In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom history has underrated, told his Chief of the General Staff, von Moltke the Less, that he wanted to remain on the defensive in the West and take the offensive in the East, against Russia. Such a reversal of the Schlieffen Plan would probably have won the war for Germany. France would have bled to death throwing bodies against bullets in Elsass and Lothringen, England would have remained neutral, at least for a while, and Russia would have gone under in a couple years. Unfortunately for Germany and for history, von Moltke Jr. collapsed in a fit of nerves and said it couldn’t be done.
In fact, the plans for just such a campaign were in the file. They were there because it was the job of the General Staff to make plans for every contingency.
The disastrous course of America’s war in Iraq has created a new task for the Great General Staff, in the form of more contingency planning. America needs to make sure it has a plan in the file for a fighting withdrawal from Iraq.
It is still possible the end may not come this way. We may still manage a shaky hand-off to a U.N.-designated Iraqi government, and that government might last long enough for us to withdraw with some shreds of dignity. George W. might awake some morning a new man, announce he was swindled, sack the neo-cons and bring in someone like Marine Corps General Tony Zinni, who opposed the war all along, to handle our disengagement. The Archangel Michael might appear over Mecca and convert all the Mohammedans to Christianity.
But the growing probability is that we will be driven out of Iraq by a general uprising, an intifada in which every American will be the target of every Iraqi and our boys (and, in America’s Neo-Model Army, girls) will have to fight their way out in a scene like that which faced Gordon in the Sudan. It is not a pleasant prospect. It means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of American and "coalition" casualties, many times more Iraqi casualties, and one of history’s more memorable defeats, right up there with Syracuse, Waterloo and Stalingrad. The aftershocks will be severe, as regimes tumble from Pakistan through the Persian Gulf and Egypt to Britain and America itself. You can look forward to seeing the Dow at 3000, if not 300.
Facing such a contingency, we can have only one priority: the lives of our troops. Their chances of making it out alive will be far greater if we have done some planning beforehand. Our great vulnerability is that our lines of supply, communication and retreat are long, and they almost all run through hostile territory. Most lead through southern Iraq to Kuwait, and that is not likely to be a comfortable way out. North through the Kurds to Turkey may be the best bet, although as Xenophon can attest, retreating with a beaten army through Kurd country is no picnic. West lies Syria, no friend, and Jordan, which may itself be convulsed.
One great snare and delusion lies in our path: the notion that we can always go by air. Already the Air Force is saying that if the southern supply lines are cut, as they were in the first half of April, air transport can fill the gap. Right, just as Goering promised the troops in Stalingrad. Not only does that assume American and coalition troops can hold the airports, it assumes they can get to the airports, which at the moment is problematic just between Baghdad and its airport. Worse, coups in places such as Saudi Arabia could see Islamic-flown F-15s and F-16s shooting down American C-5s and C-17s.
A Second Generation military such as America’s does not improvise well under time pressure, at least at the higher levels, where vast staffs drilled to Kadavergehorsamkeit in the sacred "staff planning process" are slaves to procedure. The neo-cons in the Bush administration and their toadies in the Pentagon will no doubt howl if the military starts contingency planning for a forced withdrawal. Listen up, guys: do it anyway. You don’t have to tell them. Just make sure the plan is in the file.
This time, the military may have to play the Kaiser when the Bush administration falls prostrate on the couch.
William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.