April 17, 2008

Dr. iRack Ponders Basra

Dr. iRack here. He wants to thank AM for adding him to the list of guest bloggers! If anybody out there is wondering about the origins of Dr. iRack's “handle,” check out this video.

For the first entry, Dr. iRack thought he’d revisit some unanswered questions regarding last month’s debacle in Basra.

We all know that Maliki’s recent Basra operation did not go as planned, but the fiasco is still puzzling in a number of respects. Why was it so poorly planned and executed with so little coordination with the Americans? And what explains the timing of the assault? Why would the Iraqis (or the Americans) risk rushing into a major offensive that might cause Sadr’s ceasefire (a major cause of the “progress” associated with the surge) to unravel so close to the Petraeus/Crocker testimony?

The standard narrative suggests that the operation caught the Americans by surprise. In an interview with the New York Times, Ambassador Crocker said, “The sense we had was that this would be a long-term effort: increased pressure gradually squeezing the Special Groups. That is not what kind of emerged.” Based on information from a number of my U.S. and Iraqi contacts, a clearer picture is now coming into view. It seems that Maliki’s initial plan was to go after 100 JAM/“special groups” targets in Basra with close ties to Iran. Dr. iRack suspects the lion’s share of this effort was supposed to be carried out by Iraqi special forces in conjunction with U.S. special operations and air assets, with the regular Iraqi Army largely playing a supporting role.

Reporting suggests that the operation was planned for July and Maliki pushed it up with limited warning to MNF-I and the U.S. Embassy, catching the Americans with their pants down. During his testimony, Petraeus said he was first told about the operation on Friday, March 21, just a handful of days before the operation kicked off. Maliki traveled down to Basra on Monday, March 24 to personally oversee the operation, and the assault commenced the following day.

Contrary to this account, Dr. iRack has heard from his sources that MNF-I had several weeks (or more) of warning. Dr. iRack originally dismissed this claim because he assumed that the U.S. military would have strongly opposed an all-out assault just prior to the Petraeus/Crocker testimony. But if it was not supposed to be an all-out assault then the pre-testimony timing actually makes some sense. A targeted set of Iraqi-led raids against JAM special groups in Basra would show (1) that Maliki and the ISF were taking the initiative against Shia militias, and (2) that Maliki was willing to police the expanding chaos on Basra and protect the port. In other words, a limited operation would show “progress”—and that would be a reason for the Americans to support it in the pre-testimony period.

Regardless of how much warning the Americans had, it is still a puzzle why an operation that was supposed to be targeted set of raids evolved into a frontal assault? The conventional wisdom attributes it to plain old Iraqi bungling. But, again, some new information from my sources complicates this picture. Apparently, the details of the assault were leaked to JAM (no surprise given militia infiltration of the ISF). And, in an attempt to pre-empt Maliki’s plan, JAM began attacking Iraqi Army units as they moved south and shelled the prime minister upon his arrival in Basra. This brought JAM-proper into the game—not just the special groups—and Maliki responded by ordering regular Iraqi Army units into the city, escalating the operation far beyond its original design. This puts into context something else Crocker told the Washington Post on April 3: “I was not expecting, frankly, a major battle from Day One. But then again it's not clear to me that they'd decided that's what they were going to do. The enemy has a vote in combat.”

Plausible? Yes, it certainly would account for a lot of the lingering questions about the offensive. True? Dr. iRack doesn't know for sure. But this is certainly worth further investigation, especially since the end result of all of this was a fiasco that dragged U.S. forces into the fray and brought Iraq to the brink of an intra-Shia civil war.