The Battle of Basra

Here’s Marc Lynch trying to turn charcoal into gold:

. . .the campaign could be positive if it restored the sovereignty of the Iraqi state over Basra. I’ve been arguing for many months for the urgency of establishing some semblance of effective Iraqi sovereignty, defined in Weberian terms as a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. The best-case scenario here might be that the Sadr-Maliki truce evolves into a shared effort to extend the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, with the Sadrists and the government working together to curb extralegal armed activities. I don’t think this was the real purpose of the mission, nor do I agree that this sort of military campaign without a prior political consensus was the right way to do it, nor do I expect it to happen. But if there’s any chance to spin some gold out of the mess than that’s where efforts should now be focused.

Meanwhile, here’s John Robb turning it back into charcoal:

. . .To achieve stability, deals or truces are made with non-state groups (formed around strong primary loyalties like tribalism, religion, ethnicity, clan, and neighborhood). The benefits of these deals and truces are clear, if they reduce violence they get a degree of autonomy and in some cases money, weapons, and training. As we have seen over the last year, it works.

Open source counter-insurgency can work indefinitely if the host government remains passive (although at the cost of a badly functioning hollow state and lots of money). However, if the host government calls the bluff. . .and begins to roll back the autonomy awarded to competitive non-state groups, the entire effort will shatter. Maliki is doing this now with his excursion into Basra. As a result, US policy in Iraq is now being gored by the horns of a dilemma. The US appears to be unable to decide which bad option to select: support Maliki and the country collapses into an orgy of violence – or – let him fail and the Iraqi government loses its remaining legitimacy and cohesion.

Lynch is hoping that Basra could return some semblance of legitimacy to the Iraqi state, while Robb is suggesting that classical legitimacy might be the catalyst for more trouble.

I’m not sure what to make of Basra yet. I think, for once, President Bush is actually right about something in Iraq, namely that this will end up being a turning point of some sort. It will probably be some time, though, before we fully understand just where things are now heading.

One thing is sure. Whatever Congressional testimony Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were ready to give next week is undergoing some heavy rewrites, and I’d be very curious to see the mark-ups.