Thoughts on Basra and Iraq (update)

Let me recommend some reading for those of you interested in some good sources of opinion that provide a context and insight about what is going on in Basra.

But before I do, let me make a few comments.

What is happening in Basra is what all of us, from the anti-war side to the side of the war supporters, have said we want to see happen – Iraq standing up and taking charge of it’s own security and defense. So, I’m a bit amused a the sniping and the foretelling of doom and gloom I see going on among many on both sides of the issue.

Let’s consider the ground reality there, ok? The shia militias in Basra are indigenous to the area and are on defense. The ISF is conducting offensive operations. Any idea which is harder to coordinate and execute?

We have the ISF conducting it’s first attempt at a large scale offensive operations. Of course there are going to be problems … many problems, screw-ups and snafus.

You need to understand that when you see comments like this

Because this is the end result of the U.S. advisory effort to date — which has focused on creating well-trained and equipped units at the tactical level, but has basically failed at the national, strategic level. The leaders of the Iraqi security forces at the ministry level are as bad as they ever were. And the national government is about as bad. Training and advising Iraqi units at the brigade level and below is well and good. But if you fail to properly shape the national command structure, you’re handing those units over to leaders who will misuse them.

…and take them with a grain of salt. You don’t conduct good joint, corps, or even division ops if you’ve never functioned in combat at those levels. That’s not to say that there may not be some truth to the comment, but it is just as valid to say that the lessons learned from this operation will go much further toward properly shaping the future national command structure than all the plans, CPXs and Battle Staff training anyone could devise. There is no better trainer than actual experience – if you survive it.

An example of poor coordination and inexperience is highlighted here:

While this isn’t necessarily a defeat for the IA, it remains to be seen if they can overcome the limitations of their equipment to move through the city to confront the Mahdi Army. For now, at least, it looks like their recon might not have been the best. A “Basra newspaper editor” quoted by the Times told the paper that “it was obvious that the central government had not consulted with local commanders in planning the assault, citing the inability of the armored vehicles to fit through city streets.”

When fighting an insurgency that relies on motorcycles and small cars and trucks to move around the narrow streets of a city, bigger isn’t always better.

Obviously, if true, recon and intel gathering are two very important parts of any plan and they weren’t very well done in the case of this one. Of course, local commanders would know all of this, or should. So if the part about no coordination is true, the higher command has again done itself and its troops no favors by ignoring or not soliciting their input. It has planned for something which doesn’t exist on the ground, and that means they’re stuck trying to execute a particular plan with much of the firepower necessary to prosecute that plan unable to support it.

Unfortunately that’s a rookie mistake that may now be causing the planned offensive to stall.

There are also reports that this was all planned and put in motion without letting the US know. I frankly find that hard to believe and Bill Roggio’s report explains why:

The current Iraqi offensive has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the South since August 2007, when the Basrah Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.

Now, knowing it was something which would happen and not having any control over the plan or implementation are two different things, but we certainly must have known of it in at least a general sense for some time.

Interestingly, Basra is probably the most difficult operation the government could have picked to try it’s first large scale offensive operation. Rival militias have been allowed to establish themselves because of a complete failure by the British in a city of 2.3 million. That’s not easy pickin’s.

One of the things you have to do, for instance, to control such an operation, is to control access in and out of the city. That is a huge manpower intensive job. You want to cut off your enemies from both reinforcement and resupply. That’s not an easy task in and of itself. Then of course you have to have the offensive capability to take, clear and hold the city. It’s not clear they have that capability in place. That’s a planning problem. Last, after taking, clearing and holding the city, you have to reestablish civil control. And, unfortunately to this point, the Iraqi government hasn’t been the swiftest entity in that department.

But it is easier to convince someone of the necessity of approaching problems in a particular way vs. the way they’ve previously done it when they can see why such an approach makes better sense. And experience, such as Basra, is perhaps the best teacher in that department.

Last but not least, with the US available in support, all those mistakes, although most likely costly, are probably survivable.

Of course intertwined in all of this are the political considerations which drive much of the Iraqi thinking and may not be particularly visible to the US military as concerns how operations are executed. I’m not sure how to sort through all of that at this point and make sense of it but I would guess it is having an effect. Whether or not that effect is a show-stopper isn’t at all clear.

Bill Roggio has a good roundup of the action here. He also defines what is known about US participation:

US troops are acting in a support role in Basrah and the south, several US military officers told The Long War Journal. The US is providing intelligence, combat support, and air assets to back Iraqi security forces in Basrah and along the Iranian border.

US forces are also actively hunting the Mahdi Army cells in Baghdad conducting the mortar and rocket attacks. Coalition and Iraqi Army forces detained 11 Special Groups operatives believed to be behind a mortar attack on FOB Falcon.

To this point, then, intel, combat support (which could be defined any number of way, but essentially means we’re supporting their efforts by other means than direct combat) and air. I recommend you read Bill’s article as a good way to get yourself into the situation.

I’d recommend you also read the following blogs for different opinions about what is going on there, it’s importance and how they see it developing. Small War’s Journal, Abu Maqawama and The Long War Journal. SWJ has a good round up of other opinions. Also check in with the excellent milblogs, such as Blackfive, which have some additional insight as well as some sources of their own.

UPDATE: Seems someone has blinked in the confrontation:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his fighters off the streets nationwide and called on the government to stop raids against his followers and free them from prison.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement calling the order “a step in the right direction” towards resolving six days of violence sparked by operations against al-Sadr’s backers in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.

Again, caution is the word in all of this before leaping to conclusions, but this would seem to indicate that despite reports to the contrary, Iraq is not teetering or about to tip into the abyss. Let’s see how this pans out.

First published at QandO.

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