Defining a war, in a traditional sense – uniformed soldiers, helicopters, artillery, tanks – means that the U.S. is still very much at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But defining wars in a different sense – Clausewitz’s, “the continuation of politics by other means” – increases the number of U.S. wars. The U.S. continues to fight a war against terrorism and, most threateningly, against Iran. The war against Iran is the most dangerous of all, given Iran’s internal political splits.
Don’t think the two most ‘war-like’ wars are over. In June 2011, 15 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq — the highest monthly total in over two years. In Afghanistan, 38 Americans were killed in the same month.
The U.S. is still fighting the GWOT, the Global War on Terrorism, or “the Long War.” The killing of Osama Bin Laden was the most striking success in that war. But even though the Obama administration has dropped the name, this war goes on. “We seek nothing less than the utter destruction of this evil that calls itself al-Qaeda,” according to John Brennan, senior counterterrorism advisor to President Obama. “More than half of al-Qaeda’s top leadership has been eliminated. That’s another reason why we and our partners have stepped up our efforts, because if we hit al-Qaeda hard enough and often enough there will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks with the skilled leaders they need to sustain their operations.”
This war against al-Qaeda is fought with special armed forces “kill teams” in a number of countries along with CIA operatives and many local recruits. It is fought with drone-launched missiles into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, the home of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One of those missiles was meant to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico born Islamist preacher with links to the Fort Hood shooter, the “underwear bomber,” and the Times Square bombing suspect. It missed al-Awlaki but Yemen has become even more of a target for U.S. attacks given the near collapse of the central government and the rise of Islamic militancy.
Then there have been missile attacks into Somalia. Al-Shabaab, listed by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, controls much of southern Somalia and parts of the capital Mogadishu. The country, without a functioning central government since 1991, has been a perfect breeding ground for militancy. Some U.K. and U.S. born Somalis have been energized by al-Shabaab and have moved to Somalia to join the group. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for bomb blasts in Kampala, Uganda that killed more than 70 people during the World Cup finals in 2010.
The U.S. has teams in Somalia, struggling to build a central authority – and struggling to decimate al-Shabaab.
We now know that the U.S. captured a Somali terrorism suspect on a boat in the Gulf of Aden. He was interrogated on a U.S. Navy ship for two months before being shipped to a federal court in New York. The Somali is alleged to be a key link between Al-Shabaab and AQAP in Yemen.
But the least heralded of the U.S. wars, is the war with Iran. This is a war unlike others. Almost none of this war is visible. There are no missile strikes, no explosions. But there is constant pressure by both the U.S. and Iran against the other, pressure that could lead to catastrophe.
Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, senior official spokesman for US Forces – Iraq has recently complained of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force (IRGC) aiding three Shiite militias in Iraq and supplying them with deadly new weapons. One of the weapons being supplied is known as an IRAM – improvised rocket assisted munition. An IRAM is basically a propane gas tank stuffed with explosives and propelled by rockets. One of the three Shiite militias claimed responsibility for the deaths of 6 US service men on a June 6 IRAM attack on a US camp near Baghdad International Airport.
According to Jay Solomon writing in The Wall Street Journal, British forces, in February, intercepted a shipment of four dozen 122-millimeter rockets from Iran moving through Afghanistan’s desolate Nimruz Province. The rockets have an estimated range of about 13 miles, more than double the distance of the majority of the Taliban’s other rockets.
IRGC officers have been working with their Syrian counterparts to help preserve the Assad regime. They have also supplied Hezballah in Lebanon with new long-range missiles, able to reach deep into Israel.
At the June OPEC Meeting, Iran led the other price hawks – Algeria and Venezuela – in preventing any increase in OPEC output. Iran wants higher oil prices to help its beleaguered economy and rising inflation. Iran also wants to hurt the West.
Recent war games in Iran have demonstrated new missiles capable of reaching Israel and all U.S. bases in the Middle East. The Chinese have built a plant in Iran to turn out new versions of the Chinese anti-ship Silkworm missile, meant to give Iran dominance over the Strait of Hormuz.
In response, the U.S. has mounted a ferocious set of sanctions that are steadily being tightened. In June, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on IranAir, accused of ferrying weapons to Syria and Hezballah. Only days ago, Maersk, one of the world’s largest container and bulk cargo shipping lines, announced it would no longer call on Iranian ports. India owes Iran more than $2 billion for Iranian oil. India hasn’t paid.
Iran has accused the U.S. and Israel of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and of responsibility for the ‘Stuxnet’ virus that set back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. (The Bushehr nuclear power plant has still not gone live.) U.S. special forces and CIA operatives are widely believed to be operating throughout Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Khamene’i and President Ahmadinejad have fallen out. Ahmadinejad has been reluctant to carry out certain of the Leader’s wishes. He and his followers have since been mercilessly attacked as spirit worshippers and sorcerers. The IRGC is siding with the Leader (of course) and Ahmadinejad’s tenure, despite being heartily endorsed by the Leader after the 2009 elections, is shaky.
But so is the Iranian economy. The sanctions have hurt. So has the mismanagement of the economy by Ahmadinejad. He has ended many of the subsidies that burdened the regime with nearly $90 billion in payments per year. But he has instituted, in their stead, cash subsidy payments to poorer families, costing many billions. Relentlessly rising prices have followed.
This is the time for Iran to generate internal unity — at least to paper over its growing political and economic crises. The most effective way to do that is to generate foreign policy crises and then mobilize the extraordinarily nationalistic Iranian people behind the regime.
Watch for Iran to take on some U.S. national interest to do just that. The great danger is that either Iran or the U.S. will miscalculate. That miscalculation could produce a catastrophe.