While dilettantes believe the attack is the most difficult military art, most soldiers know better. Carrying out a successful retreat is usually far harder.
One of history’s most successful retreats, and certainly its most famous, is the “Retreat of the 10,000.” In 401 B.C., 10,000 Greek hoplites hired themselves out as mercenaries to a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, who was making a grab for the Peacock Throne. Inconveniently, after the Greeks were deep in Persia, Cyrus was killed. The hoplites’ leader, Xenophon, the first gentleman of war, led his men on an epic retreat through Kurdish country to the coast and home. Surprisingly, most of them made it. Safely back in Athens, Xenophon wrote up his army’s story, cleverly titling it the Anabasis, which means the advance. It was not the last retreat so labelled.
If the above scenario sounds familiar, it should. America now has an army, not of 10,000 but of more than 140,000, deep in Persia (which effectively includes Shiite Iraq, despite the ethnic difference). We are propping up a shaky local regime in a civil war. Our local allies are of dubious loyalty, and the surrounding population is not friendly. Our lines of communication, supply and retreat all run south, to Kuwait, through Shiite militia country. They then extend on through the Persian Gulf, which is called that for a reason. If those lines are cut, many of our troops have only one way out, the same way Xenophon took, up through Kurdish country and Asia Minor (now Turkey) to the coast.
What is the chance that could happen? Higher than anyone in Washington or the senior military seems to think. Two events, separately or combined, pose a credible threat of severing our forces’ lines of communication. The first is an American or Israeli attack on Iran (Iran has publicly announced that it will respond to an Israeli attack as if the U.S. were also involved). Iran potentially could cut our supply lines by encouraging Iraqi Shiite militias to attack them, by infiltration into southern Iraq of the Revolutionary Guards, by attacking with the regular Iranian Army or by blocking the Persian Gulf with mines, coastal batteries and naval forces. Regarding the first option, a British journalist asked Mr. al-Hakim, leader of SCIRI and the Badr Brigades and a recent White House guest, what his militia would do if America attacked Iran. “Then,” he replied, “we would do our duty.”
A second possible threat is a move to cut our lines of communication by the Shiite militias in response to events inside Iraq. At the moment, the Shiites are avoiding confrontations with American troops, not because they are afraid of them but because they are practicing good operational art. Their objective is to have the Americans fight the Sunnis for them. So long as we are doing that, it makes no sense to get into a dust-up with us.
However, loud voices in Washington want American forces in Iraq to start a two-front war, attacking the Shiite militias as well as the Sunni insurgents, on the grounds that both are threats to our puppet Iraqi government. Should those voices prevail, the Shiites would at some point have to respond, with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia probably in the lead. They would be foolish to fight us where we are strong, in and around Baghdad where the “surge” is focused. A far better target would be our vulnerable supply lines, which again run south through the Shiites’ home turf. At the least, such an attack would draw many of our forces away from Baghdad, relieving the pressure on Sadr City. Potentially, it could leave our troops in Baghdad cut off and quickly running out of beans, bullets and POL, not to speak of bottled water. Anyone who thinks air transport could make up the difference should reference Hermann Goering and Stalingrad.
Both of these threats are sufficiently real that prudence, that old military virtue, suggests American forces in Iraq should have a plan for Operation Anabasis, a retreat north through Kurdish Iraq to Turkey. Higher headquarters are unlikely to develop such a plan, because if it leaked there would be political hell to pay in Washington. I would therefore strongly advise every American battalion and company in Iraq to have its own Operation Anabasis plan, a plan which relies only on its own resources and whatever it thinks it could scrounge locally. Do not, repeat, do not expect the Air Force to come in and pick you up.
What might such company and battalion plans entail? I asked that question of Dave Danelo, a former Marine captain who now edits U.S. Cavalry’s “On Point” website. Dave was recently in Iraq with U.S. units as a journalist, so his knowledge is current. His suggestions include:
- Have a route plan. Know where the safe areas are and why they are safe. For the Marines in Al Anbar Province, this could be Al Asad or Al Taqaddum Air Base. For soldiers in Mosul, it’s Kurdistan. For troops in Baghdad, it’s either of the above, or possibly Tallil Air Base in the south. For British troops in Basrah, who knows?
- Apply the Joseph Principle. In the Bible, Joseph advised the Egyptians to store away their goods during the seven years of feast. When seven years of famine hit, they were ready. Husband large stashes of everything at the company/battalion levels: MREs, water, ammunition, and, most of all, fuel.
- Iraqis, American contractors and oil companies have each developed parallel and redundant distribution systems that push fuel outside the U.S. military umbrella. Depending on who controls what in which neighborhood, these systems might remain intact if military supply lines are cut. Be prepared to commandeer these resources.
- Learn the black market fuel system and exploit it. Although black market fuel is horrible on humvee engines, it will get your unit out of Baghdad and into a safe zone.
It is of course possible, perhaps probable, that American forces in Iraq may not have to repeat Xenophon’s retreat. So much the better. Many contingency plans go unused, and all that is lost thereby is some time and effort spent in planning.
But when situations suddenly arise to which no thought has been given and for which no plans have been made, the result can be trouble. When the situation is a sudden loss of an army’s lines of supply and retreat, the result can be loss of an army. However unfortunate a forced American retreat from Iraq would be, a successful retreat would be far less of a defeat than the encirclement and destruction of our army. Dunkirk was a British defeat, but it was not so serious a defeat as Yorktown.
It is time for American battalion commanders, S-3s, and company commanders in Iraq to get to know Xenophon. His Anabasis is still in print and readily available. Even if, as I fervently hope, we never have to put the plans for our own Operation Anabasis into effect, they will still have the pleasure of meeting the first gentleman of war.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.