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Iran, Aircraft Carriers and Cans of Worms

Calling All Carriers

by Col. DAN SMITH

Most people know and, in any given week, probably utter one of the many thousands of "Murphy’s Laws" that exist.

But Murphy is not the only perceptive spirit: We have Howe’s Law, Sod’s Law (British), O’Toole’s Commentary (Irish?), Skinner’s Constant, Jennings’s Corollary, Barth’s Distinction, and Farber’s Rule. And then there is something called Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics: "Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to use a larger can."

Pondering the significance of the First Law quickly led to the realization that, as it stood, it was incomplete. Without modification, it is boundless; that is, it is conceivable that more than one can of worms could be open at the same time either accidentally or purposefully because the can-opener overestimated his re-canning ability. Either way, the danger is that some worms from the first cans opened will escape and, un-canned, multiply beyond control.

Moving from theory to practice, this is what has happened during the past five years under the current administration. In October 2001, the United States launched air and ground attacks against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban sect and the training and supply bases of al-Qaeda. Although successful in toppling the government and dislodging al-Qaeda, the U.S. and European-dominated coalition merely scattered the opposition leaders and fighters. These have regrouped and rebuilt their organizations in the relative safety of the semi-autonomous tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan and now make frequent incursions into Afghanistan, killing suspected informants, destroying newly-built schools, clinics, and roads, and even temporarily holding villages against government forces. Thousands of Afghan civilians have died in the violence of the last five years, as have 368 U.S. and 161 coalition troops.

Iraq is a second can of worms opened by the war hawks in the Bush administration who overestimated their ability to control simultaneously the evolution of events in Afghanistan and Iraq. What made matters worse was the rapidity with which they lost "control" not only of events on the ground but of the moral and informational contests as, one by one, the justifications for the Iraq war proved false.

To date, the only indisputable objective achieved has been the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. By every quantifiable measure of day-to-day life–predictable security, oil production and export, electricity generation, potable water availability–the conditions in post-Saddam Baghdad are noticeably worse than before the invasion. Other urban areas slighted during Saddam’s rule show selective, often minimal, improvement, but even where this pertains, few seem convinced the improvements will last.

The one big growth area is in the number of armed nationalist insurgents, fed up with the ineffectual al-Maliki government, who have chosen to take up arms against the Iraqi government and its international allies. The determination by nationalists not to surrender to official malfeasance, rampant sectarian and tribal violence, and criminality fuels the civil war that in turn provides "space" for operations against U.S. and coalition troops by well-armed, apparently well financed, and increasingly well-trained foreign terror organizations. Under Saddam, this terror niche was occupied by the regime’s indigenous secret police; now it belongs to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

At the same time that George Bush is trying to weld a larger can to recapture all the escaping worms from the open cans–sending 21,500 U.S. troops (or as many as 28,000 if support troops are included) to Iraq and 3,200 more to Afghanistan–many people are concerned that he is in the process of opening a third can–Iran.

These concerns are being fueled by the movement of U.S. carrier battle groups, of which there are 12. With about 80 aircraft on each carrier and escorts armed with land attack Tomahawk missiles, these are potent armadas. Those who look to the carriers as bell weathers for U.S. military action equate the presence of one carrier in a region as indicating interest in regional events, two carries as symbolizing serious interest, even concern, and three or more carriers as preparation for an attack.

They point to history for support of their prognosis. In March 1979, when students overran the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held the staff hostage for 444 days, at least two carriers were present in the Persian Gulf (or as the Navy now calls it, the Arabian Sea) and in the Indian Ocean. In the run-up to the first Iraq War (Operation Desert Storm 1991), the Navy committed six carriers in the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, or the Eastern Mediterranean. A dozen years later, February 2003, just prior to the start of the Second Iraq War, five carriers were on station or en route to the battle area. Then there are the times when just two carriers were used: e.g., Lebanon’s civil war in 1982 when two carriers rotated in and out of the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya in 1986 in the Gulf of Sidra.

So the question now is: where are the carriers and are they, considering past practice, positioned in sufficient numbers for an attack?

By my count, four carriers are in maintenance: Kitty Hawk, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln; and Carl Vinson. The Lincoln is due to emerge at the end of February 2007.

John F. Kennedy is being decommissioned next month;

Three carriers are in the Atlantic: Enterprise, heading home after completing a tour in the Arabian Sea area; Theodore Roosevelt; and Harry Truman;

One carrier is in the Pacific: Ronald Reagan (covering the Kitty Hawk’s traditional position);

Three carriers are in the Persian Gulf-Arabian Sea-Indian Ocean- Gulf of Oman vicinity: Dwight Eisenhower, John Stennis, and Nimitz, which is relieving the Eisenhower.

So the "three carrier" historical trigger is in place. But this time the administration will not be attacking Iran–or any other enemy. The reason for rejecting the historical precedence is quite simple: I could not find any instance since the Vietnam War when a president preparing to initiate military action centered on carrier battle groups had two gaggles of worms already out of the can and heading for the door (Iraq and Afghanistan). The probability that the president will open the third can (Iran) is lessened further because the administration doesn’t have a "larger can"–that is, the support of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and other European Union countries–for military action. In fact, Washington is unable to forge agreement on stringent sanctions to make Iran comply with Security Council resolutions concerning its nuclear activities.

Other considerations argue against the likelihood of an attack now. One is the temporary suspension of work by Russian technicians building Iran’s full-scale nuclear power reactor because of alleged non-payment by Teheran for work done. Another is the "surge" currently underway in Baghdad. While the main fighting does not involve the U.S. Navy, the administration will probably want to muddle along into the summer to give time for the "surge" to have maximum effect (i.e., change the environment so that the escaped worms cannot survive).

These considerations prompted the First Commentary to and Second Negation of Zymurgy’s First Law. The Commentary is: "Opening more than one can of worms at a time guarantees that some worms will wriggle away before they can be caught, guaranteeing future generations of worms." The Second Negation reads: "Never open the first can of worms."

But of course, the fundamental point is whether President Bush knows Zymurgy’s First Law.

(Or the First Negation: "Don’t play with worms.")

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.