The Basra Paradox

The dust is starting to settle in Basra, and the consensus that’s emerging is that we know who won, and we know who lost, but we don’t know what happened. Now if that’s not a metaphor for the Iraq War in general, I don’t know what is.

First up among the unanswered questions seems to be, What the heck was Maliki thinking in pulling the trigger on this one? Retired Major William “Mac” McCallister writing over at Danger Room suggests that the battle was a form of “negotiation” between Maliki and al-Sadr:

The short-term objective is to assist Sadr in ridding himself of rogue elements so as to make him a more stable long-term political partner and more reliable participant in governance. The Maliki government, although it seeks to consolidate its hold on power knows it can not do so without the help of Sadr.

Malcolm Nance suggested the Basra operation was an extension of Surge tactics to the South, in an attempt to splinter JAM cells off from the militia to then target them one by one. Al-Sadr didn’t play along, whether out of strength or weakness, and in calling Maliki’s bluff, exposed the Iraqi Security Forces’ not-quite-ready for prime time status. Nance also wondered out loud something that had occurred to me:

Unfortunately, the Basrah Operation may have also been an attempt at a Hail Mary pass for both General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the heart of the election season. To show dramatic tangible gains all across Iraq would bolster the President’s case for continuing the war.

If so, it was a mammoth miscalculation, primarily due to the ISF’s weakness, but possibly due to Moqtada’s deceptive strength. Gareth Porter argued that the Bush administration and Maliki were lulled into a sense of false security by al-Sadr’s refusal to militarily respond to the “cordon and search” operations that have targeted JAM fighters for the past year. Believing that al-Sadr was either militarily weakened or under orders from Iran to stand down, they felt emboldened to move in for the kill in Basra:

That assumption ignored the evidence that Muqtada had been avoiding major combat because he was reorganizing and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters, including top commanders, were sent to Iran for training – not as “rogue elements”, as suggested by the US command, but with Muqtada’s full support. . .

Last week, a Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City in Baghdad was quoted by The Canadian Press as saying, “We are now better organized, have better weapons, command centers and easy access to logistical and financial support.”

That might be true, but the fact remains that al-Sadr’s militia suffered heavy losses, and there’s still no word on whether those captured in the fighting will be released, one of his conditions for standing down.

Ultimately, though, the outcome of the battle has as much to do with political perceptions as military realities, and on the perception front, Sam Brannen’s analysis seems to sum it all up best:

Sadr has once again turned a seeming loss into an undeniable win, and his political power has increased accordingly, to the befuddlement of the government of Iraq and the United States. . .

One thing I’ve noticed about al-Sadr is that not only does he have a knack for getting up off the canvas, he seems to do it right when everybody’s counted him out. Besides al-Sadr, of course, the other big winner is Iran which, by all accounts, not only trained the Mahdi forces, but brokered the ceasefire between him and Maliki.

Keep in mind that who actually wins or loses in Iraq usually has little bearing on what actually happens there. So what kind of impact Basra will have on the balance of military power between the rival Shiite factions, on Iraqi politics, and as importantly on American politics is anybody’s guess. This morning I found myself thinking about the Shays Rebellion, in the context of how unrealistic it is to expect the central Iraqi government to solidify power without more Basras on the horizon. Turns out the CSMonitor (via Marc Lynch) drew the same parallel, but in the context of Basra being the catalyst for real political reconciliation in Baghdad.

Here’s hoping.

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