April 03, 2008

What we knew and when we knew it

The New York Times has a nice peek into the "planning" that preceded that goat rodeo in Basra last week.

Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker first learned of the Iraqi plan on Friday, March 21: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would be heading to Basra with Iraqi troops to bring order to the city.

But the Iraqi operation was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived. By the following Tuesday, a major fight was on.

“The sense we had was that this would be a long-term effort: increased pressure gradually squeezing the Special Groups,” Mr. Crocker said in an interview, using the American term for Iranian-backed militias. “That is not what kind of emerged.”

What followed was a scramble to back Maliki's play because, honestly, at this point, what other options do we have?

Two senior American military officers — a member of the Navy Seals and a Marine major general — were sent to Basra to help coordinate the Iraqi planning, the military officials said. [Oh, that was sure to have helped, Abu Muqawama sarcastically adds. Because if there is one thing Navy Seals are known for, it's a disciplined planning process. Abu Muqawama chuckles, snickers, etc.] Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were pressed into service as combat advisers while air controllers were positioned to call in airstrikes on behalf of beleaguered Iraqi units. American transport planes joined the Iraqis in ferrying supplies to Iraqi troops.

In Baghdad, Mr. Crocker lobbied senior officials in the Iraqi government, who complained that they had been excluded from Mr. Maliki’s decision-making on Basra, to back the prime minister’s effort there.

“I stressed the point that this was a moment of national crisis, and they had to think nationally,” Mr. Crocker said. “Because nobody should think that failure in Basra is going to benefit any element of the Iraqi community. The response was good. I have not found any element of the Iraqi government that will admit to being consulted.”

The question for the class remains how we got into this situation in the first place, where we're held hostage by a government that unilaterally decides to violently undercut its political rivals in clashes that erase many of the security gains of the last year.

One American intelligence officer in Washington, however, had a somewhat different interpretation of the prime minister’s motivations. While restoring order was his stated goal, he asserted, the Iraqi leader was also eager to weaken the Mahdi Army and the affiliated political party of the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr before provincial elections in the south that are expected to be to be held this year. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party and militia that are rivals to Mr. Sadr, his party and his militia, form a crucial part of Mr. Maliki’s political coalition.