force has little value if it detracts resources and opens vulnerabilities instead of supplementing security of U.S. vital interests by protecting them directly or assisting other units in fulfilling that task. The U.S. already has a significant Gulf security presence and limited resources with which to augment it. Expanding its lines further will not deter Iran from its most likely conventional or irregular military operations, and indeed stymies the ability of forces elsewhere in theater to act in such a capacity. To boot, it is all likely politically impossible. Feaver argues:

Voters are going to hear a lot about how President Obama kept his promise to “end” the Iraq war and bring all of the troops home. Then he may go on to describe how he is addressing other key challenges in the region. What he likely won’t say is that the way he ended the Iraq war has weakened his hand for all of these other problems.

I would say quite the opposite. By withdrawing from Iraq, Obama avoided derailing U.S.-Iraq relations by inflaming the dispute over basing, or over Baghdad’s Syria policy, he has eliminated a potential target for Iranian irregular attacks, and freed resources for use both in other theaters and to more critical areas of CENTCOM itself. U.S. forces in Iraq only served to counteract an Iranian campaign that would not have threatened the U.S. had U.S. troops not created the opportunity and incentive for it in the first place, and deterred only the most wildly unlikely forms of Iranian aggression. They certainly did not create realistic new coercive options for dealing with Iran itself. A U.S. presence in Iraq would leave the U.S. with a festering diplomatic and strategic sore in Mesopotamia and less time and resources for dealing with other regional challenges. If we’re to talk of overwatch, let’s talk about bounding overwatch. Whatever maneuver our forces in Iraq were supporting, it has largely been completed. It was long overdue for U.S. forces in Iraq to advance to better cover.
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