Retired Colonel Andy Finlayson with advice on Iraq, Iran and the Middle East.
HH: Joined now by one of our regular contributors when military matters take center stage. That’s Andy Finlayson, retired Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, combat veteran of actions large and small. Col. Finlayson, always a pleasure to speak with you.
AF: Hugh, it’s always a pleasure to be on your show.
HH: The military today, the Army and the United States Marine Corps, has released a brand new counter-insurgency manual, Andy Finlayson. I doubt you’ve been able to see it, because it just came out today. It’s posted on the web, and I’ve got a link to it. That’s what we’re facing now in Iraq, is it not?
AF: Yes, it’s a classic insurgency. No doubt about it.
HH: Now did you consider your enemy in Vietnam to be counter-insurgents, or conventional?
AF: Well, it depended. Early in the war, it was very much a mixture of insurgency and conventional. But after the Viet Cong infrastructure was effectively wiped out after the Tet offensive, really, we were dealing almost entirely with North Vietnamese regular army units.
HH: Now we are still then in Iraq, very much in a phase similar to the pre-Tet phase in Vietnam.
AF: That’s correct.
HH: How do you win that war, Andy Finlayson? And is it the way that the Iraq Study Group suggests?
AF: No. There are parts of the Iraq Study Group that are good in terms of analysis of the situation, but their solution is not the solution. Most regular military forces are not particularly good at this stage of insurgency. They adapt to it. But primarily because what we’re up against are not organized military units, but small, disparate groups conducting operations against us, it’s really something that’s best handled by small units and police units. That’s what was very effective in Vietnam. You had the Phoenix program with national police and PRU’s, and the like, and it was a very, very effective program at rooting out the political infrastructure that really is at the root of the insurgency.
HH: Now can you expand a little bit on what the Phoenix program was, and how it might be applicable to Iraq today?
AF: Yes, the Phoenix program, and it has a lot of bad press, but it doesn’t deserve it. I was very much involved with the Phoenix program, and it was a very well-controlled, and I never saw anything done that was not in compliance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What it was, was it took all the national elements of the Vietnamese, and the Americans, and organized them so that they would effectively go after the political infrastructure in South Vietnam, and deny the real leadership of the insurgency. Instead of attacking guerillas and main force units, they went after the political leadership, the district and provincial level party committees and the like. And that had a devastating effect on the local Viet Cong.
HH: And is a possible approach similar to that available in Iraq?
AF: It could be, it could be. In fact, I recently presented a paper at Texas Tech University on the use of Phoenix-type troops, or a Phoenix-type program in Iraq. And I would say yes, it could be. It takes time to develop the system, but we have people in the Central Intelligence Agency, and in the military, who could form a Phoenix-like organization down to, say, provincial level, and then district level, and then down to town and village, so that you actually infiltrated the insurgents, and their political leadership. And once you mapped them, found out who they were, you took them out.
HH: Now Andy Finlayson, Colonel, is there the will in the military to do that? Do they want out, from your extensive contacts with still-active duty? Or do they want to stay and fight this?
AF: My contacts in the military say they want to continue to fight. But again, a lot of what’s going on in Iraq is not really military activity. We are using military forces to provide security, but the root of the problem is we don’t have the kind of professional special police. And I say Iraqi special police, that can go in and do this very necessary work. That’s what’s lacking. The police have not received the training, especially the kind of training that they really need to accomplish the mission.
HH: And does that training come from military units? Or does that come from CIA and operator units?
AF: I think it comes from people with that type of experience, for instance, people from MI5, the CIA, special branch police throughout the world, know how to conduct these type of operations. It’s primarily an intelligence type of activity, and you definitely have to develop sources within the opposition. And to do that, it takes a long time, and it takes people who are willing to stay at it a long time. You just can’t do that with American military forces who are in for six months to a year.
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HH: Col. Finlayson, where I want to turn next, is the wider war, not the war within the war, the counter-insurgency, and I posted the link to the new manual if people want it, and to the new Taliban manual over at Hughhewitt.com, but to Iran’s participation in this war, and Syria’s buffering of foreign fighters, or allowing them to come through. You’re advice on how to deal with Iran at this point?
AF: Well, Iran is in a very, very strong position right now, and the United States, especially if you follow the advice of the Iraq Study Group, it’s really, I think, a prescription for defeat and failure. Iran, their ultimate goal is to have influence, hegemony, over the entire Persian Gulf, and that includes all of Eastern Iraq, Kuwait, and the northern part of Saudi Arabia where all the oil is. In fact, that area that I’ve described contains probably more than two-thirds of all the oil in the Middle East. That is also an arc that is almost entirely Shiite. And as a result, if they gain hegemony over that area, they will have a lock on the oil assets in the Middle East, and they will have the kind of money that they need, along with their nuclear weapons, to pursue a very, very aggressive foreign policy, which will be directed in large measure against the state of Israel. And there will be very little that the West can do to stop them.
HH: But now, when the Vice President flew off to Saudi Arabia recently, do you suppose it was to discuss the Iranian hegemonic ambition?
AF: Yes, that’s a key point, because the Iraq Study Group, I felt, did not address the interests of our two principal allies in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia. And I don’t think that was lost on the Saudis or the Israelis. Both of them have come out with some pretty strong language since the study group came out, and the Saudis, I’m sure, told the Vice President that if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, and creates a power vacuum that allows a Shia-dominated Iraq to emerge with surrogate militias that are financed and controlled by Iran, that is the worst nightmare of Saudi Arabia. And you know, I think I’ve told your audience before when I lived five years in Saudi Arabia advising the Saudi military, and we kept the Second Brigade at Hofuf, up in that area, for the expressed purpose of trying to keep an eye on insurgent activity possibly in Northern Saudi Arabia. So it’s extremely dangerous for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq until it’s stable.
HH: Now…Colonel Andy Finlayson is my guest. We’re talking about the Middle East, where he has served extensive periods of time, both as a Marine and as a civilian advisor to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When the Commentary Magazine runs a piece by noted historian, a very respected historian, Arthur Herman, whose most recent book, To Rule The Waves, was a big best seller, as was How the Scots Invented the Modern World. And it talks about the military option for Iran. Not an invasion, but using air and naval assets to basically destroy their oil production, their gasoline production, and their ability to counterstrike. Are they…is that just a civilian armchair general doing what you professional hate? Or is that the serious sort of thinking that has to be going on?
AF: No, in fact, back in 19…I think it was 1979, General Jim Maddis was a captain in the Marine Corps. And he did a study on how Iran could be brought to its knees, simply by capturing Bandar Abbas, and closing the Straits of Hormuz, because all of their foreign reserves, all their money, their entire economy is the result of oil exports. And if you shut off oil exports from Iran, you can really bring them to their knees in about six months. Now you’ll have all kinds of people telling you oh, you can’t do that, that’ll be a shock to the world economy, the Western Europeans will howl over that. But that will definitely work, because they know that their survival, political survival, is based on the support of their people. And their people get all their services and all of their money from oil revenues. And if that’s denied them, they are going to be in very, very serious trouble. They’re very vulnerable on that point.
HH: Colonel, do you think they’re bluffing in an attempt to get through these critical years to nuclear status, and that they’re using Ahmadinejad and his nutter routine, and all the bluster just to cow the West while they make that dash for the one weapon that makes the Hormuz Straits invulnerable, really?
AF: Yes, there’s no doubt about it, that their intent is to gain nuclear weapons. And it’s just like why they have a support for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a surrogate militia in Southern Lebanon. It’s there as a counterweight to Israel. It’s financed and controlled by the Iranians. They know that if Israel, for instance, tries to attack Iran, Hezbollah is on the northern border to attack them. Hamas is in the Gaza. They will attack them. All of these organizations are paid for and controlled by Iran.
HH: Now if the United States came to blows with Iran, how would the Sunni nations, specifically Saudi Arabia, react to that?
AF: Saudi Arabia would have no problem at all with that. They may…
HH: Would they say that?
AF: They may make some utterances about it, but really, that’s in the interest of Saudi Arabia. Anything that diminishes the power of Iran would be beneficial to the long term strategic interests of Saudi Arabia.
HH: Now then, given all that, when you talk to your still active duty friends, and maybe General Maddis is one of them. I don’t know. Is he? Is he a pal of yours?
AF: He’s a friend of mine, yes.
HH: Do they think that this is a real…and I’m not meaning General Maddis, but just generally unspecified, do they think a confrontation with Iran is more than likely or less than likely?
AF: I think they think it’s less likely, because they doubt the will of the American people to support it.
HH: Do they think it’s necessary?
AF: They think something must be done. They think that it’ll probably be done by Israel, because Israel definitely cannot live with an Iranian nuclear power.
HH: Do you think it would be a wise thing to do, Colonel? Confront them militarily?
AF: I think it would be an option that we need to consider. It would be a last resort, I think. What I’d rather see is for us to support insurgents within Iran, to destabilize, using covert action, and that sort of thing. Make it extremely difficult for Iran to govern properly.
HH: Colonel Andy Finlayson, retires USMC, thanks. Always a pleasure. Look forward to speaking with you a lot in the months ahead on this, as the confrontation with Iran grows more imminent.
End of interview.