by Tahir Mahmoud (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1441)
In October 2019, the Washington based al-monitor.com reported that Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official said that “the Pentagon is trying to put the finishing touches on a plan to use irregular warfare tactics to temper Iran’s military escalation in the Middle East.”
The website further quoted Mulroy as saying, “every time we [US] deploy conventional forces they [Iranians] actually take unconventional action… so conventional overmatch has not deterred… new strategy would involve economizing our force allocation and operations to deny Iran strategic success.”
The Pentagon official’s plan would not be so comical were it not for the fact that it comes from a nuclear power with the largest military budget in the world. The US military spending between October 1, 2019 and September 30, 2020 is $989 billion. The US spends more on its military than the next top nine spenders combined.
Mulroy’s statement is an indirect admission that Washington’s vast military spending is unable to achieve US objectives and is, therefore, a colossal waste of money. The self-proclaimed superpower is forced to copy its regional military strategy from a country that has been under severe sanctions for over 40 years. Let that sink in for a moment.
Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the US and Iran have been in a constant cold-war type confrontation. With far greater financial resources and a cabal of other countries backing Washington’s policies against Islamic Iran, Tehran today is a regional power and far stronger than it was 40 years ago. This is an undeniable reality.
Will the US be able to abort Iran’s rising influence by adopting irregular warfare? Before addressing this question, it is important to remember that Washington has already tried this approach in Iraq and failed completely. Today, Iran’s political and economic presence in Iraq is much greater than even a decade ago.
In 2012, Crescent International wrote about the role of US Special Forces in Washington’s imperial designs. In our seven-year-old analysis we indicated that “Special Forces Operations (SFOs) have been increasingly used as a key component of US military counterinsurgency strategy since Barack Obama became president… the Islamic Awakening in the Arab world discredited and weakened US-backed autocrats in the Muslim world and made them less usable in the current regional political and social settings. They are no longer viewed as assets by the US, but liabilities. The increasing emphasis on special operations forces will therefore require the cultivation of new fifth columns by the US… the old class of US proxies will be irritated and try to sabotage the work of the emerging new informant caste.”
With the above in mind, let us first look at what the Pentagon means by “irregular warfare.” Cutting through the jargon, this means that the US will rely more on proxies to confront Iran and will build them up from behind the scenes. This is not a new strategy; Washington tried this in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon over the past seven years. It did not work; the Americans are terrible at such things. In Syria, this approach was a disaster. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that “in Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA.”
Even in Europe, where the US presence is much more entrenched and local populations view America quite favorably, its irregular approach in Ukraine failed. Moscow was able to create a strong bloc of irregular proxies through its so-called hybrid warfare strategy to upset Washington’s design of absorbing Ukraine into NATO’s security structure.
Washington’s desire to copy Iran’s irregular approach is flawed from a strategic perspective. Ever since Tehran assisted the establishment of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Western powers have been obsessed with copying this approach to establish their own reliable and determined proxy to take on Iran in a sustained and long-term confrontation. The closest they got was the creation of the Wahhabi-indoctrinated militias in Syria. The Western powers closed their eyes to the egregious crimes of these militias in the Syrian conflict and gave Turkey the green light to open its border for foreign takfiri fighters to enter and exit Syria freely. This policy was a complete failure and has been acknowledged by even those observers who have limited understanding of the region.
The US and its allies assumed that Hizbullah, Ansarullah or the People’s Moblization Units’ (PMU’s) loyalty to Islamic Iran is politically motivated and thus essentially Machiavellian. Therefore, the West assumes that all it needs to do to build its own “Hizbullah” is to throw money at various disenfranchised political groupings. This is precisely why the US and its allies failed in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. In all these theaters of operations, Islamic Iran’s allies are connected to Iran through an existential and ideological bond. This is something Western powers will not be able to achieve with any of their proxies. The brutal history of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism plays a large part in this. Western regimes are greatly distrusted and those working with them are automatically considered to be sellouts by the wider population in the Muslim world.
One of the primary reasons for the US resorting to irregular warfare is because the Donald Trump regime realizes that it lacks political and military clout to actively pursue its agenda directly. While some may challenge this analysis by pulling out quantitative economic and military data of the US, it must be remembered that wars are won primarily through achieving political goals. Yes, the US destroyed thousands of villages and towns and killed millions of human beings in Vietnam, but it lost the war because it failed to achieve its political objectives. The same phenomenon has occurred in Afghanistan, where even after occupying the country for 18 years, Washington is begging the Taliban for a face-saving retreat.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US can destabilize the situation through irregular warfare activities, but it cannot put in place a functional American project. This was best illustrated when the Iraqi Kurdish independence bid failed in 2017. Even though the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region was for decades backed and financed by the US and Israel, Washington and the Zionists failed to realize their goal to divide the region by creating an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish independence project re-mains a destabilizing leverage of the West but it cannot bring it to successful conclusion. This reflects the limits of Western power in the region.
The primary advantage for the US in resorting to increased irregular warfare on a grander scale than it has already done is the destabilization factor. Washington has the ability to destabilize the region as it is currently doing in Iraq and Lebanon but the net result will be similar to what has happened in Syria. After eight years of NATO destabilization, today Syria is far more tightly embedded within Iran’s regional bloc than it was prior to 2011.
With Trump in the White House, US credibility even among its allies has been significantly reduced. The transactional worldview of the current US regime does not allow it to form a dedicated core of regional proxies.