The Florida Keys War
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we explored the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the war’s impact on the subsequent course of human history. In this segment we’ll review the Rumsfeld-Gates showdown over the Bush Administration’s postwar plans for Iran; allied military strategy in the campaign for Isfahan; and the horrific attack on Havana’s subway system that has since become known as "Cuba’s 9/11".
Out of The Frying Pan: September 2002-January 2003
It was no surprise that Secretary of State Robert Gates and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would be at odds over how an occupied Iran should be governed after Operation Persian Dawn was over. During his time in Jeb Bush’s cabinet Gates had earned a reputation as being the most vocal internal critic of Rumsfeld’s confrontational, "my way or the highway" style of public policy. Rumsfeld, in turn, felt Gates lacked the inner toughness needed to press America’s case abroad.1 Much of the first hour of Bush’s meeting with his cabinet on the question of postwar policy for Iran was spent with the commander-in-chief trying to calm Gates and Rumsfeld down so that they and the other participants could focus on the job at hand.
When President Bush asked Gates for his opinions on how the postwar government of Iran should be structured, the Secretary of State didn’t mince words: he asserted that nothing less than a clean sweep of the entire Iranian political structure would be sufficient to purge it of the toxic influence of the radical Islamic clerics who pulled the strings in Tehran. Virtually any person who’d had more than two years’ experience in the Iranian government, he told Bush, would have to be disqualified from holding office in postwar Iran. Rumsfeld argued that this was too drastic and that some officials of the old regime would have to be kept on, at least in the lower and middle echelons of Iranian politics. He told Gates they would be needed to help maintain civic order at least in the short term, and added this pungent observation: "When you go to do a job you work with the tools you have, not the tools you wish you had."
The meeting lasted well into the night, only occasionally interrupted when Bush paused to glance at the latest battlefield reports from the Pentagon or intelligence updates from CIA headquarters at Langley. It wasn’t until 1:00 AM that Bush’s cabinet finally adjourned, Rumsfeld and Gates having settled on a compromise policy in which the fitness of Iranian officials to serve in Iran’s postwar government would be investigated and judged on a case-by-case basis. However, that question would soon turn out to be the least of the Bush Administration’s troubles...
When Bush’s postwar policy for Iran was unveiled five days after the cabinet meeting, it was heavily criticized on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Senator John McCain of Arizona, for one, considered it excessively lenient and likened it to "offering Goebbels a job with the West German government after World War II".2 California representative and future Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said that allowing officials of Iran’s existing theocratic regime to hold jobs in the new government would send the wrong message to Iranian women, who in the eyes of feminists were being oppressed by the mullahs in Tehran. But perhaps the harshest criticism of all came from Democrat Charles Rangel of New York, who warned his colleagues that if Bush’s plan went into effect "the very torture chambers our men and women in uniform are trying to close will be reopened under the management of the White House".3
Before postwar plans of any kind could be put into effect, however, there was the small matter of winning the war itself to be taken care of. And General Franks’ troops were doing so with alacrity; even before the cabinet meeting was scheduled they had made rapid progress towards Isfahan and were on the outskirts of the city within three days after the meeting. With Iran’s navy a non-factor, its air force smashed to bits, and its army largely on the defensive, the question in the minds of most military experts around the world was not if, but when, Tehran would fall.
Along the way, allied ground troops passed the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis. Knowing that some of his men might be tempted to sneak home souvenirs, and hoping to avoid a repeat of the looting that had gone on at some archeological sites in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, General Franks issued a directive placing the area off-limiits to all personnel except for a handful of pre-selected guard personnel; a codicil attached to the order warned that any service personnel violating this order would be promptly court-martialed and jailed on theft charges.
Most of the allied ground troops, however, were preoccupied with pursuing the enemy and clearing the way for a full-throttle push on Tehran. By early October of 2002, Shiraz had fallen and allied infantry and armor units were entering Isfahan despite intense enemy resistance. Overseas, Iranian exiles began urging Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who backed him to begin negotiating a cease-fire with the US-sponsored coalition to avoid further bloodshed.
The Iranian government chose instead to continue fighting to the bitter end, and in the second week of October as allied troops were making their way towards the heart of Isfahan, an an old friend from the days of the Manchurian War re-appeared on the battlefield: the"improvised explosive device", a kind of homemade bomb first used by the Kazakhs against Chinese invasion forces during the battle for Kazakhstan’s capital Astara in 1968 and brought back by Iranian special forces units as a means of (it was hoped) hampering the allied thrust on Tehran.
At first the IED attacks seemed to do the trick, as US and allied forces found themselves spending more time defusing these bombs and evacuating the injured than engaging the Iranians. The allied drive on Tehran was set back by at least 3-4 weeks and Iranian troops, their morale boosted by the initial success of the IED bombings, went back on the offensive in the battle for Isfahan. However, the allies started to regain the advantage in mid-November as shipments of new and improved bomb detection/dispersal robots began arriving from the US to aid bomb disposal personnel in clearing out the IEDs. Their methods and equipment weren’t perfect-- for every IED they uncovered and disarmed, one or two slipped past the BDUs4 and exploded to kill or injure more allied soldiers.
But gradually the threat posed by these weapons was mitigated and the allied campaign in Iran got back on track. By December 5th the few remaining pockets of Iranian resistance in Isfahan had surrendered and the offensive push on Tehran was moving forward again at a fairly rapid clip (though not quite as rapid as General Franks and his staff officers would have liked).
As 9/11 began to recede from public memory, so did concerns about the possibility of another terrorist attack on US soil. But those concerns would be reawakened with a vengeance by events just 90 miles from the tip of Florida. In the decades following the collapse of the Castro regime, religious freedom in Cuba enjoyed something of a renaissance; one unexpected byproduct of that renaissance was the introduction of Islam to the country in the early 1980s. The seeds for that introduction were planted by a handful of Cuban oil industry workers who had converted to the Islamic faith while working in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and as Cuba began experiencing a steadily growing influx of Middle Eastern immigrants in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Islam’s presence in the island nation would expand accordingly.
By the time Jeb Bush became President of the United States in 2001, there were some 240,000 Muslims in Cuba; the vast majority of them rejected the fundamentalist ideas advocated by men like the Tehran mullahs and the late Osama bin Laden, but some of their brethren found those same ideas highly appealing-- and would be motivated by them to carry out the most deadly terror attack in the Western Hemisphere since 9/11.
On January 9th, 2003, as US and allied command staffs were putting the finishing touches on battle plans for a two-pronged attack on the town of Rey and ground troops were advancing toward Darychch-ye Namak Lake, members of an Islamic extremist cell in Baracoa prepared to carry out a series of suicide bombings in downtown Havana. Their target: the city’s new main railway station, one of its most visible landmarks in the post-Castro era and a vital link in its land transport system.
The bombers had three primary goals in mind: (1)the disruption of Havana’s entire ground transportation network; (2)causing as much structural damage as they could to the station itself and and inflicting the maximum number of casualties on the people in it; and most importantly (3)forcing the Cuban government to give up its support of the US-led war with Iran. Their financial and political backers hoped that this attack, if successful, could not only achieve these ends but have the added benefit of paving the way for strikes against similar targets in Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans. The Havana rail station attack was, in a sense, a lethal dress rehearsal for a projected campaign of suicide bombings on US soil.
Of the three primary objectives in the Havana rail station attack, the third was considered the most important. Next to Great Britain and Australia, Cuba had been one of the United States’ most constant allies in its confrontation with Iran; at the time of the rail station bombing, some 20,000 Cuban soldiers were serving combat duty on the Iranian battlefront, along with three tactical fighter squadrons, a guided missile frigate, and a host of logistical and support units from all the Cuban armed services. Cuba was also assisting US intelligence agencies in tracking down the masterminds of the 9/11 attack.
To the bombers, and those who supported them, this situation was intolerable and had to be put to a stop immediately; their Islamic extremist fanaticism was supplemented by a strong dose of old-time Castroist fervor-- they saw the Havana government as bullying the unfortunate masses in the Arab world the way the old Batista regime had tormented Cuban peasants in the days before the Castro revolution.
The first bomb was set off in the rail station’s lobby at 10:04 AM local time; less than three minutes later a second bomb went off at one of the waiting platforms for the Havana-Mariel express train. As police and rescue personnel were desperately trying to clear up the carnage, the third bomb exploded at 10:19 in front of the station restaurant; the fourth bomb went off five minutes later in the station’s main waiting area. Everything seemed to be going according to plan for the attackers-- until a faulty wire prevented the fifth bomber, who had been assigned to blow up the offices of the station’s executive staff, from detonating his charges. As he frantically tried to set them off manually, two Havana police officers disarmed and arrested him; the sixth and seventh bombers, who had been assigned to take out the station’s main electric generator and its security post, lost their nerve and fled the scene. They would be found dead by their own hands the next day.
372 people were killed in the Havana rail station bombing, with another 265 injured or missing. Cuba experienced a surge of cold dread the likes of which most of its citizens hadn’t known since the darkest days of the Castro dictatorship; in the hours and days that followed the rail station attack, people all over the country constantly looked over their shoulders wondering if they might be the next ones to die at the hands of a suicide bomber. The American military bases at Guantanamo Bay and Cabo san Antonio went on full alert, their personnel determined not to let such an attack catch them off guard.
24 hours after the attack, Cuban president Orlando Montoya went on national television to give his fellow countrymen what he called "a candid report on our security situation". Millions of people, both in Cuba and abroad, would listen with bated breath to Montoya’s speech...
To Be Continued
1Of course, anyone who’d known him during his CIA tenure might have wondered what gave Rumsfeld that idea, but that’s a debate for another time.
2Quoted from an interview in the September 17th, 2002 Washington Post.
3Quoted from the September 18th, 2002 edition of the Congressional Record.
4Bomb disposal units.