Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra
(#9 in a series) The recent events in Basra provide a test, allowing comparison of a war blogger’s analysis vs. that of experts. The previous post showed Bill Roggio’s view of the Basra fighting (as a sample of war-bloggers’ reporting). This post looks at both mainstream reporting and expert analysis. In the next few days or weeks, when the dust settles, we will see whose analysis was most accurate.
Note that expert analysis tends to be more tentative, with emphasis on the limits of the available data, and the complex, fluid nature of the situation. War blogger reports tend (a broad generalization, not always correct) to display both certainty and simplicity (sometimes approaching cartoon-like).
“ANALYSIS-Iraqi crackdown backfires, strengthens Sadrists“, Reuters (31 March 2008) – Excerpt:
Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in England, said Maliki had staked his political credibility on the show of force in Basra and lost. “Maliki’s credibility is shot at this point. He really thought his security forces could really do this. But he’s failed,” he said.
“reports of a truce, some reflections“, Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark (31 March 2008) – Excerpt:
I’ve been following the twists and turns as reported in the Arab and Iraqi press over the weekend, but frankly the Arab and Iraqi press are just as confused as the American media about why this all happened and what’s transpiring on the ground. .. This confusion strikes me as itself politically significant.
The most plausible reading of all this, to me, is that Maliki’s circle really believed that they could strike a quick, decisive blow against the Sadrists, which would improve the chances of ISCI and pro-government candidates in the provincial elections expected in October and make the government look strong and competent. Evidently they misjudged the real balance of power, got bogged down militarily, and were forced to backpedal. While Maliki’s first instinct (and Sadr’s) was to up the ante and heat up the rhetoric, cooler heads now seem to have prevailed and both sides reportedly agreeing to the the nine point truce terms issued by Moqtada al-Sadr. It does seem rather significant that Iran became the preferred intermediary for talks involving Sadr himself and a delegation from ISCI and Dawa …
Here are some preliminary thoughts, then, about where this might be going – keeping in mind how quickly things have been developing and how easily trends could change. If the fighting peters out and the deal outlined in Sadr’s nine points is upheld, then the outcome looks like a serious political defeat for Maliki, given his own stated goals.
… But before declaring victory for one side or the other, everyone should keep in mind that in these situations the fight only begins with the military encounter
“Basra Battle Strengthens Sadr“, Wall Street Journal (1 April 2008) – “Shiite Cleric Fights Maliki to a Draw”. (Update: better quote used) Excerpt:
U.S. and British commanders said that Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought the Iraqi forces to a draw and were able to retain their control over large portions of Basra and other Shiite areas of the country.
… U.S. officials said that Mr. Sadr was in a stronger political position, as well, because of the public perception that Mr. Maliki ordered the strikes to weaken the cleric and his followers ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October. If the elections were held today, “there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Sadrists would win across the south,” said a U.S. official at the American Embassy in Baghdad who monitors Iraqi politics.
“‘status quo ante’ revisited’“, Marc Lynch at AbuAardvark (1 April 2008) – Excerpt:
First, “status quo ante” is a clear victory for Sadr, given that Maliki set the bar for himself as total victory.
Second, he’s probably right that it isn’t just status quo ante – numerous sources today report that Maliki has issued an order ending the extralegal raids and arrests which had been a primary complaint of Sadrists for months, which suggests that the new status quo does include at least one significant gain for the Sadrists.
Third, as I argued yesterday, everything still depends on what happens next.
“Basra – Sadr wins; did America Lose?“, Chet Richards at Defense and the National Interest (1 April 2008) – Excerpt:
The upshot is that Moqtada al-Sadr’s political strength has grown both by the results of the fighting and by his offer to end it. That offer, which stopped (at least for now) Iraqi-on-Iraqi as well as Muslim-on-Muslim violence will be seen as magnanimous by many Iraqis both in and out of al-Sadr’s movement. … This does not have to be bad news for America, unless we have for some reason defined our “victory” in terms of particular Iraqi politicians, such as al-Maliki of the Dawa party or al-Hakim of ISCI.
“The Basrah Gambit – Defining Moment for Iraq or the Jaysh al-Mahdi?“, Malcolm Nance, Small Wars Journal (31 March 2008) — Note Nance’s impression bio here. At 2800 words, this analysis is too complex and long to summarize. I recommend reading it in full, as it presents a picture of events differing from most other sources.
“Embarrassed U.S. Starts to Disown Basra Operation“, Analysis by Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service (31 March 2008) – Excerpt:
The effort to disclaim U.S. responsibility for the operation is an indication that it was viewed as a major embarrassment just as top commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are about to testify before Congress. Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation.
… Operation Knights Assault also involved actual U.S.-Iraqi joint combat operations. U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner denied on Mar. 26 that there were any “conventional” U.S. forces involved in the operation. Only on Mar. 30 did the U.S. command confirm that a joint raid by Iraqi and U.S. special forces units had “killed 22 suspected militants” in Basra.
… Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal disorganisation. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November, “As we’ve gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we’ve degraded their capability…”
… Then came Sadr’s announcement Feb. 22 that the ceasefire would be extended. That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale “cordon and search” operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.
… The ability of Mahdi Army units in Basra to stop in its tracks the biggest operation mounted against it since 2004 suggests that Shiite military resistance to the occupation is only beginning. By making that point just before Petraeus’s testimony, Sadr has posed a major challenge to the Bush narrative of military success in Iraq.
Updates — interesting perspectives, although not experts
“How Moqtada al-Sadr Won in Basra“, Time magazine (1 April 2008) — Opening:
The Iraqi military’s offensive in Basra was supposed to demonstrate the power of the central government in Baghdad. Instead it has proven the continuing relevance of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, stood its ground in several days of heavy fighting with Iraqi soldiers backed up by American and British air power.
But perhaps more important than the manner in which the militia fought is the manner in which it stopped fighting. On Sunday Sadr issued a call for members of the Mahdi Army to stop appearing in the streets with their weapons and to cease attacks on government installations. Within a day, the fighting had mostly ceased. It was an ominous answer to a question posed for months by U.S. military observes: Is Sadr still the leader of a unified movement and military force? The answer appears to be yes.
In the view of many American troops and officers, the Mahdi Army had splintered irretrievably into a collection of independent operators and criminal gangs. Now, however, the conclusion of the conflict in Basra shows that when Sadr speaks, the militia listens.
That apparent authority is in marked contrast to the weakness of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. …
“Who Won Iraq’s ‘Decisive” Battle?’“, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd), The Exile (2 April 2008) — Opening:
What happened in Iraq this week was a beautiful lesson in the weird laws of guerrilla warfare. Unfortunately, it was the Americans who got schooled. Even now, people at my office are saying, “We won, right? Sadr told his men to give up, right?”
Wrong. Sadr won big. Iran won even bigger. Maliki, Petraeus and Cheney lost.
For people raised on stories of conventional war, where both sides fight all-out until one side loses and gives up, what happened in Iraq this past week makes no sense at all. Sadr’s Mahdi Army was humiliating the Iraq Army on all fronts. In Basra, the Army’s grand offensive, code-named “The Charge of the Knights,” got turned into “The Total Humiliation of the Knights,” like something out of an old Monty Python skit.
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For more information on this topicFor more information about the War Bloggers and the Iraq War
- Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
- The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008) — Some theories why after 5 years we still debate basic things about the Iraq War.
- War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
- More views of the events at Basra (2) — bloggers and war-bloggers (28 March 2008) – Contrast the war bloggers’ reports with those of some experts.
- A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion) (29 March 2008) — Someone writes a defense of the war bloggers, and my reply.
- A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten (31 March 2008) – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
- An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
- Evidence of the war bloggers’ growing influence (2 April 2008)
- Basra, a test case: war blogger’s vs. experts (2 April 2008)
- Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra (2 April 2008)
- Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
- Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq