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A Quick History of U.S./Iranian Proxy Wars

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

The problem with starting a war with Iran is that America is already at war in a country on Iran’s border, Afghanistan. Which brings us to the next section of the War with Iran IPB: proxy warfare. But before I get to my IPB on a proxy war in Afghanistan I need to admit something:

I hate writing about Iran’s support for proxy fighters.
You wouldn’t think politics could infect intelligence at the tactical level, but it can. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, tactical units--battalions, brigades and divisions--spent an overwhelming amount of time on insurgent groups whose names frighten Americans. Ergo, “Al Qaeda in Iraq”--a term I loathe with a passion traditionally reserved for midi-chlorians--became the number one focus in Iraq while Shia politicians created a dictatorship. Awesome!

After AQI, came the Iranians. The U.S. government loved to talk about Iranian (”They were part of the Axis of Evil.”) and Syrian support for insurgents, but never mentioned a peep about Saudi involvement in Iraq. While Iran--specifically Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force members--did supply Shia insurgents with IEDs, specifically EFPs, it didn’t extend this hand to the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgents in Iraq--the so-called “al Qaeda in Iraq”--had to get money from somewhere, and it wasn’t Iran.

*cough* Saudi Arabia *cough*

Iran, meanwhile, supplied the majority of those EFPs to Shia extremists. And don’t get me wrong, plenty of U.S. units went around killing the Mahdi Army and Promised Day Brigade and Asaib ahl-Haq. But the amount of ink spilled to chase “al Qaeda in Iraq” always outweighed their political importance. I mean, the Shia took over, didn’t they?

Iran supported Shia insurgents, but not as much as the hype. This quote from The Atlantic sums up Iran’s actual actions versus what they could have done:

“The Iranians really have not made a major effort to thwart us...If they wanted to make our lives rough...they could make Iraq hell.”

Instead, Iraq generally descended into chaos on its own, and Iranian intelligence monitored the situation because, well, they fought a vicious war with their neighbor less than a generation before.
This Seymour Hersh article makes the case that Iran didn’t even supply the majority of weapons in Iraq. As Hersh writes, “David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by ‘the huge amounts of arms’ it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country.”  Same with Afghanistan; they just have tons of weapons from nearly thirty years of civil war. Sure Iranian Quds Force members had influence in Iraq, and still do in Afghanistan. They didn’t cause the insurgency though.
Worse, the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iran. David Kay continues, “Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.” Which is the same point from The Atlantic wargame I mentioned above: Iran has held back on its support of proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid provoking an overwhelming American response.

But if America (or Israel) starts an extended bombing campaign against Iran...that restraint disappears.

If Iran really wanted to hamper American goals in Afghanistan, they would supply the Taliban with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), like, ironically, America did to the Pashtun insurgents against the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan. (I know thousands of Americans remain in Iraq as contractors or diplomats. I will address them in “Iran’s Asymmetric Options”.)

Thus far, the NATO mission in Afghanistan hasn’t lost a single plane or helicopter to a guided surface to air missile. Insurgents have shot down allied helicopters with rocket propelled grenades, but an RPG is not a guided missile. Guided missiles scare the bejeezus out of most Army aviators. Stinger missiles alone didn’t cause the Russians to lose in Afghanistan, but they certainly helped.
So can Iran turn the clock in Afghanistan back to the 1980s? I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.

four comments

I think one of the purposes of this series is outlining how complicated the whole issue is. We could simplify this stuff, but that doesn’t paint a whole picture of everything.

I’ve been reading a lot about Iraq, and the whole Sunni/Shia divide took most every American—basically everyone who didn’t study the subject—by surprise. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen here.

Iranian naval action against the USN scares the heck out of you. Iranians giving good shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to Taliban & Co. scares the heck out of me. Good job on your series.

Let me clarify, I have been terrified of guided missiles in the past. And RPGs. Any infantryman who takes frequent rides to ops in Chinooks/Blackhawks feels that fear in the deepest part of their bowels.

I think the discussion is really akin to Army risk management. So balance the likelihood of an event with its severity. A sustained guided missile campaign by Iran is drastically more likely, but a burned/destroyed/sunk navy ship is much worse.

I also have been talked off this COA a bit (a tiny bit) by the argument that Iran will horde its missiles to ward off an American invasion. Those missiles will (especially if used in guerilla/irregular ways) severely hamper an invasion.

A final point, the anti-tank guided missiles are the underreported story here. All the defense built in the last ten years for IEDs are useless against missiles. They could change the game, and the U.S. would have to rapidly adapt its techniques. Combine IEDs, ATGMs and SAMs? That could change the game (cliche) in Afghanistan.

If we did invade Iran, I think they could get their hands on all the missiles they needed at the time because they would be willing to pay. So perhaps they might not horde for that eventuality and give what they have now to whomever will shoot at us in hopes of inflicting so much pain as to scare us out of invading.

I like the mention of using anti tank missiles in unconventional ways. I remember reading something about them practicing letting heavy attacking forces go where they pleased, because they weren’t going to stop those anyway. Then attacking the logistics support with missiles, or something like that.