The Iranian seizure of fifteen
British sailors and marines last week demonstrates some interesting aspects to
military decision making. Note that the Iranians apparently observed the Royal
Navy operating procedure, got the British used to seeing lots of Iranian
military speedboats operating nearby (the Iranians recently ran some major
naval exercises with these boats) and then acted with speed, and the element of
surprise. Once they had taken the sailors and marines, there was no way to intervene
without risking the lives of the British captives. The ROE (Rules of
Engagement) apparently assumed that the Iranians would not try something like
this, thus the marines and sailors did not open fire when the Iranian boats
approached. Even then, if the Iranians approached without hostile intent, it
would be a tough call for the commander of the British team to make. The
Iranians had often been cooperative in this naval patrol work, for the Iranians
were also eager to bring the smuggling under control.
In hindsight, one could say that these inspections,
close to the Iranian frontier, should have been made with security in mind.
However, thousands of these inspections have been made since 2003, without
incident, and laying on additional security would have meant fewer inspections,
and a lot more work for the Royal Navy personnel.
One could inquire as to whether naval intelligence
had any inkling that the Iranians were up to something like this. The Americans
have a substantial intelligence organization in Iraq, where the least little
incident gets recorded, analyzed and questioned. There had been two earlier
incidents that were, apparently, attempts to kidnap U.S. troops inside Iraq (in
one case, right on the Iranian border). Did British naval intelligence know
about these two events? Actually, one of them, the January incident in Karbala
that led to the deaths of five Americans, did get a lot of press attention. The
border incident got practically no media attention. That, plus paying attention
to what was being said openly in Iran (much talk of kidnapping coalition troops
in revenge for all those Iranian terrorism advisors being arrested inside
Iraq), might have alerted the Brits that anyone working close to the Iranian
border was at risk.
Of course, this is all hindsight. But the job of
military intelligence is to provide foresight that has the clarity of
hindsight. It can be done, and when it isn't, it often makes headlines, and fat
chapters in the history books.