Basra Fighting, Counterpoint

Hampton makes a good point that the violence in Basra is occurring in the aftermath of British withdrawal, with the subsequent power vacuum it left. Spencer Ackerman elaborates on that here (via Andrew Sullivan), drawing some conclusions along the way about what America needs to consider in fashioning its own eventual troop withdrawal. So, yes, this isn’t a failure of the Surge in operational (ie. tactical) terms, since the Surge took place in another province.

But remember that in January 2007, when President Bush announced plans for the Surge, the British had all of 7,000 troops in Basra province. A month later, Tony Blair announced plans to cut them to 4,000 by the end of the year, which is where things stand now. Remember also that the British had been accused of leaving Basra Shiites to their own internecine bllod feuds since the very beginning of the occupation. In other words, the strategists who formulated the Surge were perfectly aware of both the power vacuum in Basra, as well as British plans to further reduce their troop presence over the course of the Surge. So I find it hard to separate the events in Basra from any strategic assessment of the Surge.

Finally, I don’t think Moqtada al-Sadr has gotten enough credit for the fact that he has basically played along with the Surge, as least as far as the military component goes. He’s been a bit obstructionist on the political front, but then again, so has everyone in Iraq. And that, after all, is the point. War is an extension of politics by other means, but by the same token, politics is a method of resolving the tensions that would otherwise lead to war without resorting to violence. What’s going on in Basra illustrates the way in which, notwithstanding the decrease in violence over the past six months, none of the underlying tensions have been reduced to the point of making violence no longer possible. It is a failure of the Iraqi body politic to resist the recourse to violence, which puts the very essence of the Iraqi body politic in doubt.

One last point. I’ve been a Surge skeptic from the start, and although I was certainly glad to see the casualty figures go down, I remained very wary of putting too much stock in them. One problem of war that has gotten very little attention with regard to Iraq is the problem of metrics, and the Surge seems to be the ideal example. The logic of the Surge presented two metrics by which to judge its success: improving the security situation, measured by casualties numbers, and political reconciliation, measured by the long-since-forgotten benchmarks. What I think we’re seeing now is that neither one was really very useful as far as measuring how well we were accomplishing our goals.

It’s certainly possible that things develop in such a way that what I’ve written might seem alarmist a few days from now. I hope that’s the case. But even if things do calm down, maybe even as a result of President Bush or Gen. Petraeus reading all parties concerned the riot act, what will we have actually accomplished? If Iraqis agree to stop killing each other, but not to let go of the grievances that make them want to kill each other, we’re no further than we were last January.

But if things don’t subside, or even worse, if they escalate, will any of the Surge’s supporters have the courage to say we’ve played our last trump card?

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