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Out of the Dark: Chapter Six
Last updated: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 21:17 EDT
Lieutenant Colonel Alastair Sanders wanted his star.
Well, to be fair, every lieutenant colonel or colonel wanted stars eventually. In his case, however, there was an added incentive to achieve general officer’s rank quickly.
No, he’d explained to one would-be wit after another, he wasn’t from Kentucky. He was from Wyoming. And he didn’t have any secret recipes, either. For that matter, he wasn’t even all that fond of fried chicken, thank you very much. Soldiers being soldiers, however, and officers senior to one being senior to one, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be dogged by those putatively jocular inquiries until the hoped-for day when — oh, glory! — he would become Brigadier General Sanders.
Of course, he reminded himself as he regarded the orders before him with something less than ecstasy, there were always trade-offs, and there would be on that longed-for day, as well. Such as giving up assignments like the one he currently held. As the commanding officer of First Battalion, Second Brigade, Third Armored Division, he had what was the plum duty of his career, as far as he was concerned.
Even today, the Army’s transformation plan was still tinkering with the perfect setup for its modular brigades. And while it had discovered over the past few years that the format for its Stryker brigades was, indeed, well suited to fast, mobile warfare against guerrillas, insurgencies, terrorists, and low-intensity combat in general, it was rather less well designed than the enthusiasts had predicted for some of the other tasks it had been supposed to perform. In short, there was still a need for a heavy maneuver force, as well, as recent political events had tended to underscore.
That was what his combined arms battalion was supposed to be, and Third Armored Division had been reactivated less than two years ago specifically to increase the number of heavy combat teams. At the moment, his battalion’s table of organization and equipment consisted of his headquarters and headquarters company, two companies of M1A2 Abrams tanks, two mechanized infantry companies, and a mechanized combat engineer company. Both of his infantry companies were mounted in the M2A3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, with all the updated digital electronics, and there was talk of assigning an organic helicopter gunship element to the brigade, although he suspected control would be held at the brigade level rather than assigned at the battalion level.
He’d just been informed that he was receiving three extra sections of ANT/TWQ-1 Avenger HMMVW-mounted antiaircraft systems for his upcoming assignment, plus two of the brigade’s three armored reconnaissance troops, mounted in the M3A3 cavalry variant of the Bradley, as well. Despite the fact that he didn’t care all that much for the assignment in question, he had to admit that was a potent, ass-kicking collection of combat power. Nor could he pretend he didn’t feel a deep sense of satisfaction as he regarded the fact that it was his, all his.
Well, his, the brigade CO’s, the division CO’s, and national command authority’s, anyway. Indeed, the orders he’d just received could be looked upon as a gentle reminder that those who commanded the United States military might occasionally have the odd little task they wished “his” battalion to perform. Unreasonable of them, perhaps, but there it was.
He didn’t really object to being reminded, though, and that wasn’t the reason for his discontent. No, the problem was where they were sending him. Or, more to the point perhaps, the reason they were sending him.
Herat, capital of Herat Province, just across the border from Iran. There hadn’t been much fighting in the province lately, other than the increasingly frequent pounces seeking to interdict the flow of weapons across the border from Iran. Most of those weapons were headed to points deeper inside the country, not Herat itself, however, and the provincial government (which was at least reasonably free of corruption and cronyism, as far as Sanders could see) had relatively firm control of the region. In fact, there’d been substantially fewer incidents in the city of Herat over the last five or six months than in Kabul itself. But internal Afghan bloodshed (or the lack of it) wasn’t the reason his battalion was being sent there.
No, the reason for that was the tension between the Iranian régime and the West in general, and the United States and the State of Israel, in particular.
Sanders didn’t really think of himself as an expert on international relations and diplomacy, but the commander of a combined arms battalion couldn’t afford to be uninformed on such matters, either. For that matter, his superiors would have taken a rather dim view of such a state of affairs. Because of that, he was only too well aware of just how completely relations with Iran had gone into the toilet over the last few years.
The régime’s brutal suppression of internal dissent — the “Green Movement” — had driven its relations with the outside world even farther into the wilderness. The mass executions which had followed the resurgence of protests in 2012 had completed Iran’s descent into pariah status, and the régime had reacted by becoming even more hardline, even more repressive. The U.S.-sponsored embargo on gasoline shipments which had finally been agreed to after the 2011 assassination of Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh by “parties unknown” had hurt the Iranian economy badly, and the régime blamed it (and similar Western pressures) for the subsequent upsurge of street protests. There was probably some logic on their side this time around, Sanders admitted, although their decision to have Mousavi murdered — or at least to refuse to hold anyone accountable for it (except, of course, for the agents of the Greater Satan, which had undoubtedly ordered the crime specifically to implicate them) — damned well had a lot more to do with it. And even if the embargo was making things still worse, he wasn’t going to shed any tears over their fury and what had to be a steadily growing inner sense of desperation. Their response, however, had included dropping the charade of “peaceful nuclear power” and openly announcing their intention to acquire nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.
Along, of course, with the renewed observation that the “Zionist entity” had no right to exist and had to be eradicated as soon as possible. Then there was that minor matter of the continued call for the universal caliphate which, for some odd reason, didn’t fill the non-Muslim world with joyous anticipation. For that matter, most of the Muslims of Sanders’ acquaintance weren’t particularly enamored of the notion of an Iranian-style caliphate.
Despite all of that, Russia (which had worked hard to build influence in Iran for over thirty years, since the fall of the shah) had continued to supply Tehran with nonnuclear military technology up until about eight months ago. At that point, the Russian government had finally given in to Western pressure. Moscow had retreated from the military relationship with ill-concealed resentment, but the parlous state of its own economy had meant it couldn’t afford too open a confrontation with its Western trading partners, especially when the combination of new drilling in the U.S., the unfortunate coup which had overtaken Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, general global conservation, and the current (relative) tranquility in the Sunni Middle East had conspired to drive down the price of their own oil so dramatically. So, as of six months ago, Russia had officially suspended all arms and technology shipments to Iran.
Intelligence suggested that China was now sniffing around the opportunities presented by the Russian withdrawal, but it didn’t look as if there was going to be much upsurge in Chinese influence in Tehran. For one reason, Sanders suspected darkly, because Russia hadn’t really disengaged as fully as the Kremlin claimed it had. And, for another, because China was currently much more interested in the possibilities in Pakistan’s oil-and gas-rich but penniless Baluchestan Province.
In the meantime, Iran had stepped up its efforts to supply weapons — and increasingly capable ones — to its proxy forces like Hamas. There’d been a significant upsurge in terrorist attacks in Israel and Iraq, as well, and there wasn’t much doubt that Iranian intelligence had been deeply involved in them. Add in the normal vituperation of its lunatic president (who would have believed they could have found someone worse than Ahmadinejad?) and the increased fervency of the mullahs’ calls for jihad against both the Greater and Lesser Satans, and there was a lot of room for anxiety. In fact, Sanders rather suspected antacid makers were doing land office business in Wonderland on the Potomac.
The hard part was trying to figure out how much of the anxiety was justified, and recent Iranian “military exercises” had added to the ambiguity. There was a lot of discussion about the West’s avenues for bringing even more pressure to bear on the régime, and the possibility of a complete naval blockade had been coming up more and more frequently of late. Personally, Sanders didn’t think the Palmer Administration had any serious intention of doing it, but the U.S. Navy clearly had the capability, and enough of that navy was forward deployed to the Red Sea and Western Med to make the mullahs understandably nervous.
Whatever the reason, their public belligerence had grown even more vitriolic of late, and Iran had recently reinforced its positions along its eastern frontier with Iraq despite its nominally friendly relationship with Iraq’s majority-Shiite government. No one took too much stock in the “friendliness” of that particular relationship, however, given Iraq’s continuing relationship with the United States and the last few months’ sudden spate of assassinations of Sunni government ministers, governors, and mayors. Even the Shiite Interior Minister, who’d apparently made the mistake of seeming too willing to conciliate his Sunni fellows, had been mysteriously assassinated, and fear that Iran was likely to try something genuinely irrational had risen accordingly.
In addition, Tehran had stationed a corps consisting of an armored division and a mechanized infantry division at Tayyebat in Razavi Khorasan Province, less than ninety miles east of Herat. It was unlikely that a single Iranian division of long-in-the-tooth T-55s and T-72s was going to jump off on an invasion of Afghanistan, especially given all the air power available in-country to knock it on its ass if it tried. Despite that, the Powers That Were had decided that presenting a régime as . . . radically energetic as the current one in Tehran with something a little more noticeable than out-of-sight, out-of-mind F-35s might be a good idea.
Thus Sanders’ orders to go and be noticeable.
Of course, this was only the warning order, giving him time to hand over his battalion’s present responsibilities to its designated relief and organize the move. It was always possible the actual move would be canceled. In fact, Sanders wished he had a nickel — well, maybe a dollar, given inflation — for every time he’d seen orders canceled or changed at the last minute. He didn’t think that was going to happen this time, though. There was too much tension in the air. By this time, tension was actually feeding upon tension in an accelerating feedback loop on both sides of the confrontation.
Given the current circumstances, his presence might simply exacerbate the situation. How much of the Iranians’ apparently irrational rhetoric was genuine and how much represented the actual intentions of the régime had always been one of the really fun guessing games where Iran was concerned, and it had turned into even more of a case of paying your money and taking your choice over the last couple of years. So his orders were to deter Iranian adventurism without provoking Iranian adventurism, and to defeat any Iranian adventurism which occurred anyway.
Presumably it all made sense to someone in the Pentagon or, at least, in the Administration. In the meantime, his was not to question why.
And while he was busy not questioning, he supposed it was time to sit down with his S-3, and start planning the move.
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