March 27, 2008

More on Basra (Updated)

Charlie would prefer that Maliki, et al. had picked a different week to launch a major offensive in Basra...she has a chapter to finish goddammit! She'll leave the heavy lifting to AM (who's been holding down the fort nicely, don't you think? Of course, it's his fort, but still. Been a bit abandoned at his post as of late.) Anyway!

Spencer suggests that we / competing Shia factions may be throwing Maliki under the bus by giving him ownership over the Basra offensive.

But. The dangers of picking and choosing who the Iraqi premier should be outweigh any imperial temptations we may feel. We'll be just as responsible for Prime Minister Next-Up's mistakes as we are for Maliki's. And the Iraqis will never trust any leader that foreigners pick for them. In what's shaping up to be the Second Sadrist Intifada, you go to war with the prime minister you have, not the prime minister you might want.

And Danger Room has good coverage. First of the mysteriously disappearing Brits. (Charlie was reading this BBC article yesterday and had to actually search the doc for any mention of the British Army. There was but one.) David Axe suggests that the Marines are more likely to be called in than the Brits. And Noah Shachtman wonders out loud:

So the Brits bail, and Basra is "essentially divided up among Shi'ite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption," as Anthony Cordesman puts it today. Isn't this an extremely bad omen for an American troop withdrawal, under a would-be President Obama or Clinton? How would a country-wide draw-down be different than this local one?

Ugh, good question. Spence, Phil, want to chime in? One answer is that the Brits adopted a "peacekeeping" mindset in Basra and never really engaged in a broader COIN or CT effort. That meant that all the myriad Shia groups were able to pursue their (relatively) non-violent political agenda and consolidate control over the political levers of city. There's a chance (albeit not a big one) that our COIN efforts in Anbar, Baghdad, and elsewhere have undercut the political bases of these groups and made a Basra-style breakdown less likely. Time will tell.

Second, DR has a good excerpt from the now sub-only Iraq Slogger who notes that not only has the fighting spread to Baghdad (obvi), but competing Shia groups have turned on each other:

Fighting has also erupted between the Mahdi Army and rival Shi'a factions. Locals report that at 10:30 am on Tuesday the militia attacked offices of the Badr organization, loyal to the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, one of the major partners in the Maliki government and a bitter rival to the Sadrist current in Iraq's Shi'a community.

Six members of Badr have been killed, according to preliminary reports from locals to Slogger, including two in Sadr City.

Also, NPR reported this morning that there were instances of Iraqi Army soldiers taking off their uniforms and joining up with the Mahdi Army in Basra. This scares the sh*t out of Charlie, but she hasn't seen it reported elsewhere. Anyone else confirming?

Back to the trenches.

Update: More from Noah at Danger Room, including a great discussion of the how the US ends up on the same side as Iran in its assault on JAM and Sadrists.

Update II: Spencer responds to Noah's original question:

Here's what I'd add to that. Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we're seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos.

So to avoid chaos -- and I recognize this is banal and generic -- you can't just pull up stakes. Some sort of political accommodation has to occur alongside a strategy of extrication. There will be some good suggestions coming out of various think tanks and government offices over the next several months that put flesh to bone here. But the broader point is this: if we decide we're just going to order the post-surge forces out of Iraq in X number of months/years, and nothing accompanies that decision on the political-diplomatic end, then yeah, Basra probably will be a prologue. But if we spend the time between now (well, between a Democratic president's inaugural, realistically) and then working on some Undefined Diplomatic Strategy, then we have our best shot -- and it's not a sure shot; I'll be the first to admit -- at extracting ourselves with a minimum of chaos.

Update III: But Phil at Intel Dump cautions:

Oh yeah, and another thing. Every time you think of the "adviser model" for Iraq, you should think of this operation in Basra. Because this is the end result of the U.S. advisory effort to date -- which has focused on creating well-trained and equipped units at the tactical level, but has basically failed at the national, strategic level. The leaders of the Iraqi security forces at the ministry level are as bad as they ever were. And the national government is about as bad. Training and advising Iraqi units at the brigade level and below is well and good. But if you fail to properly shape the national command structure, you're handing those units over to leaders who will misuse them.

Charlie isn't fully convinced by Phil's argument here...and she wants to for more evidence on IA performance to come in (still waiting on confirmation of IA defections). Basra is a witch's brew of how things go bad in irregular environments, and this assault doesn't immediately strike Charlie as a "misuse" of IA troops. That said, advising at the brigade and MOD level is, and likely always will be, a weakness of our advising efforts and has to be addressed in conjunction with any withdrawal strategy.