The effects of withdrawal and Iranian covert operations

Two recent “Intelligence Briefs” from PINR caught my eye: “Iran’s Covert Operations in Iraq,” and “The Implications of Strategic Withdrawal from Iraq.” As some readers know, I’m a big fan of PINR for supplying ‘open source intelligence,’ which is to say, generalized insights into foreign policy and educated guesses based on publicly available information. In these two pieces, they advance the argument that Iran is quite likely involved in supporting pro-Iranian groups and in trying to prevent the spread of violence eastward. Their goal in Iraq is simply to avoid a repeat of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which was expensive, destructive, and deadly. This means they are pursuing the eventual victory of a pro-Iranian, anti-Saudi Arabian regime in Baghdad.

PINR is only willing to say that Iran is playing a role in the country, not to accuse them of supplying particular groups or particular weapons. Those are beyond their ‘open-source’ capacities. The point is that:

“Iran is likely supporting the various friendly Shi’a groups in Iraq. Most Iraqi Shi’a factions — such as S.C.I.R.I. and Moqtada al-Sadr’s group — are probably accepting assistance from Iran since, even if they wish to remain independent of Tehran, they are willing to accept assistance at least until they gain power. Other Shi’a groups — such as S.C.I.R.I., which runs the Badr Corps/Brigade — spent years in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist establishment was in power. Iran’s goal is to have one of these actors take and maintain power in Iraq, so that it can eliminate what has traditionally been a hostile Sunni Arab state.”

The second report is the truly interesting one. In the US, we’ve gotten so bogged down in questions of cowardice and bravery that we’ve stopped evaluating the goals of the continued occupation. Given the increasing likelihood of a strategic withdrawal, those interested in foreign policy must begin to evaluate the opportunities the region will supply without such a strong American presence. It’s not the WWII model, with complete capitulation and a long occupation: victory and defeat are rarely as absolute as we’ve begun to think of them. Instead, we’ll continue to attempt to balance Iranian influence in the region while furthering American interests in the oil available there. We can continue to do that from the safety of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

“The bottom line is that withdrawing the majority of U.S. forces from Iraq will not necessarily be a disaster for U.S. interests. The failure to achieve the original mission in Iraq has already occurred, and the United States has already suffered a significant loss of its interests. Withdrawing troops from the country may not make matters much worse. Instead, upon withdrawal the United States can begin to pursue operations more in line with its capabilities, using technology to eliminate potential Islamist threats and using its overt and covert elements to work toward a stable government in Baghdad.”

So long as we remain the occupying power, it will be impossible to differentiate freedom fighters from terrorists. When we leave, the only militants remaining will be sectarians and the hard-core jihadists. Nor will this spell an immediate victory for Iran… in truth, we may benefit Iranian interests more by remaining than by leaving, since we are distracted and bleeding capital, while they can sit back and manipulate events from relative safety.

The question PINR resolutely resists asking and answering is whether its ethical to leave Iraq now that we’ve destroyed the regime. I don’t relish the kind of ethnic cleansing and we may see; on the other hand, we don’t seem able to stop it and it continues even today, with almost 150,000 American troops caught up in the conflict. I hold out a little hope of a partition-type solution, but until there’s a Commander-in-Chief in office who’s willing to consider that possibility, the options are stay and perpetuate the violence or go and observe it from afar. In such a situation, it’s clear our responsibility is to reduce the solidarity that militants are currently experiencing against the invading Western power. It’s always possible they’ll settle on a political solution themselves.

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