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.

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