Basra Tactics, Strategy, and Theory in Conflict

Ilan Goldenberg notes that, for all the United States has invested in Iraq — and in propping up Maliki — we’ve gotten very little in return in this particular episode. By most educated guesses (although by no means all) Maliki didn’t bother to seek our input before launching this messy internecine fight with the Shiite forces of al-Sadr and hasn’t provided particularly good intelligence so that we at least know what the hell’s going on after the fact. Ultimately, “It’s a way of life for the Iraqi government. They do stupid things that put our troops at risk for their own political benefit because they know that American troops will step into the breech and cover their asses. ”

While I’m still having trouble unraveling Maliki’s motivations in all this, I think John Robb gets it right on how it came to this:

[T]he US military isn’t following its published COIN doctrine. Instead, it’s following the dictates of open source counter-insurgency. This doctrine, still unarticulated and very far from officially condoned by the US military (policy lags theory and theory lags practice), has a top level goal of stability, even if it at the expense of the host government’s legitimacy. 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 (the gap between “policy” and “practice”) 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.

Pat Lang points out that this isn’t our only problem.

My problem with the present course of events is the ruthlessness of the propaganda campaign being successfully waged by the Bush Administration. The president has succeeded in “framing” the discussion in such a way that Maliki and his assembly of Badr Corps militias are represented as being the equivalent of George Washington suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. The noble Maliki is portrayed as motivated by a selfless desire for “national” unity. The MSM has re-transmitted that idea without serious question.

In fact he is merely acting on behalf of an emerging alignment of pro-Iranian forces in Iraq that have successfully pulled the wool over American eyes.

You may have noticed that no Kurdish units of the “Iraqi Forces” have been brought down from the north for this “fandango.” You may also have noticed that our Concerned Local Citizens/Sons of Iraq (read Sunni tribal Arab auxiliaries) are not involved. Show me some engaged units in this that are not Shia.

A fair point and one that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

That wars are fought to achieve political objectives is so fundamental that it’s a Week One lesson in any basic military science or international conflict course. The problem in Iraq is that we’re fighting an asymmetrical war (or, perhaps, as Fred Kaplan puts it, “wars”) not only in terms of capabilities and tactics but also of objectives. It’s not unusual for adversaries to have varying objectives (unconditional surrender vs. cessation of hostility, e.g.); indeed, it’s normal.

What’s unusual is for allies to have such varied objectives. Moreover, in this case, I’m not sure we even know what Maliki’s objectives are. And his coalition isn’t even the only one on “our side” who we’ve got to accommodate.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. WR says:

    We don’t know what Maliki’s objectives are — but we’re killing the people who oppose him and any bystanders who get in the way.

    That pretty much sums up the Bush doctrine.

  2. Bithead says:

    In fact he is merely acting on behalf of an emerging alignment of pro-Iranian forces in Iraq that have successfully pulled the wool over American eyes.

    That’s the elected government, folks.
    What would the reaction be if Bush played it otherwise, do you suppose?

  3. anjin-san says:

    for all the United States has invested in Iraq — and in propping up Maliki — we’ve gotten very little in return in this particular episode

    Could you share with us any “episode” in Iraq that has given us a decent return for our investment in blood and national treasure?

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, would the removal of Saddam qualify? Or do you still support the dictator? Did you sell him the wood chippers he used to dispose of his enemies?

  5. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Maliki: “OK, then I dare ya to step across THAT line!”: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89176773&ft=1&f=1001 . Well, given the quality of our current leadership, I suppose it was about time for this war to start openly mimicking Warner Brothers cartoons.

  6. KJ says:

    It is so wonderful to see all the highly esteemed arm chair generals tell those on-site how to do their job.

    Next thing you know they will decide that the sun should come up in the west.

    Just shut the hell up and stop being a part of the problem! None of you have managed to do anything that is either constructive or part of any solution.

  7. Triumph says:

    Ultimately, “It’s a way of life for the Iraqi government. They do stupid things that put our troops at risk for their own political benefit because they know that American troops will step into the breech and cover their asses. ”

    This is the explanation–however, the stupid party here is Bush. Because of Bush’s idiotic decision to invade Iraq, it is perfectly rational for Maliki to act on the offensive against his adversaries.

    Maliki can engage in a gambit to weaken his adversaries precisely because he knows that Bush HAS to act.

    Because Bush is so consumed with his own ego and legacy and an inability to come to terms with his failure in decisionmaking, he is the stupid one.

    Although, Im less inclined to think Bush is stupid–rather he just can’t see beyond his failings and since he bears no costs for reckless decisions, he doesn’t care that US troops will be sacrificed as we get more bogged down in a quagmire.

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Quagmire??? Saddam ousted, al Qaeda defeated, or nearly so. Light casualties considering how long the conflict. Quadmire was Anzio. Idiots quit before the fight is won. Seems there are folks here who are not willing to fight except with their mouths who oppose any action by the United States with concern to world problems.

  9. anjin-san says:

    That’s the elected government, folks.

    So I guess when the elected government of Iraq says its time for our boys to go fight and die, off they go.

    What was that slogan all the Bush ass kissers were so fond of a while back… “When they stand up, we’ll stand down”. Great, now our fate is out of our hands.

    Guess what, these guys are not going to stand up, at least in the way we define it. Not next week, not next month, not next year. How many of our troops have to die while we wait for an event that will never happen?

  10. davod says:

    “This is the explanation — however, the stupid party here is Bush. Because of Bush’s idiotic decision to invade Iraq, it is perfectly rational for Maliki to act on the offensive against his adversaries” ????

  11. Bithead says:

    What was that slogan all the Bush ass kissers were so fond of a while back… “When they stand up, we’ll stand down”. Great, now our fate is out of our hands.

    It always was, following the attack… because anything less gives us the less than happy alternatives of the Islamic extremists winning power, or of directly dictating the happenings.
    Not everything can be accomplished by government fiat.

    And in case nobody has noticed, Sadr has once again withdrawn. Tell me again, please, who is losing in Iraq?