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Basra, a test case: war blogger’s vs. experts

2 April 2008

(#9 in a series)  Current events in Basra provide a test case to compare the accuracy of the war bloggers vs. that of conventional experts.  This post shows of a prominent war blogger, Bill Roggio (Editor of the Long War Journal (LWJ); see his bio here).  The following post looks at the views of several experts.

Update:   I use Roggio’s work, like Totten’s in the earlier posts, as one of the best of the war bloggers.  Roggio’s analysis about Basra differs from the experts’ view in two ways.

  1. LWJ describes the Basra fighting as a normal “government vs. militia” operation.  This contrasts with analysis by regional experts, who emphasize the political dimensions of these operations – an apparent attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to prevent losses in the next elections.
  2. LWJ describes the operations as a success, contrast with analysts’ reports that this – based on what little we know – appears to be at best a tie, and more likely a win for al Sadr.  See Marc Lynch’s reports here and here, and Chet Richard’s analysis here.

Maliki: ‘Security operations in Basra will continue‘”, Bill Roggio, Editor of the Long War Journal (31 March 2008) – Excerpt:

One day after Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, called for his fighters to abandon combat, the fighting in Basrah has come to a near-halt, and the Iraqi security forces are patrolling the streets. While Sadr spokesman said the Iraqi government agreed to Sadr’s terms for the cease-fire, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said the security forces will continue operations in Basrah in the South. Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army took heavy casualties in Basrah, Nasiriyah, Babil, and Baghdad over the weekend, despite Sadr’s call for the end of fighting.

Maliki was clear that operations would continue in the South. “The armed groups who refuse al Sadr’s announcement and the pardon we offered will be targets, especially those in possession of heavy weapons,” Maliki said, referring to the 10-day amnesty period for militias to turn in heavy and medium weapons. “Security operations in Basra will continue to stop all the terrorist and criminal activities along with the organized gangs targeting people.”

The Iraqi military said it was moving in more forces into the South after admitting it was surprised by the level of resistance encountered in Basrah. “Fresh military reinforcements were sent to Basra to start clearing a number of Basra districts of wanted criminals and gunmen taking up arms,” said Brigadier General Abdel Aziz al Ubaidi, the operations chief for the Ministry of Defense. “Preparations for fresh operations have been made to conduct raids and clearance operations in Basra … [and] military operations would continue to restore security in Basra.”

The reasons behind Sadr’s call for a cessation in fighting remain unknown, but reports indicate the Mahdi Army was having a difficult time sustaining its operations and has taken heavy casualties.

… 571 Mahdi Army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered over the course of seven days of fighting.

To over-generalize, war bloggers’ views of the Iraq War differ from that of experts on the region in several ways.

  1. Reporting the war as good guys — our allies — fighting bad guys (al Qaeda).  But, like al Qaeda in Iraq, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab militias have also done terrible things to civilians — murder, rape, ethnic cleanings (all those incidents reported daily at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment).   It paints a false picture to whitewash the militia in order to make al Qaeda look like the bad guys.
  2. Ignoring or minimizing the economic depression the war has imposed on Iraq, and the hardships causes by deterioration of basic services:  sewage, clean water, electricity, health care.
  3. Ignoring or minimizing the refugee crisis and the effects of the emigration of so many of Iraq’s professional class.
  4. Repeating scraps of good news, often false (e.g., the “refugees are streaming home” rumor — not in large numbers, fewer willingly).
  5. Ignoring the fracturing of Iraq, reporting only about the “Iraq Army” or “Iraq Police”, as if this was Iowa — ignoring the often-vital context of sectarian/ethnic identity.
  6. Ignoring the relentless weakening role of the central government in Iraq, and its replacement by local structures (a corollary of the #5).
  7. Worst of all, they provide analysis of the war looking only at the plus side of the ledger.  This is the fast road to disaster, ignoring the cost in money and blood, damage to America’s strategic position (e.g., rise of Iran’s influence in the Middle East) — even a broad evaluation of the war in terms of the official goals and benchmarks.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about the different reports we see about the Iraq War

  1. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
  2. 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.
  3. War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten (31 March 2008) – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
  7. An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
  8. Evidence of the war bloggers’ growing influence (2 April 2008)
  9. Basra, a test case: war blogger’s vs. experts (2 April 2008)
  10. Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra (2 April 2008)
  11. Sources of the Instapundit’s knowledge — analysis or cartoons? (3 April 2008)
  12. Some comments by Bill Roggio, Editor of the Long War Journal (3 April 2008)
  13. Two views of Fallujah – which tells us more about the future?  (23 April 2008)
  14. Who was right about Basra — experts or war bloggers?   (25 April 2008)
  15. Scoring Basra: War bloggers 2, area experts 1  (14 May 2008)

For more information see…

  1. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War
  2. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq  
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13 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 April 2008 1:37 am

    I L-O-V-E how a foreign military that undertook an action we didn’t know about beforehand has produced such easily quantifiable casualties amongst an enemy we can’t count or locate. Great accurate reporting, that is.

    Like

  2. Anthony J. Alfidi permalink
    2 April 2008 1:41 am

    How many war blogs are run by US-UK intelligence agencies? This is a relevant question in the context of the neocolonial IO campaign. Pro-war blogs tagged with neutral search terms like “Basra” will turn up frequently in web searches.
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    Fabius Maximus: The influence of war bloggers is very concentrated, with a few having the greatest influence. Anyone familiar with CIA history will not easily dismiss the possibility of some of the major names being agency projects. Thank you for raising this. I did not want to do so, for lack of evidence.

    Like

  3. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    2 April 2008 2:18 pm

    I’d be less worried about these blogs being run by intelligence agencies: The damage that even rumors of ties can do is severe to credibility, and any confirmation would be a disaster. Look at the damage done by the “pay for story” business, but magnify it by 100 (because the war blogs are targeting an audience in the US/UK, rather than Iraqis)

    I think its more a “Can’t see the forest through the trees” problem, and the need to be the good guys.

    If you believed in your heart that it was a complex conflict, that this was a political gambit, a war-blogger as you describe would basically go crazy. You have to be the good guy in such situations.

    Because if you aren’t the good guys, if the conflict doesn’t make sense, your morale goes to pot.

    And also, given the current state of the regulations on blogging, if the blog is from someone on active duty, if you were to blog such disenchantment, it could be a potential criminal offense. (Technically, according to the field manual on operational security, effectively EVERY blog post needs to be approved by the commanding officer. I doubt this is practised)

    Like

  4. Duncan Kinder permalink
    2 April 2008 2:35 pm

    I’m not familiar with Mr. Roggio ( and your discussion suggests attempting to do so would be a waste of time. ) However, your discussion suggests he bears greater semblance to someone like Kipling than to an objective reporter. Perhaps he should be discussed in such terms.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I know little of Kipling’s influence on the people of Britain at that time. But the war-bloggers feed information to support the pro-war views of a large and influential part of the blogosphere. The Instapundit, National Review Online, and a host of others rely on the war-bloggers “victory narrative” as the factual basis for their opinions. Now the war bloggers are moving uptown, as experts for the major media. What will we be thinking about them in 2010?

    Like

  5. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    2 April 2008 5:05 pm

    It is depressing, but I think the promotion of the War Bloggers is just a continution of the anti-cassandra problem in so much of the press.

    How many experts proved themselves completely wrong for the past 5 years but continue to be called upon as experts?

    Like

  6. Pode permalink
    2 April 2008 7:47 pm

    Shachtman at Wired Magazine has some of that evidence you said you were lacking in your response to comment #2, in the form of a 2006 advisory report commissioned by SOCOM: “Military Report: Secretly ‘Recruit or Hire Bloggers’“, Noah Shachtman, Danger Room — blog of Wired (28 March 2008) — Excerpt:

    “This 2006 report for the Joint Special Operations University, “Blogs and Military Information Strategy,” offers a third approach — co-opting bloggers, or even putting them on the payroll. “Hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering,” write the report’s co-authors, James Kinniburgh and Dororthy Denning.”

    Hardly proof, but suggestive.
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    Fabius Maximus: A very interesting article. Thank you for commenting on this. I will do a post on it.

    Like

  7. 2 April 2008 11:55 pm

    Duncan Kinder: Supporting your comparison of war bloggers with Kipling, here is an excerpt from “Rudyard Kipling unburdened“, Roger Kimball, The New Criterion (April 2008):

    “In Kipling, the zeitgeist briefly found its impresario. For a time, his authority was as much political as literary. Kipling gave speeches advocating British supremacy in India and South Africa. He opposed the suffragettes and home rule for Ireland. He could be downright strident. It was Kipling, one of his biographers speculates, who popularized the metonymy “Huns” (actually, he insisted on “huns” with a small “h”) for “Germans,” a subject on which he grew increasingly ferocious.

    “By 1915, Kipling was insisting that there were “only two divisions in the world … human beings and Germans.” Kipling consistently refused state honors (a knighthood, the Order of Merit, the post of poet laureate) but by the late 1890s he was the undisputed if unofficial laureate—but also, which is sometimes forgotten, the Jeremiah—of Imperial Britain.”

    Like

  8. 3 April 2008 1:43 am

    Fabius,

    I challenge you to find one statement where I describes the operation as a success. As I stated in a prior entry, this is just not the case.

    I think there is one place to simplify here: the Iraqi government did indeed launch the operation, using Army and police forces. Now, you can question the motives, as many have, or the composition of said security forces, as many have, but the fact is this operation was launched by the government of Iraq, with the approval of the parties in the ruing bloc, which does include Shia and Kurds.

    I do think you oversimplify by implying I only report good news. I don’t think you read closely enough. For example, at the turn of the New Year, the “pro-war” camp wanted to dance on al Qaeda in Iraq’s grave. I warned people that al Qaeda still had a sanctuary in Mosul and Diyala, and there was still fighting and operations ahead to clear these areas, and that it would be challenging with the existing forces. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. And I reported it days ahead of the media. I can cite examples on the reporting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc. but won’t bore you.

    Joshua,

    If you care to follow links in the entries, these reports are available. You can dispute the sources (MNF-I, Voices of Iraq, Reuters, etc.), feel free to do so. I certainly did not make this up out of whole cloth. And having actually been in the field with US and Iraqi troops (I just returned from Mosul last Thursday after spending time with the Iraqi Army and the Military Transition Teams, that was my fifth trip to Iraq) I can honestly say I’ve seen the aftermath of engagements and the resultant field and press reports. It is often very easy to determine who you killed, particularly in a ground fight. If air is called in and ground is present, they often go into the structure to determine casualties.

    By the way, I notice you are quick to jump the the Al Qaeda/Taliban/Mahdi Army/insert group here narrative that we only kill innocent women and children. Having been out there and seeing it first hand, I know who I think is a more reliable source.

    Duncan,

    I’m not familiar with you either, and based on your small minded comment, its just as well. Comparing me to Kipling without even reading? Who should I compare you to without knowing you?

    Finally, if I am a CIA plant, please tell someone there to start paying me. Also, tell them to start sending me “the message.” I do know I ticked off people in CIA and DoD (as well as many conservatives that didn’t want more bad news reported during the 206 election season) with my reporting on the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan long before the media even recognized a problem there. I guess I never got “the message.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We try to keep these discussions fairly pleasant (not always easy to do!)!

    I do not believe that Duncan’s comparing you to Kipling is either an insult or “small minded”. Kipling was one of the major figures in 19th century literature. (Comparisons of my work to Kipling’s are welcomed. Favorable only, please.) As shown by the article I reference in the following comment, Kipling’s work had large elements of both reporting and poltical commentary. For reasons discussed in the article, that aspect of his work has been forgotten by the public, but is very relevant to our current adventures in the East.

    Also, nobody has accused you of being a CIA plant. However, the CIA has a long history of projects to influence US opinion. The Wired article, referencing a quasi-official report, is relevant to the subject under discussion.

    I will copy your comments to a full post, combining with the other one, for a reply. Again, thank you for commenting!

    Like

  9. 3 April 2008 2:13 am

    Fair enough and my sincerest apologies. I do think Duncan crossed the line with saying attempting to get familiar with me “would be a waste of time” isn’t very civil, however. But my apologies to Duncan as well.

    And no, I wasn’t saying anyone here was calling me a CIA plant, I just wanted to make it clear I wasn’t. The Washington Post wrote an article intimating I was an information operation for the US military in late 2005. I find the amount of energy spent trying to discredit people with dissenting views to be humorous. And sad.
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    Fabius Maximus: I agree with you that he was over the line a little. Since I have crossed that line on occasion, I just gave a reminder. I try to edit comments as little as possible, only for major sins.

    As for discrediting the messenger instead of the message, ad hominem attacks seem to be way the game is played in America these days. I agree, it is sad.

    Like

  10. A. Scott Crawford permalink
    3 April 2008 8:32 am

    Mr. Roggio,

    Coming from the signal corps, you probably don’t appreciate the irony that being smeared as a CIA stooge… err, “associate”… is something of a compliment coming from the beltway punditry… especially the WP! It just means someone thinks your work was good enough to attack, and all they could muster up was an ad hominem response. As a foreign affairs writer, you know you’ve arrived when you’re worth directed political attacks from the lords of the MSM’s anointed hatchet men. lol. Congrats.

    Otherwise… (full disclosure, I stuck a Kipling poem in my profile that I’m going to swap out after posting this). Here’s a link to a particular R. Kipling poem I suspect you’ll find apropos to this thread (Pagett, M.P.):

    Pagett, M.P.” by Rudyard Kipling

    Best,

    Like

  11. 3 April 2008 12:55 pm

    Bill, that’s a pretty unfair characterization about my concerns over properly veting targets in Pakistan before air strikes. Par for the course when one doesn’t agree with 100% of what you write, then eh?

    About the “Taliban” claiming we kill far too many civilians… well, I suppose we can then count Hamid Karzai and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as amongst the Taliban, because they certainly seem to think so as well. Like you, I don’t pull this out of thin air.

    More broadly: it is not a crime to question sources or accuracy, especially in on-the-ground reporting. It is almost always wrong from both sides. Treating it like a personal attack contributes nothing to the discussion of untangling the various media narratives.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Please read my note above, about keeping this impersonal. Let us take this down a notch, please.

    Like

  12. 3 April 2008 1:48 pm

    Joshua,

    The reason why I stopped trying to engaging you is because, despite numerous efforts, you still think I take your comments personally. I don’t. Yet you fail to recognize that you are responding emotionally to my comments, jsut like you did above. I won’t respond to that. You need to understand that email/comments sections are imperfect forms of communication, and you should stop reading in emotions that may or may not exist.

    Do you think the Taliban cares one whit about how many civilians are killed? They encourage it and take shelter behind civilians to cause situations where this happens. It is impossible to have a 100% civilian casualty-free war under these conditions, but one thing I do know is the US military works hard to prevent civilian casualties. I suggest you do some research on air warfare, then compare the number of civilians (even using the worst case scenario of casualty numbers) killed in Afghanistan to past engagements.

    My advice to you is that if you want to write about what you think goes on in an intelligence operation or inside a tactical operations center, you should spend some time in the field. I don’t care to tell you just how wrong you were about Phil & Matt’s article on the Pakistan strike. Having spent time in operations centers and with the military in theater, I know when I am being snowed. I edited the entry before publishing it, and was perfectly comfortable with it. You disagreed with the tone and the facts, and label it propaganda and other such names. And if you never heard of HIMARs, research it.

    Like

  13. 3 April 2008 3:16 pm

    Bill, this is hardly the place for such an exchange. You have my email, and you’re welcome to use it should you want to have a discussion.

    Like

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