Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sound And Fury Over Basra

The business in Basra has been regarded as evidence of a wide range of things already, some of them with somewhat less foundation than others. There's so much material on the subject, of so many different bents all claiming different victories or losses for whoever that it's tough to see what is actually happening. If there's one thing the internet has always been bad at, its staying calm.

Gareth Porter of the Asia Times has called the Iraqi offensive in Basra a loss for US forces as well as the Iraqi Government because the US supported the operation, and US officials are claiming that the operation was whipstitched together and surprised them, forcing them to put their support together off balance. So who's right here?

"Furthermore, the embedded role of the US Military Transition Teams makes it impossible that any Iraqi military operation could be planned without their full involvement."

Porter argues that since the US supplied support and logistics, they couldn't have really been all that surprised, and the administration officials saying that they were not duly notified is an attempt to distance themselves from what he calls a failure. But Porter confuses ground-level integration of forces like MITT teams with actual administrative involvement in the planning of the offensive. With the situation as it is, one can expect that the US will be providing logistics and intelligence to the ISF. That said, one cannot safely say that the intelligence provided will be guaranteed to match the operations that the ISF is planning. Of course we're providing surveillance and logistics, but that doesn't by any means say that we were providing surveillance and logistics in synchronization with an offensive that officials say was put together on the fly, and there's a very important difference in that.

Further, its important to note that the MNF-I wasn't the only group to be ill-prepared and inadequately informed; the BBC today released a story on the delay of UK troop reductions that included this quote from Liam Fox:

"It appears from what the Secretary of State has just told us that our commanders had only 48 hours notice (of the Iraqi offensive) and they yet had to deploy one battle group with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery - is this an acceptable model for the future?"

At this point the British have no reason to deal in subterfuge about their responsibilities for what's happening in Basra. Nobody is claiming a loss for the UK forces there, or that they were somehow beaten (at least, not by the most recent violence). Yet their own dialog on the situation makes it clear that they too were caught off guard. Now this looks much less like subterfuge than it does like a short shift on part of the Iraqi administration; reacting too quickly without proper planning and without coordinated cooperation of key allies.

Another claim Porter makes is that General Petraeus had essentially become complacent about the Mahdi Army's capabilities, and had assumed that they could or would not put up resistance to an intensified crackdown. From his article:

"That assumption ignored the evidence that Muqtada had been avoiding major combat because he was reorganizing and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force."

At some point, as intelligent humans we're going to need to get past the notion that one person is handling everything. There is very simply no way that Petraeus or his advisors or his fellow Generals hadn't considered that evidence - they've been among the most cautious people in dealing with the Sadrists. But this point ties into the point Porter already tried to make about the full capability of the US military being balked by the Sadrists - something that factually didn't happen. And if it's not what happened, then any personal aspersions based on what didn't happen don't apply.

In other places, the Knight's Charge offensive has been claimed as a victory for the Iraqi Government and a defeat for it by al-Sadr. Maliki has called it a success, and so has al-Sadr. To get a basic point out of the way, bear in mind that when agreements are made to halt violence, technically everyone wins on a human level. But who won out politically is, unfortunately, a more important question at the moment.

Al-Sadr is still standing, which can fairly be regarded as a victory for him. The brokerage of a peace agreement, while it's good news for everyone, in effect declares al-Sadr the winner because Maliki promised to sweep the militias in Basra off the map, and that's not what happened. But that's a rhetorical victory, not a strategic or military one. Had the operation continued, eventually the US support would gain its footing and in a conventional fight, the Sadrists would be the losing party - not that they weren't here, they lost the kinetic fight badly enough as it is. Nevertheless, al-Sadr is still there now, and he still controls a militia. His only victory is in not losing completely.

If the actual chain of events proceeded as crackdown-backlash-offensive-agreement, it can also be safely said that crackdowns in the future will need to be more delicate than they were. Cordon-and-search operations are notorious for stoking distrust and animosity toward the democratic nations that attempt them, from Northern Ireland to the United States. And if you're looking for proof that these operations were done in a ham-handed and careless way, the resulting violent backlash means you need to look no further.

If the Iraqi Government and the ISF don't play a little more softly with JAM, they can reasonably expect the same thing to happen again.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Walking The Walk

From FM 3-24, in the Required Reading section:

"1-149. Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained."

Bearing that in mind, the news from CBS is that US casualties are down from last month quite significantly, while ISF and Civilian casualties rose significantly as well. The most likely explanation for this is that the offensives in the north are being conducted, not surprisingly at this point, largely by Iraqis and as a result, they're bearing the brunt of the casualties. It's also worth noting that casualty counts are also easily influenced by one or two particularly horrific bombing attacks, which February most definitely saw. But those expecting violence to continue on an upward trend based on numbers from January are out of luck for now.

Also in the news is a name that might be familiar by now. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch is featured in an NBC story about creating jobs as a method to push counterinsurgency efforts:

"The fish farms are just part of what Lynch and his soldiers call "sustainable security." Once fighting in an area has been suppressed and Iraqi military and police take over, the U.S. troops look for ways to make it last."

Creating jobs and finding ways for Iraqis to contribute peacefully to the Iraqi economy is not just a parlor trick; it's critical to give people a reason to hope for prosperity and a way to work towards it. They need ways to earn money to provide for their families, and when we provide them we take support away from the insurgents on a political level. If they have what they need and can prosper under the current system of government, then they will not lend political support to those who would overthrow it and put their wellbeing in jeopardy as a result.

Efforts like this are more essential than killing is at this stage, although killing will always have its place. Some people are irreconcilable, but for the most part people just want to get by. Help them do that, and they won't turn against you. Make it hard for them, and they'll fight you every step of the way. But the way forward is still jobs and infrastructure. Those will do more to defuse the insurgency than anyone's death can. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch is well aware of it, too. The US military is learning, and adapting to the situation like they should. Given time, they can and - as could not be certainly said two years ago - may well pull out a victory for Iraq.

Monday, February 25, 2008

What About This?

First, Al-Sadr has extended JAM's cease-fire for another 6 months, approximately. The commanders were right, and these guys were wrong.

The Turks, for their part, have begun a very tightly controlled ground offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan against PKK insurgents, although it's actual duration is still somewhat in question. It doesn't appear that this offensive will threaten Iraq's overall stability at the moment, as it was not directly opposed by the US - the people who are liable if Iraq actually does lose stability.

"Turkey gave the United States and Iraqi authorities advance notice of its incursion, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said."

While the Iraqis are predictably unhappy about it, it's worth the cost of a carefully controlled, limited operation on Turkey's part in order to keep them on our side in this. We've been cooperating with them by sharing intelligence and through diplomacy channels for the same reason; the alternative is crippled US logistics and possible non-cooperation with us on Iran and Syria. So, not really an alternative at all.

The Sadrist reaction to this is interesting, however:

"We demand that the Turkish government withdraw its forces immediately from the Iraqi territory and rely on negotiations to solve this conflict," al-Sadr's influential political committee said in a statement. "We call upon the Muslim neighbor Turkey through its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its Muslim people to be an element of peace and security in the region."

They don't actually expect that Turkey will listen to them, but the statement does indicate how Al-Sadr's committee is trying to bill themselves as a nationalist party: obviously any foreign interference has to be opposed, Turkey and the US included. We don't often get the opportunity to hear Sadrist political rhetoric, and this indicates as well that they are earnestly trying to place themselves more and more solidly in the political realm, as opposed to the military one. And the US Military is responding politically as well, in keeping the dialog with the Sadrists open and diplomatic (ABC Article):

"This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens," the military said in a statement. "It will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation."

Something that seems to be forgotten in all of this is that Al-Sadr's shifting into the political realm - whatever his intentions - does constitute political progress. The figurehead of a previously very violent sectarian faction is moderating himself and his followers to become a political player. He called a cease-fire, then extended it, despite the fact that the US was consistently targeting fringe elements of his militia - because he really has been trying to reign them in. Fanatical followers can ruin a bid for political power just as easily as bad rhetoric can, which is why we've seen changes in both.

Now certainly, Al-Sadr may still be an islamist, and one with a violent history. But frankly the part where that violence is currently history is pivotal in considerations involving JAM and himself. He may be an opportunist, but one can tell an awful lot about what opportunities exist and where they exist by watching him. We've already seen violence become a non-starter for any serious political player in Iraq, and Al-Sadr is maintaining his base through social and political works now instead.

Why this continued movement in both rhetoric and action is not considered political progress is somewhat beyond my understanding.