Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Send lawyers, guns, and money

Well, it's not as if we weren't warned; the Iraqi government had been threatening to move against Fadhila in Umm Qasr, and there had been increasing tension between the Iraqi government and the Sadr movement going back to Christmas. Not so long ago, there were demonstrations in Sadr City against Sadr; they thought the movement wasn't standing up to increasing provocation from police/SCIRI as was//Badr Corps men feeling braver now they didn't have to fight NOIA any more.

You can read the violence in a number of ways; the government/ISCI/Dawa probably briefed it to the Americans as an extension of their counter-insurgency plan to the deep south, with the added twist that this was an operation the Iraqi army would throw all by itself, hence good politics. Sadr of course will consider it an outrage by the collaborationist-Iranian bastards, eerily mirroring Petraeus's response to the Green Zone bombardment; if you adopt Jamie Kenny's policy of trying to think like Leonardo Sciascia, you'll see it merely as a fight for oil rake-offs between (as Douglas Adams put it) rival police gangs. As always, SF leads the way into history.

Daniel Davies has apparently finally taken my much repeated advice and read A Bright Shining Lie, which has apparently led him to conclude that the Dawa-Sadr fighting is a good thing on the grounds that it strengthens the government, even if only as the biggest gang. Well, it has led the annoying look-at-me contrarian Daniel Davies to do so; what the real one thinks I don't know. I don't agree; the Sadr movement demonstrated its deterrent capability on day one, when it resumed rocketing the Green Zone and seized police stations across the Big Gap in southern Iraq, as well as the road between Amara and Basra, rather as they did in the first and second Shia risings in 2004. Further to its massive popularity, the Sadrists also have had at least a tacit alliance with some currents in NOIA - there's a risk of the whole shithouse crashing down. Note that the Dawa and Sadrists, and ISIC, are on the opposite sides of one of Iraq's worst territorial fights.

So inevitably, the US authorities seem to have swallowed the "southern surge" thing, and are now pressing for more British troops to be sent - not just that, but for an advance back into Basra. This is genuinely bugfuck insane and the Prime Minister has no choice but to reject it; there is literally no-one left. Army planners are already looking at calling out at least 2 TA battalions in their entirety to cover routine tasks; a mass of resources is going into Afghanistan; there is some question as to whether there is another brigade in the tubes for the next but one rotation in Iraq. The inter-allied shit just hit the fan.

Of course, nothing would do more for Gordon Brown's polls than turning the fan right up...it's worth noting that officially, the only support MNDSE is giving this operation is aerial reconnaissance; that could perfectly well be provided from Kuwait. However, maybe not.

10 comments:

dd said...

you cheeky kids - I first read ABSL in 1999 while doing the research for "Vietnam by Rail".

I'm not sure I believe in this concept of a "Sadr movement" and in particular, I don't believe that the people calling themselves the Mehdi Army in Basra have all that much in common with the inhabitants of Sadr City or the hardcore fighters in Najaf. Moqtada al-Sadr became a brand name early in the war as the only real focus for non-Ba'athist nationalist resistance, and as a result the rather strange coalition that built up around the time of the siege of Najaf (which included a couple of British guerilla-tourists who really clearly didn't know what they were doing there) has never really made much sense as a political entity.

As a result, if I were Mal-S, I'd have been worrying for quite some time that the Basra branch was a loose cannon almost bound to end up as an embarrassment. And when you think about it, they're very vulnerable to a squeeze there as they have much less of a political base than anyone else and no allies. I think that they do end up getting squashed.

But something like this had to happen; the alternative was that Maliki just sat around running the clock out on the surge before getting on the wrong end of a coup, with even more disastrous results. It's a good sign that he is willing and able to order the Iraqi Army to do anything offensive; agreed that this is good in the sense that out of our two chances, Slim hasn't quite reached the town boundaries yet, but something had to happen. This isn't contrarianism and I don't see why it's annoying. Mind you, my bottom-fishing trade in JP Morgan stock appears to have shipped a bit of water today too.

dd said...

Or to put it more simply, I think that the attack on Basra has to be seen as analogous to directors buying stock in their own company - it doesn't change anything in and of itself, but as an indication of the subjective assessment of people in the middle of things, it's a piece of information that a smart chap doesn't ignore (viz, the HBOS directors putting in more or less their entire bonuses last week; otoh, Bernie Ebbers was buying Worldcom stock all the way down so it's not a perfect indicator).

If al-Maliki really does believe that he can do this on his own, that's something very interesting, because he's potentially a lot better placed to make that call than I am. On the other hand, maybe I've overestimated him and that old Saddam-era type that's running the operation - it's of course always possible that they're doing the typical American client tactic of trying to cause a disaster so big that daddy has to step in and bail them out. In which case, of course, we're in the shit. But it does strike me as worth a punt at the right odds; a corollorar to that chat we were having about John Templeton's maxim as a punditry strategy would be that you never get rich by backing the favourite in every race.

jungle said...

Excellent post...

Nice to see someone pointing out what should be obvious: that this is effectively a fight between different Shi'a political/militia factions - none of which have any special democratic legitimacy at this point. What it is NOT is a simple fight between the benevolent "forces of law and order" (the Iraqi Army) and some renegade extremist militias, as the BBC seem to want to present it. It's not at all clear which side is more interested in democracy, or which side would be better for Iraq (if any).

And also it's good to see that more and more people are noticing that Iran and the US are actually cheering on precisely the same people now (ISCI & Da'wa), which could massively complicate any real attempt to attack Iran.

ejh said...

Described here as a contrarian, as it happens.

The thing is, wars aren't stock markets, not least because nobody's in control and I think that if people try to predict outcomes of hugely confused situations then what they're doing is punditry rather than commentary. It's like Orwell's joke about some Marxists being like the tipster who tells you which horse to back - and then later explains to you why it didn't win.

Alex said...

D2, I was going to give you the option of my redacting the bit where you deny the existence of Iraq's largest political party, but seeing as you've crossposted it to the much higher-traffic Crooked Timber, I don't think there's any point.

Put it like this: it's got majority support among the majority, it's got parliamentary seats, it's got a civil-society/shadow administration of sorts, and it's got an army which roughly does what its leader says, and it's never been accused of Iranian or US sticky fingers.

Whether or not it works in theory, it certainly works in practice.

dd said...

"Iraq's largest political party"? Sadr doesn't have a political party - the "Sadr Movement" is a faction within UIA; it doesn't have a party structure or any clear doctrines. I also dispute that the Mehdi Army does always do what M al-S says, and the Basra arm is at the very least semi-detached from the Baghdad one.

Not working in theory actually matters a lot here, because the "Sadr Movement" doesn't have a unifying ideological principle other than "continued success"; it's a conglomerate of everyone who happened to be in the mood to join an insurgency back when Sadr was the only anti-coalition game in town. If it takes a big military loss in Basra, then it would be very hard indeed for it to be rebuilt, as its members are just going to gravitate to one of the other nationalist resistance movements/gangs. Even the Parliamentary coalition is potentially vulnerable to any setbacks, for the same reason.

Sadr correctly assessed that he benefits from lower energy states of Iraqi politics, which must be a large part of the reason why he was so keen to maintain his ceasefire even in the face of severe provocation.

Alex said...

Sadr doesn't have a political party - the "Sadr Movement" is a faction within UIA;

It predates the creation of UIA. Sadrists were already a force in 2003; UIA was created in 2005.

it doesn't have a party structure or any clear doctrines.

It has a central politburo; it has a network of branches everywhere it has members; these provide various social services as well as engaging in politics and serving as mobilisation points. Granted it doesn't have a conference arrangements committee, an NEC, or a 1922 backbench committee.

Its key doctrinal tenets are Iraqi nationalism, Shia chauvinism, and an opposition to partition/regionalism.

I also dispute that the Mehdi Army does always do what M al-S says,

Always: who said anything about always? The Iraqi Army doesn't always do what the government says. Further, it does do what he says in the sense of unleashing hell or maintaining quiet, which is pretty damn crucial.

and the Basra arm is at the very least semi-detached from the Baghdad one.

Ho hum.

If it takes a big military loss in Basra, then it would be very hard indeed for it to be rebuilt, as its members are just going to gravitate to one of the other nationalist resistance movements/gangs.

What absolute total fucking bollocks. They got a bad beating in Basra and the central-south in mid 2004, and that had nothing but beneficial effects on their standing.

ejh said...

Its key doctrinal tenets are Iraqi nationalism, Shia chauvinism, and an opposition to partition/regionalism.

It's not obviously clear to me how the second of these tenets is compatible for the other two. (Not that I'm asking anybody to explain or defend it - just saying, seeing as the topic comes up.)

I wonder if my chief objection to Daniel's thesis might not be the Theory Of Unintended Consequences, and the hypothesis that it applies to a particuarly high degree in conditions of armed conflict. Unintended Consequences Squared, if you will.

Alex said...

It's not obviously clear to me how the second of these tenets is compatible for the other two.

Think of it as "We want an Iraq whole and free, in which we as the majority are in charge and the years of injustice set right." It's Iraq they want; it's an Iraq with them in charge; it's an Iraq without a SCIRI-*sorry*-ISIC/Iranian oil fief in the south.

dd said...

Hmmm, looks like I'm going to have to get the chopper ready on the embassy roof of this argument; rioting and worse breaking out in Kut, Karbala, Najaf, and more or less anywhere there's a Shia majority. So it looks like the Mahdi Army is not under the direct political control of the Sadr bloc, but that the Basra gang is much less semi-detached from the rest of the operation than I thought and the military Sadrists are still prepared to say "strike one, strike all" (or possibly that all over Iraq people are just totally pissed off with Maliki and waiting for an excuse to kick off, these niceties don't really matter as much as the big picture).

So, this is another way in which war commentary is more like stock markets than it is like punditry - when the market goes against you, you close out quickly, for the race may be to the swift and the battle to the strong, but long term survival goes to he who has tight stop-loss orders in place and follows them. I think a mea culpa post on CT will be forthcoming soon, scheduled for immediately after I finish explaining to a breathless world quite how deeply and profoundly Megan McArdle can fuck off.

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