Was Basra Failure Due to Maliki’s Poor Planning?

The result in Basra clearly did not reflect well on the Iraqi Security Forces. But American officials and other prominent advocates of the idea that victory is within reach — or at least possible — in Iraq are saying in the wake of the Basra fighting that the Iraqi Security Forces’ poor performance was more a consequence of the poor planning of ISF commanders and Iraqi government officials — all the way up to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — than of ground-level combat unreadiness.

In an essay title “Maliki’s Missteps” on the Web site of the neoconservative journal Commentary today, Max Boot attacks the Iraqi government’s preparation of the battlefield:

There seemed to be little planning behind the Basra assault. The Iraqi army once again showed its willingness to fight, and it was impressive to see it shift a division’s worth of combat power to the south on short notice with minimal coalition help. The army and other security forces also managed to keep control of Karbala, Najaf, and other parts of the Shiite heartland where some Sadrists rose up. But the army was not given an opportunity to “prepare the battlefield” in Basra—a term of art for putting into place before the main assault everything from logistics and fire support to a persuasive message for the media.

Maliki’s worst failure was the lack of an “information operation” to get out his side of the story. Accordingly, what should have been seen as a long-overdue law-and-order campaign by the lawfully elected government has instead been depicted both inside and outside of Iraq in the cynical terms enunciated by Cordesman and Nasr. Maliki has received lukewarm support at best from his own coalition allies, including Hakim. Arab countries, which should be ecstatic that Iraq’s government is taking on Iranian-backed Shiite gangs, have been conspicuously silent.

In addition, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker went on record today in the New York Times to criticize Maliki’s handling of the battle. Crocker’s assessment is identical to Boot’s, and seems to be backed up by New York Times interviews with other U.S. officials:

. . . the Iraqi operation was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived. By the following Tuesday, a major fight was on.

“The sense we had was that this would be a long-term effort: increased pressure gradually squeezing the Special Groups,” Mr. Crocker said in an interview, using the American term for Iranian-backed militias. “That is not what kind of emerged.”

“Nothing was in place from our side,” he added. “It all had to be put together.”

. . .

[I]nterviews with a wide range of American and military officials also suggest that Mr. Maliki overestimated his military’s abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. The Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that of his most powerful allies, the American and British military, time to prepare.

“He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet’s nest, and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for,” said one official in the multinational force in Baghdad who requested anonymity. “They went in with 70 percent of a plan. Sometimes that’s enough. This time it wasn’t.”

This no doubt provides a preview of the argument that Crocker and Gen. Petraeus will be making in their April 8-9 testimony to Congress. And no doubt advocates of withdrawal will claim it’s all just more administration spin in the face of another Iraq failure.

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