A lesson learned from the fighting in Basra: the war-bloggers were correct; the experts wrong

Summary:  It has been five months since the fighting in Basra, which I described as a test of the accuracy of US-based experts vs. on-the-scene war bloggers.  Who did a better job of reporting and analysis?  My preliminary scoring suggested a clear win for the war-bloggers (see here and here).  Here we give a final score to the contest.  It is not the result I expected when I started the series!

In a series of articles (listed at the end of this post) about the fighting in Basra I contrasted the views of experts with war-bloggers (esp Bill Roggio of the Long War JournalMichael Totten, and Michael Yon).

How did the two views differ (simplifying the two sides’ view for easy comparison)?

  1. The war-bloggers described the Basra fighting as a normal “government vs. militia” operation.  The experts put more emphasis on the political dimensions of these operations – an apparent attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to prevent losses in the next elections.
  2. The war-bloggers described the operations as a success; the experts reported this was at best a tie, and more likely a win for al Sadr.  (as seen in the many comparisons of Basra with TET, like this).

Examples of the war bloggers reporting about the Basra fighting

From the Instapundit, 25 March 2008:

MICHAEL YON EMAILS: “It’s important to contextualize the fighting in Basra. That the Iraqi Army apparently is fighting JAM is important; a largely Shia Government of Iraq is in command of the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army is fighting Shia militia. This is not bad news.”

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.

Looking back, what happened in Basra?

Consider these 3 recent articles.

  1. Maliki’s bid to be the strong man“, Gregory Gause (U of Vermont), posted at Abu Aardvark, 3 September 2008.
  2. Thoughts on Gause“, Prof Marc Lynch, posted at his blog Abu Aardvark, 4 September 2008 
  3. Malki the strongman?“, Iraqologist, posted at abu muqawama, 5 September 2008

They all reflect the new situation in Iraq, esp. Maliki’s new assertiveness following his success in Basra.  A clear win for the war-bloggers!


Now the difficult questions.  What was their advantage over the experts?  

  • better information?
  • superior analytical skill?
  • fewer or weaker biases, or “better” biases?

Basra was one campaign in the Iraq War, or wars.  We cannot yet assess its significance in terms of the outcome.  Perhaps it was a turning point.  Perhaps it was just a blip on the path to fractured Iraq.  But we can learn something from it about the sources we reply upon for information about the war.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  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)

For more information:

  1. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War
  2. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq 

6 thoughts on “A lesson learned from the fighting in Basra: the war-bloggers were correct; the experts wrong”

  1. One of the keys to the success of Bill Roggio, Michael Totten, and Michael Yon as analysts is that they are disconnected from the ideological arguments. Ultimately, this approach enables higher quality journalism in any discussion.

    Often other sources of media must present messages in a certain way in order to promote their material to politically driven audiences. That is my take anyway.

  2. I have the feeling, without studying them, that your “experts” were all against the Iraq war, or very early decided Bush’s handling of it made them against it.

    If so, as is the case with many, the desire to not be wrong pushes them to spin the reality in a way more close to their predictions.

    But another big win for the war-pundits was in doing less predicting, and more reporting. What just happened. Period. OK, with important but limited analysis based more on how what just happened will affect the next week’s battles, rather than the politics of the country.

    An accurate micro view rather than a predictive macro view.

  3. I must differ with Galrahn. Roggio, Totten, and Yon all have a very clear ideology, or perhaps more precisely bias. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and they all fill different niches in a market that craves that bias, but call it what it is.

    As for their “success.” I’m not sure you can say that. About Basra, perhaps, but such an analysis would require far more work behind it. Otherwise, you’re left with the equivalent of “Well, Iraq seems alright now, so Donald Rumsfeld was right that it would be won.” It is sort of almost true, but the reasoning behind the two statements is radically different.

    I want to avoid the broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day thing, but you know what I mean. Skepticism about shallow, quick analysis is always a healthy thing — ESPECIALLY when you’re looking at someone’s power of prophesy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps, but we can only learn by testing theories. A single test is seldom definitive. As I said when writing these articles, this is just a start. We must recognize that whatever their ideology (and I suspect you overstate it by considering the war-bloggers as a unitary group) they were correct.

    There is no prophesy required or claimed for their results. Just simple reporting and analysis.

  4. Yon and company delivered accurate and timely reporting and intelligence from the Iraq Theater of war for some very simple reasons, many of which are aptly illustrated by Michael Yon.

    1. Yon is a former Geern Beret, and understands soldiering at a level seldom approached by MSM reporters.

    2. Added to their general lack of expertise in things military, many MSM reporters sit in the hotels in the Green Zone and do not venture out into the field. Instead, they file reports based on propaganda delivered to them hot-and-fast by our enemies – who are nothing if not psychologically astute about the forces affecting our mews media.

    3. Yon and Co. are less ideologically driven than most war reporters; their counterparts hate Mr. Bush so badly that they are willing to ignore data that runs counter to their biases.

    4. Many MSM sources have now devolved into using wire service reports about the war, instead of on-the-scene reporting. Why? Because budgets for reporting have been cut, and many organizaitons have elected to cut back on foreign bureaus. Many so-called authorities in the domestic press have never been to Iraq, yet they pontificate as if they have spent their lives there. This has given us Rosie O’Donnell and other towering intellects as pundits on the war, a corrupt off-shoot of the toxic celebrity culture in which we live.

    5. Yon and his peers have developed extensive networks of personnel on the ground in Iraq, especially the all-important enlisted and NCO/junior officer contacts so vital to getting the real picture not available in a G2 briefing or information officer press conference. The further you get back from the nitty-gritty, the less accurate your picture becomes. Yon and Co. get dirty, and thus get better information. Another guy who is more accurate than the std. NYT or other reporter is Ralph Peters, again because he gets out in the field, travels very widely, and turns over rocks. You can’t do that from the O-club, or the press room, folks…
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points. Thanks for the detail on this!

  5. Fabius, I didn’t mean to conflate the warbloggers as having a single ideology or bias — they clearly don’t — though they all do have their biases, and those are unabashedly pro-soldier and pro-war (Yon has gone back and forth on the war’s prospects, but that is a different issue). That, again, is not a bad thing, but to pretend they are disinterested observers is a bit much.

    And I get uncomfortable writing off “MSM reporters” as suffering the psychological condition known as Bush Derangement Syndrome. There are many foreign correspondents who file excellent, and largely non-ideological reports, for the New York Times (Chivers, Burnes, Gall), the Washington Post (Chandrasakeran, Whitten), LA Times (King), and even McClatchey (their entire Baghdad staff). Writing everyone off in that way obscures the real nature of the problem.

    Also, the nitty gritty is important. But so is context. The forest matters as much as the trees — and a balanced news diet would include those who report on both.

  6. LOL. Interesting in that everyone here, and the question itself, is couched in terms of ‘who won and who lost’. As if the militias were trundled odd maimed or dead and so never to fight again. Didn’t happen like that.

    What happened was that Al-Sader and other militia leaders were bought off. We provide them with money, to the tune of several hundred per week per man. This has attracted a lot of otherwise neutral people to their side simply because they are essentially employment agencies. In addition to cash we give them guns, training and a mandate to set up their own little, some not so little, fiefdoms.

    All of this serves their purpose of consolidating their power base and allowing them to grow in preparation for act three. In return we set up a loose set of rules that tamp down the violence and allow the powers that be to claim ‘Victory’.

    But these militia leaders are like whores anywhere. They are compliant and friendly so long as the money, with guns and training in the this case, continue to flow in. Al-Sader has shown he can, at a word, turn off or on the level of violence. It serves his purpose, at this time, to keep the violence in wraps.

    But the proverbial ‘other shoe’ hasn’t dropped. At some time the US will seek to pull out, and either transfer these payments to the Iraqi government or to end them entirely. How is this going to work out? Are the Shia leaders in the government going to countenance giving huge payments to Sunni militia leaders?

    Are all the militia leaders going to go along as a few of the biggest set up their own kindoms? When this started all the militias had been worn down and depleted by the warring. The promise of these payments seemed attractive. If the payments stop or they feel they are not getting their share they may not stay peaceful for long.

    The play isn’t over. The militias have not gone away. In many ways they are more cohesive, flush with money, well armed and trained than they ever were. When we start backing out and stop paying them the curtain will go up on act three. This beast will lay on its back and allow its belly to be rubbed as long as we keep it well fed with money. But eventually we will have to stop feeding it.

    In the end what counts is not the level of violence we see now. It is the state of affairs we leave behind once we are disengaged. There is still time for it to blow up in our face. Or,as we saw in Vietnam, blow up soon after we leave. There seems to be little chance that it will display an end-state that would approximate a ‘free, democratic state in a state of peace both internally and externally’. Anything short of that and we can’t claim victory.

    It is the end result that counts. Not what is going on in act two. The people who have been against this war from the start tried to point this out. The pro-war camp is just now, after these many years, indirectly contemplating this.

    So declare victory. Have a parade. Wave the flag. But soon enough the intermission will be over and the curtain will go up on act three. Only at the end of act three we will know if this is a heroic story of a great deed accomplished at a great cost or a sad tragedy where the cost and blood are for naught. Odds are still on the later. But we shall see.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Stop the presses! This is news!

    “What happened was that Al-Sader and other militia leaders were bought off.”

    First I have heard of this. Do you have any supporting evidence that al-Sadr was bought off. Also, by whom? The Iraq government? US? Iran?

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