Saturday, April 5, 2008

Basra, As the Dust Settles

From a PR standpoint Maliki's little Basran vacation doesn't appear to have done him much good. (For a decent blow-by-blow, Bill Roggio's summary--which differs markedly from his earlier posts--is here.) Maliki committed an ostensibly loyal but exceedingly green brigade to the initial assault in Basra and had it disintegrate, with significant numbers of desertions and defections. He was forced, very publicly, to negotiate with al Sadr in Iran, using Qods Force intermediaries.

But there are numerous bright spots. After the initial bloody nose, the Iraqi forces reinforced and performed fairly well. They were able to roll over the Mahdi Army in all of the mid-sized cities in the south except for Basra. And even in Basra, the ceasefire took hold with the ISF largely in control of the city. While the nine-day operation failed to destroy the Mahdi Army, it appears to have significantly weakened it. Barry McAffrey likens the Basra operation to the US Army's experience in the Kasserine Pass during World War II: a substantial humiliation, but nonetheless a valuable lesson that gave the Army the battle experience it needed to succeed in the long run.

The situation in Iraq calmed down after the battle. That speaks to a certain level of stability that we had no right to expect. Overall, this episode should reconfirm some obvious truths: Wars are dicey, progress is slow, green armies make horrible mistakes, the enemy does its best to mess up your plans, and patience is required if you want to do the job right. There is little doubt that the first four years of US occupation in Iraq were a tragic and wholly avoidable failure. The fifth year has gone better than we could have hoped. Our involvement in Iraq is far from over if we hope to leave a stable state behind us. But the worst may be behind us.

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