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.

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 on this topicFor more information about the War Bloggers and 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. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
  12. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq

7 thoughts on “Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra

  1. Malcolm Nance’s piece was indeed excellent, yet I have one quibble. Election results in the US will by no means necessitate that “both Petraeus and Crocker face up to the possibility that they had better have withdrawal plans drafted by November 5th and standby to execute them on January 21st 2009.” Withdrawal has never been and never will be in the cards. Drawdown yes, complete departure no. Defense and energy firms have contributed heavily to all three leading candidates. Come January 2009, all campaign promises to withdraw will be forgotten as the victor focuses on reelection in 2012. The war no longer registers with the American people; economic concerns now rank much higher.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I too wondered what he meant. None of the 3 major candidates has committed to a withdrawal. See these posts about Obama’s plan:
    Next Phase of the Iraq War
    How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?”

  2. An update has been posted:
    “How Moqtada al-Sadr Won in Basra“, Time magazine (1 April 2008).
    “Who Won Iraq’s “Decisive” Battle?”, Gary Brecher — The War Nerd, The Exile (2 April 2008)

  3. Fabius,

    I certainly appreciate the attention you’ve given me for the Basrah reporting. I do think you are drawing the wrong conclusions to my reports.

    I am surprised you can say my reporting brims with “certainty and simplicity” and then call the mainstream reports “tentative.” Go reread them, and ask yourself who is declaring a winner and a loser? Is that not the definition of “certainty and simplicity”, to claim to know who won and who lost? I have done no such thing – I have never said the government or Sadr has won. I challenge you to find a statement from me that said I believed the Iraqi government was victorious. You are assuming this from reading the reports. But you would be wrong to think that I declared a winner or loser.

    What I have done is assemble the available open source material, largely from the Iraqi press, MNF-I, and wire reports, and from my own network of sources to try to build a picture of the status of the fighting in Baghdad, Basrah, and the South that was a little less hysterical than declaring an operation a failure (as the New York Times did two days after it started). If you carefully read the reports, I state the Mahdi Army took heavy casualties (these casualty reports are in the Iraqi press. You can decide if they are accurate or not, I have found Voices of Iraq to be highly reliable over time), the US fought heavy battles in Baghdad but that outcome was a push, the ISF did pretty well in the South outside of Basrah (Diwaniyah, Hillah, Kut, Karbala, Najaf, Amarah), and Basrah is a push.

    I also reported that the Iraqi government, contrary to mainstream accounts, did not agree to Sadr’s terms. Sadr City is still under a curfew, Iraqi troops are still conducting raids and operations in Basrah, and they moved into two major ports in Basrah. None of these actions agree with Sadr’s terms for a cease-fire.

    For the record, I don’t think body counts are a significant indicator of success, as some have implied in previous threads here. But for a media that thinks the US body counts matter – see the “grim milestone” reporting for every thousandth casualty and the constant repetition of US casualties in wire reports, I find it curious they won’t report on what is known about enemy casualties. Sadr likely had to take into account the attrition his forces encountered over six days of fighting when calling for a cease-fire, as well as the fact that the Iraqi government was moving more troops to the south, wasn’t calling off the fighting, and US and British troops were just beginning to enter the fight. All of these things put together likely influenced Sadr’s decision. I am sure there are factors outside of these we do not know of as well.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All this, both the reporting about Iraq and my reporting about the reporting, is highly subjective. I provide what I hope are sufficiently long excerpts to support my description. Others might, of course, draw different conclusions from this material. As to whose analysis of Basra is more correct, nobody can say now. It is a test — not a conclusive test, but a small start at testing — whose results will become evident only after some days or weeks.”I will lift this into its own post to respond in greater detail, as deserved by Bill Roggio’s reply.

  4. I’m starting to have a very bad feeling right now. Looking at the Israeli comments and moves, the Basra attack and Petraeus’s comments about Iranian weapons (and it is expected that he will say this to Congress this week and he has been making these noises for months now). Look at the concentration of forces, Israeli maneuvers, Fallon out, …

    Simultaneous US/Israel attack on Lebanon, Syria and Iran this week, early next week anyone????

    Looking very, very, very, very scary boys. I’m going to fill the cars tomorrow and fill up the jerry cans as well (gives me 2,000km total range all up), as I’ve upped my odds from 30% to 80%.

    My odds: 80% of an attack, this week or next week.

    If so, 100% chance of a worldwide depression, 50% chance of conflict expanding farther, 100% chance of conflict gping on for a real long time, 5% chance of WW3, 20% chance of nuclear weapons being used at some stage by the US or Israel, 70% chance of conscription in the US.

    And I hope to God I’m wrong, but I’ve picked every other one so far (including Lebanon, 1.5 years before it happened).
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    Fabius Maximus: I suspect that most of those things have no relation to each other.

    What do you mean by a “Simultaneous US/Israel attack on Lebanon, Syria and Iran”? In If We Can Keep It, Chet Richards speaks of strikes, raids, and occupation.

    * The first is possible, but would be pointless in the case of Lebanon and Syria.
    * The second is unlikely — since probably beyond our current available resources — and pointless in the case of Lebanon.
    * The third is absolutely beyond our resources at this time.

  5. Like everything these are not rational decisions by rational people. Lebanon is a work in progress, from the 1st days of its existance the Lantani river has been coveted by some in Israel (unfortunately those in power).

    A 10 year occupation finally ground to a halt, followed, only 6 years later by another (very well planned) attack. The last one severely damaged Israel’s self and external image, so the desire for Lebanon #3 is very strong in many sectors of Govt and the IDF and the original desires have never gone away (actually given Israel’s water issues they have strengthened).

    During the last debacle it was well reported that the US was putting pressure on Israel to extend their attack to Syria. The idea being that knocking out Hezbollah and Syria were pre-requisites to attacking Iran. Israel is well versed in working with others in attacks under a maskirovka (e.g. Suez). The fact that it suits their aims as well (also e.g. Suez) is all to the good.

    Attacking Basra, which seemed insane at first sight, makes a lot of sense if you are planning to attack Iran. As Bill Lind has clearly stated the US forces in Iraq are incredibly vulnerable to having their supply lines cut. Even the US admin (sort of) realises that. Clearing Basra helps that situation.

    If, as reported in the UK Telegraph, Petraeus states to Congress this week that Iranian forces were involved in fighting in Basra (which is such an incredable lie, only explainable in that he want to be a Military President someday) then this is clear ‘case for war’ (forgotten the Latin spelling).

    The US HAS to go to war, otherwise it will be a humiliating backdown of such an extent that the US will be militarily meaningless. For your top tactical Commander to state that another country has directly fought your own armed forces (and that you have been already very hostile to), but you will do nothing about it, is impossible to conceive.

    If they do not go to war then they are clearly inviting attack by just about everyone else in the World. “Attack us, kill our troops and we will do nothing”. This Govt??? Thge fact that it is a complete lie is irrelevent.

    After he makes that statement there will be war.

    The timing is right, the Israelis are ready, the US air and Navy forces are there in position (check the deployments of the carriers, F-117s and B2’s).

    And it will all turn to custard, that is when the risk of escalation to other places or even nuclear weapons will peak.

    So watch his report, if the plan has been deep sixed (with the failure in Basra and/or Israeli nerves) then he will mention nothing about Iran, but if he directly lies to Congress about fighting Iranian forces in Basra, then it will happen in a few days.

    And watch the Russians….. (ref Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of Silver Blaze . I leave it to the readers to work out the meaning).

  6. I should add that the UK Telegraph newspaper has long had close links with UK intelliegence organisations, so a ‘spike their guns’ exercise by the UK Govt is not unimaginable. Whether it will work or not is a moot point.

  7. Well the scene has been set. Praetoris gave the new ‘reality’, Iran = Al Queada (which shows that the McCain slip a few weeks ago was not a slip at all). The Congress agrees. The gauntlet laid down. Basra encircled. Israel mobilised. The carriers in position (where are the subs?).

    The US cannot back down now, this is a tipping point. If it officially says (and is accepted by the lawmakers) that Iran is directly in conflict with US forces, that they and AQ are working together, then there is only one action they can follow as they are already at war (the truth is irrelevent only the rhetoric matters).

    I’ll stick by my original prediction, soon now, real soon, unless something really left field comes up (e.g Putin laying down the law to Bush last week, which is very unlikely as it suits Russia to have the US attack Iran). McCain will win the election and the ‘good’ times will roll on.

    Excuse me, got to go and fill up the jerry cans.

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