Archive for the 'British Army' Category

Pentagon Despair Over NATO and Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 1 month ago

The Captain’s Journal doesn’t like to be negative, but it is necessary to engage in truth-telling.  For more than half a year The Captain’s Journal has been in a state of near despair over the failure of NATO to deploy forces to Afghanistan, employ a realistic set of rules of engagement, and implement a coherent, consistent counterinsurgency strategy.  There are seasons in counterinsurgency, and the campaign will soon suffer under the weight of U.S. and NATO being viewed as occupiers rather than liberators.  Timeliness is everything in COIN.

The Pentagon is months behind us, but it appears that the sentiment is now mutual.

American officials are in a state of near despair about the failure of Britain’s European allies to do more to beef up Nato combat power in Afghanistan.

A Pentagon adviser told The Telegraph that US commanders wish they had never agreed to Nato taking charge of major combat operations against the Taliban in the lawless south of the country.

They believe that different military rules of engagement and different approaches to reconstruction have made it impossible to devise a unified strategy for fighting and nation building, leaving the way open for the resurgence of the Taliban.

So what do rules of engagement have to do with the campaign in Afghanistan?  The Germans know full well what a restrictive set of ROE can do to efforts to militarily defeat the enemy.  Not long ago they had to allow a Taliban commander to escape because he wasn’t brandishing a weapon while escaping.  Troops can act in self defense, but many cannot conduct offensive operations.  Continuing with the Telegraph report:

The Pentagon consultant pointed to the different national rules which mean that troops from several Nato allies like Germany are banned from conducting offensive military operations, or conducting patrols at night.

The adviser said: “There’s frustration, there’s irritation. The mood veers between acceptance and despair that nothing is changing. We ask for more troops and they’re not forthcoming in the numbers we need.

“The mistake was handing it over to Nato in the first place. For many countries being in Afghanistan seems to be about keeping up appearances, rather than actually fighting a war that needs to be won.

“Was that necessary diplomatically? Probably. Is it desirable militarily? I don’t think so and nor do most others who are involved with Afghanistan,” he said.

The consultant, who advises the Pentagon on security coordination with the Afghan military, said American ire is not directed at the British, who are “doing what they can”.

Ali Jalali, the Afghan interior minister between 2003 and 2005 endorsed that view that the Taliban can only be defeated and marginalised from Afghan life if there is a new strategy and a unified military command.

In an interview with The Telegraph he said: “In the absence of an overall counterinsurgency strategy, what the international community and the Afghan government are doing is not designed to win the war, rather not to lose.

“That is a major problem. There’s no campaign plan. We need a unified command of all forces that can do three things: fighting, stabilising and peacekeeping. Unless you speak with one voice it is not going to work. We need more troops to stabilise the country.”

There has been a serious strategic malaise in Afghanistan since the inception of NATO presence.  So in addition to advocating more troops, we have advocated a division of command, with the U.S. taking over at least the Southern region (or permanent command of the campaign).  But the same countries who know that there is strategic malaise continue to encourage it by refusing to adopt any other strategy or ROE, or even consider a reorganization of forces.

It gets worse.  Even among the staunchest of allies there is a reluctance to face the real causes of failure.

“The problem,” says one officer, “is that we are focusing on protective mobility. We are definitely going down the road the Russians went in the Eighties, with over-reliance on massive armoured vehicles.”

The debate is starting on the ground because soldiers are frustrated that they can march their hearts out all day to track the enemy, only to be blown up by a mine. They query how a lumbering convoy of 100 armoured vehicles can ever surprise an enemy who knows every rock and cave in his own back yard. The time has come, suggest some, to fight the way the enemy fights – but smarter.

In the Rhodesian insurgency, tiny units called fire forces, working in groups of four or eight, would drop into enemy territory by parachute or helicopter, unheard and unseen.

With the aid of local trackers, they remained concealed for days, watching the enemy’s movements and waiting patiently for the optimum time to strike. Again and again the guerrillas were horrified as their safety cordon unravelled, with colleagues falling dead around them.

By contrast, our strategy is static, based on bases in fixed locations. Troops leave them to go on patrol in full view of the enemy – which had fatal consequences this month. “It’s bloody hard to deceive the enemy with a column of ground movement that can be picked up 500 metres beyond the base,” says one veteran. “The effect of four helicopters disgorging 100 soldiers from an unexpected direction would have a huge impact, and would lead to a reduction in the opportunities to blow us up with mines.”

So the British are advocating distributed operations now.  Then, they point the finger of blame at the lack of air transport.

The reason why the US Marines were so successful in southern Helmand this spring was because they were able to land 600 troops in one lift in one night. In the two weeks I was with them, the Paras could only muster one air assault of two helicopters that had to go in three lifts, hugely increasing the risk of the enemy assembling an anti-aircraft team to attack them.

Landing so many Marines had nothing whatsoever to do with their success in Helmand.  The Marines stayed around to conduct continued counterinsurgency operations, as we discussed in U.S. Marine Style Counterinsurgency.  If the Marines had all marched on foot to Garmser – not, by the way, a ridiculous notion – it wouldn’t have mattered.  They could have sent word to the Taliban by courier that they were coming.  The Taliban were dug in and waiting for the fight.  Helicopters simply made it easier on the infantry.

The British are pointing to distributed operations, air power, discrete mobility, and all manner of tricks and toys that they believe will enhance the campaign.  To be sure, we also believe that materiel availability should be increased, and we have been a proponent of distributed operations in the past, along with the robust projection of air power.

But it should be remembered that upon the initial engagement of the Marines in Garmser, the British complained about the hard tactics by the Corps.  More helicopters can be supplied to the theater, but without force projection and an increase in troops, the materiel won’t matter.  Ali Jalali is right.  NATO is in the theater to keep from losing.  This very strategy will ensure loss.

Following the Marines Through Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 3 months ago

This is one more in a series at The Captain’s Journal following Marine operations in the Helmand Province, AfghanistanA brief synopsis of their accomplishments thus far can be found here.

A U.S. Marine fires at a Taliban position near the town of Garmser, a main assembly and staging point for jihadists entering Afghanistan (AP Photo).

U.S. Marines fire on Taliban positions from a sand berm, May 2 (AP Photo).

The Marines continue to take the battle to the Taliban in Garmser.

The spring offensive is well launched – by NATO.

Or, put another way, pre-emptively provoked by the U.S. Marines Expeditionary Force.

If the best defence is a good offence, American troops recently arrived in the southern provinces have wasted no time taking the battle to the Taliban, putting an entirely different complexion on combat tactics in the heartland of the insurgency.

Joining forces with British troops who have responsibility for NATO operations in Helmand province, these battle-hardened Marines – many of them veterans of fierce combat in the Iraqi city of Ramadi two years ago – hurled themselves into the insurgency cauldron last week, with the objective of dislodging Taliban fighters from strongholds north of the border with Pakistan.

Although the British have a base in the town of Garmser, NATO’s most southerly outpost, and have battled strenuously to maintain it against encroachment, the vast surrounding district, much of it inhospitable desert, has been essentially free movement territory for the neo-Taliban.

Garmser is a main assembly and staging point for jihadists as they enter Afghan soil. It is also a key transit route for smuggling in arms and smuggling out opium – the vascular network that pumps blood into the insurgency.

The claims and counterclaims – success versus failure – have been fast and furious. While American authorities claimed on the weekend to have killed nine militants, Taliban spokesperson Qari Yosuf asserted it was the insurgents who had killed nine Americans.

There have been no official reports of U.S. casualties from the fighting. But provincial government sources, along with aid workers in the region, accuse the Marines of conducting aggressive door-to-door searches, rousting civilians from their homes, arresting innocents and forcing upward of 15,000 Afghans to flee into the hot desert for safety.

None of these claims has been confirmed. However, the U.S. propensity for using air strikes and artillery and mortar barrages in support of their ground troops has much of the domestic media here caterwauling about a suddenly “Americanized war” in Afghanistan.

Caterwauling indeed.  The British didn’t really hold any terrain inside Garmser proper, and their role in this specific operation was transport (h/t Rogue Gunner).  “Although British framework operations are currently focused further north, in the areas of Lashkar Gar, Sangin, Gereshk and Musa Qaleh, the British Task Force has had an important role to play facilitating the move of the MEU down through the province.”

This report on the Marines is somewhat amusing.  Whether the “claims and counterclaims” have been fast and furious being quite irrelevant, the success of the Marines has been fast.  The Provincial Government is fabricating information about the operation because they don’t know what else to do, but the shock of rapid success will hopefully give way to an understanding of what a change in strategy can accomplish.  It is certainly the case that the combat action has been directed and aggressive, with the Marines “unleashing earsplitting barrages of machine gun fire, mortars and artillery” at Taliban positions.

O’Neill, the company commander, says all-day potshots by Taliban fighters are little more than nuisance attacks. The militants use binoculars and have forward observers with cell phones to try to aim better at the Marines, he says.

“This is pure asymmetric harassment,” he says. “They’ll pop out of a position and fire a rocket or mortar.”

But in a bleak British assessment of Garmser a week ago, the UK is said to be losing the battle.

In Garmser, the Scottish infantrymen hope to push the Taliban back and fill the town with people again. The continuing marine operation may help that objective.

But the main British effort is concentrated in northern Helmand, and local governance is weak in Garmser, where most of the town elders and administrators have fled to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

And as the poppy harvest draws to a close, commanders expect a fresh spurt of fighting in the coming weeks. Combined with the stream of Taliban from Pakistan, British officers recognise they are only holding the line.

“I’m under no illusions. We are not stopping the movement north,” said Den-McKay. “We’re just giving them something to talk about.”

Perhaps an alternative picture is emerging for the chaps in the UK – that of aggressive contact with the enemy by enough troops on the ground to accomplish the mission?  One can only hope that NATO is watching closely.


Marines Mired in Red Tape in Afghanistan

Marines Engage Taliban in Helmand Province

Operation Azada Wosa – “Stay Free”

British to Scale Back Violence Against Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

The Times gives us an update on the British plan to scale back violence against the Taliban.

BRITISH troops are to scale back attacks on the Taliban after killing 7,000 insurgents in two years of conflict, defence sources said last week …

The paratroopers’ commanders hope they can cut the deaths, which they fear are a boost for the Taliban when fighters recruited from the local population are killed, as the dead insurgent’s family then feels a debt of honour to take up arms against British soldiers.

The resultant fighting raises the profile of the Taliban and enhances their reputation in the local community.

“We aim to scale back our response to incidents to avoid getting sucked into a cycle of violence among local tribesmen,” said one officer. “This way we aim to continue the process of reducing the Taliban’s influence in Helmand.”

The army hopes that the reduction in violence will enable the Department for International Development and its American counterpart USAID to accelerate reconstruction work. British commanders have expressed frustration at the limited amount of development and the reluctance of DfID to become involved.

However, US marines and British special forces will continue attacks on high-level Taliban leaders crossing the border from Pakistan.

More than 1,000 American troops from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will take control of the border between Helmand and Pakistan later this month. They will concentrate on providing the firepower to kill Taliban leaders as they cross the border from their base in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

The US marines will work with the British Special Forces Support Group and Special Boat Service commandos who are tracking Taliban crossing the border. They will use the firepower of their M1A1 Abrams tanks and AH-1W Cobra helicopter gunships to launch a frontal assault on the hardliners.

Ah yes, The Captain’s Journal knows it by its smell: the deep magic of counterinsurgency at its best.  Fascination with special forces operators, high value targets, and personalities and leaders, along with the philosophy of “giving stuff to the people.”  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  There’s just one problem.  The plan is all confused and won’t work.

As readers know, we have been strong proponents of giving stuff to people as part of the concerned citizens program in Iraq.  But – and this is the important point – the British plan bifurcates this approach from strong military operations against the enemy, an error that wasn’t made in Iraq.  Consider, for example, that the British plan in Basra was similar to the one being espoused above, with military operations being second in importance (or even suppressed due to the notion that for every indigenous insurgent killed, two more grow up in his place).

Also consider that the Marines in Anbar could have argued this way given the heavy indigenous participation in the insurgency along with some lesser number of foreigners.  But the Marines neither argued nor behaved this way.  The indigenous population witnessed strong military action in Anbaragainst their own blood, and grew weary of this just as much as foreign jihadist violence against them.  This is another critical point that bears repeating.  The Marines won in Anbar, and the British lost in Basra.  The British plan being espoused for Afghanistan is roughly the same as was implemented in Basra, and diametrically opposed to the nature of operations in Anbar.

Another problem with this approach is that it presupposes that the Afghani Taliban need the leadership of Pakistani Taliban, or al Qaeda, in order to function.  While the border region is certainly problematic, the British will soon find that most of the insurgents within Afghanistan are indigenous Afghanis, and that reduced violence against them leads to a strengthened Taliban.

The Good and Bad in Basra

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Good information coming from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is always welcome, but it pays to be careful, analytical, independent and questioning.  Michael Yon is without a doubt the best and most prolific reporter who has been in Iraq.  The Captain’s Journal highly respects Yon, but even he can miss the mark, even if only infrequently.  As reported by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, Yon was heralding the advent of peace in Basra half a year ago.

MICHAEL YON POINTS TO THIS REPORT and emails: “Basra is not in chaos. In fact, crime and violence are way down and there has not been a British combat death in over a month. The report below is false.” False reports from Iraq? Say it isn’t so!

And, via the comments in this post, an article from The Telegraph that supports Yon’s version more than the other: “Indeed, wherever one looks in the British sector, there are grounds to believe that, far from degenerating into all-out civil war, the Iraqis are finally coming to terms with their post-Saddam condition and are starting to acquire the confidence and the institutions necessary for running their affairs.”

At the time, The Captain’s Journal had studied the reports of Iraqi Omar Fadhil who flatly stated that while he would not have crossed Anbar months before (and would now), he would not even consider going into the Shi’a South.  We saw women being beheaded by gangs of fundamentalist Shi’a thugs.  We also studied the rules of engagement of the British, and knew that Basra would be lost.  We politely and quietly retorted to Glenn Reynolds that “Yon is great and worthy of admiration, but he has this wrong.  If there is peace, it is only to the extent that the gangs have agreed upon their turf and the population has been subjugated to their rule” (or something along those lines).  It is important not to twist the bad news into good news, as we have been warned by the Multinational Force, partly because when it is later proven to have been twisted (or perhaps more correctly, misinterpreted), it always redounds to a loss of credibility.

There is good news and bad news in the Basra fighting.  The good news is that there is Basra fighting.  It was well past time to confront the radical Shi’a militias, and at least one of them, the Mahdi militia, is being battered and has had to call for a truce.  The bad news is that many of them have not stood down and retain their weapons.  We have seen Sadr’s forces stand down before when the fighting ended too soon.  This is a recurring model.

The good news is that there has been more than a week of fighting in Basra and Sadr City.  The bad news is that this is only little more than a week old and there is much more to go.  The good news is that Maliki finally had the courage to go on the offensive against Sadr.  The bad news is that, according to General Petraeus, the campaign was very poorly planned and almost spurious.

For the British, the results are all bad.  David Frum writes from a reader in Basra:

I cannot comment on troop movements and other assets, but I will say that I am gratified with what the US is doing.  The British have been completely marginalized, though.  I would look for an eventual, low-key exit by the Brits covered by talk of concentrating on Afghanistan.

The Times reports:

In Basra the signs of the feared militia are slowly receding. For the first time in years alcohol vendors are selling beer close to army checkpoints, and ringtones praising the rebel cleric Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr are vanishing from mobile phones. Music shops are once again selling pop tunes instead of the recorded lectures of Shia ayatollahs.

But, as the city cautiously comes back to life after an offensive by Iraqi troops backed by hundreds of US soldiers, there is a lingering resentment towards the British Army.

Many here blame the British for allowing the al-Mahdi Army and other militias to impose a long reign of terror on the once cosmopolitan city …

“I think the British troops were the main reason that militias became very powerful,” complained InasAbed Ali, a teacher. “They didn’t fight them properly and, when they found themselves losing in the city, they moved out to the airport and chose to negotiate with the militias and criminal groups as if they were legal.”

“The British Army had no role in Basra,” Rahman Hadi, a coffee shop owner, said. “We haven’t seen any achievements by them in the streets of Basra. I don’t know why their troops didn’t respond to the acts of these militias for long years, after seeing all the suffering that Basra people went through.”

Even senior Iraqi officers admitted that the hands-off British approach to policing the city had given the militias free rein.

Peter Oborne at the Daily Mail opines:

British military history contains more than its fair share of glorious victories, but there have also been notable disasters. It has become horrifyingly clear that one of these is our involvement in southern Iraq, culminating in our soldiers’ exit from Basra Palace late last year.

Nibras Kazimi reports:

“The Iraqi Army holds the British Forces cowering behind barbed wire in Basra Airport in the lowest regard; the Iraqis hold the British responsible for dropping the ball in Basra and in Amara, allowing the crime cartels to expand and take root. Iraqi officers regularly dismiss the British military as “sissies” and “cowards”.

The news for Maliki is mixed, and very levelheaded analysis comes from Iraqi Mohammed Fadhil of Iraq the Model.

Perhaps the biggest mistake in the battle, which did not end with victory in spite of the courage exhibited in the decision to engage the enemy, was Maliki’s decision to personally lead the battle as the commander in chief of armed forces. Apparently he did this without proper consultation or in depth calculation of consequences. He forgot that by going there in person he made a commitment to go to the end. But the battle did not end in any meaningful way and so in spite of the determination in his words the prestige and credibility of the state were under threat.

Some people began to mock the operation calling it “Qadissiyat Al-Maliki” (in reference to Qadissiyat Saddam, the name Saddam used to call the 8-year war with Iran) others went as far as calling it the Rats Charge instead of Knights Charge. The reason is that the leader was there in person yet he couldn’t finish the job.

It was evident from Maliki’s words that patience was over and that the situation could no longer be settled with negotiations but it didn’t work out as desired. Had Maliki not been the direct commander of the battle the outcome would have perhaps been considered a tactical win. But his presence turned the battle into a strategic campaign for which neither Maliki nor the troops were prepared.

As for Iran, Stephen Hadley explains that they are still a major threat, and Secretary of Defense Gates inexplicably states that it is unlikely that the U.S. will ever confront Iranian forces inside of Iraq.  This is not finished, and there will likely be both good news and bad news for quite some time into the future concerning the Iraq South.  The Captain’s Journal will not engage in talking points.  We will follow the truth, and as always, beg for defeat of the enemy.

Marines Mired in NATO Red Tape in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Introduction and Background

Several months ago upon following our commentary on the Afghanistan campaign, a field grade officer, and someone who is definitely in a position to know, contacted The Captain’s Journal and recommended that we focus our attention on the ongoing lethargy of the campaign due to NATO incompetence and inability to formulate a coherent and sensible strategy.

Soon after this we published NATO Intransigence in Afghanistan and The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise.  We have also pointed out that however bad a shadow NATO casts over the campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda have no such incoherence, and have settled on a comprehensive approach to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Now from the Baltimore Sun, we learn just how bad the strategic malaise is and how prescient were our warnings.

Field Report

From the Baltimore Sun:

Multinational force has multiple leaders
By David Wood

Sun reporter

April 11, 2008


Disagreements and coordination problems high within the international military command are delaying combat operations for 2,500 Marines who arrived here last month to help root out Taliban forces, according to military officers here.

For weeks the Marines — with their light armor, infantry, artillery and a squadron of transport and attack helicopters and Harrier strike fighters — have been virtually quarantined at the international air base here, unable to operate beyond the base perimeter.

Within immediate striking distance are radical Islamist Taliban forces that are entrenched around major towns in southern Afghanistan, where they control the lucrative narcotics trade and are consolidating their position as an alternative to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

But disputes among the many layers of international command here — an ungainly conglomeration of 40 nations ranging from Albania and Iceland to the U.S. and Britain — have forced a series of delays.

Unlike most U.S. military operations, even the small details of operations here — such as the radio frequency used to evacuate a soldier for medical care — must first be coordinated with multiple military commands.

Then, there have been larger disputes over strategy. Some commanders here want more emphasis on civic action in conjunction with local Afghans. Others believe security must take precedence.

For Marines, who are accustomed to landing in a war zone and immediately going into action with their own plans, the holdup has been frustrating.

Frequent changes among command leaders and unclear lines of authority have made it difficult for the Marines to win general approval for the timing, goals and extent of proposed operations.

Marine operations planning, which is routinely completed in hours or days, has gone on for weeks while they await agreement and approval from above.

“They invite us here … and they don’t know how to use us?” said Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. “We are trying to keep our frustration in check … but we have to wait for the elephants to stop dancing,” Henderson said, referring to the brass-heavy international command.

“The clash is between the tactical reality on the ground and political perceptions held elsewhere,” Marine Maj. Heath Henderson, deputy operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told his staff. “You can make your own judgments about which you think will prevail.”

Including the Marines, there are 17,522 allied troops in southern Afghanistan, including British, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Estonians, Australians, Romanians and representatives of nine other nations, according to the high command.

These coalition military forces are assembled under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, headquartered in Kabul with an international staff.

Beneath McNeill are five regional commands and numerous national military commands. Henderson’s Marine battalion and its parent task force, the 24th MEU, officially are under the command of ISAF and McNeill. But they are assigned to work in conjunction with the regional command here and other coalition forces.

Coordination on long-term strategy is complex, staff officers here said, because the commanders and staffs at each level regularly rotate. Regional command south here, for instance, changes every nine months between British, Canadian and Dutch officers.

With one proposed operation temporarily blocked, Henderson told his planners to consider a scaled-back option.

“I think it’s a stretch, but let’s look at it,” he said, adding glumly, “as the sound of desperation seeps into my voice.”

The regional command here, RC-South, declined to comment on any command issues. In Kabul, Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, a senior spokesman for the ISAF, said the Marines “answer to” ISAF but are under the “tactical control” of RC-South. He said ISAF was satisfied that this is the best arrangement to “coordinate and synchronize” combat operations.

In case of a disagreement, McNeill would make the final decision, said Branco, a Portuguese officer.

The problems are magnified when Afghan government officials at the national and provincial level weigh in with their own judgments. The result, some say, is that the counterinsurgency campaign, which is inherently difficult enough, suffers from the lack of a clear vision and strategy.

“We don’t understand where we are going here,” said Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, commander of Task Force Fury, a battalion of paratroopers just leaving Kandahar after 15 months of counterinsurgency operations here. “We desperately want to see a strategy in front of us,” he said in an interview …

Bigger problems run afoul of conflicting strategies and easily bruised national pride.

At another planning session, a question arose about the capabilities of a British combat unit. “I can tell you they have killed more people than anybody else in this room,” a British major declared hotly. There was shocked silence from the roomful of Marines, most of whom have done two or three combat tours in Iraq and don’t boast about battlefield exploits.

Meantime, the 2,500 Marines here train, clean their weapons yet again, take long conditioning runs along the dust-choked perimeter roads, and wonder when they’re going to begin what they came for.

“This is killing us,” says a staff sergeant. “There’s only so much training you can do, especially considering that most of my Marines just got back from Iraq.”

Analysis and Commentary

Of the campaign we previously said of the deployment of the Marines that “The current institutional and strategic malaise in the NATO project in Afghanistan is about to be stirred up with the presence of 3200 warrior-hunters who want to make contact with the enemy.  The real re-examination of the campaign won’t come as a result of the addition of 3200 troops.  It will come with the addition of a completely different ethos than has previously been in theater.  Re-examination should be a healthy process, even if a difficult one.”

It appears as if the re-examination that was so badly needed to occur has failed, and the most powerful fighting force on earth, the U.S. Marines, is sitting in tents without being utilized.  Some of this is due to strategic differences: “Some commanders here want more emphasis on civic action in conjunction with local Afghans. Others believe security must take precedence.”

Take particular note of the doctrinal confusion that this bit of truth-telling reveals.  It succumbs to the most prevelant and powerful temptation that a field grade officer can face – that of setting one prong of the strategy over against another prong.  It is the devil’s game, the great temptation of having to find a center of gravity – that is, a single center of gravity– in order to strategize against that center, and it holds many commanders in intellectual bondage.

We have dealt with this in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN.  It is not only not necessary to find a single focus in our counterinsurgency efforts, it is counterproductive.  There is no reason that the troops who wish to focus more on civic involvement (e.g., the European and British troops) cannot do so while the Marines hunt the Taliban.  We have already noted that along much of the terrain outside of the cities, the Taliban control the high ground and it has been recommended by knowledgeable locals that if we wish to counter the efforts of the enemy, we will focus efforts on chasing them and gaining control of the more mountainous areas.

But the problems run even deeper than strategy.  The current NATO engagement is being run by committee, and the committee must settle everything from strategy to radio communications.  This failure can only be laid at the feet of General McNeill.  The Marines are deployed as a MEU, i.e., a Marine Expeditionary Unit.  They are self sufficient, and are by design not intended to need much if any support from the balance of forces in theater.  To require the Marines to work under the headship of a NATO committee not only has wasted time thus far, but the remainder of their time in Afghanistan is in jeopardy.  Literally, the deployment of 3200 Marines to Afghanistan is in danger of redounding to no significant gains due to lack of leadership and NATO intransigence.

It might not get any better any time soon. Canadian Brigadier General Denis Thompson is preparing to take over the head of NATO troops in Afghanistan.  The Captain’s Journal will not opine either way on Thompson’s leadership, except to say that he references what the Canadians refer to as the Manley Report.  He says that the recommendations of the Manley panel should help Afghanistan’s war torn country.  The only problem with this is that outside of providing a few helicopters to specific troops here and there, the report mainly describes the Canadian attempt to convince its population that Canada should be involved in Afghanistan.  The Manley panel is no gold mine of strategic doctrine.  It will be of no help to Thompson as he attempts to deal with recalcitrant field grade officers who chest butt other officers over battle experience and argue over radio frequencies.


The concept of an MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) is that it is in little or no need of assistance.  It is self sufficient in every way, and the only need of the 24th MEU is to be given the green light to hunt al Qaeda and Taliban.  British officers who want to save face over the erstwhile lazy performance of the NATO forces will only slow the Marines and render their contribution void – and perhaps this is the intent.


Resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda

The Taliban and Snake Oil Salesmen

The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise

Everyone Thought the Taliban Would Not Fight!

NATO Intrasigence in Afghanistan

Discussions in Counterinsurgency

More on Suicide Bomber Kill Ratio

Taking the High Ground in Afghanistan

Taliban and al Qaeda Strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan

No Spring Offensive in Afghanistan?

The Taliban and Distributed Operations

Talks with the Taliban: Clinging to False Hopes

The Khyber Pass

Thoughts on the Fighting in Basra

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Grim of Blackfive is back from Iraq where he served as a civilian consultant.  The Captain’s Journal likes Grim.  He is a thinking man, and every thought he gives us makes us smarter, whether we agree or not.  In this case, he opines on several things, one of which is the recent fighting in Basra.

The Shia problem is armed factionalism.  The current violence of this last month and going forward represents the start of the solution to that problem.  People alarmed by the violence have missed the story. 

The GoI and the JAM are both disaggregating their bad elements.  Mickey Kaus deserves credit for noticing, at least as far as the GoI goes:

Whether it was an incremental success or a humiliating fizzle, hasn’t the Maliki government’s assault on Sadr-linked Shiite militias operated, de facto, as a highly efficient purge of the Iraqi army? According to Juan Cole, those who heeded calls for defection or who otherwise refused to fight have been fired. … P.S.: Meanwhile, some 10,000 militia members who did fight on the government’s side have reportedly been inducted into the security forces.

What people have not noticed is that JAM is doing essentially the same thing.  For quite some time Sadr has been purging JAM of elements that do not obey him.  Sadr has said that he will disown members who violate the ceasefire, excepting in self-defense.  His proposed truce calls for patience from his members, and comes “after receiving assurances” that his membership will not be targetted if he has them stand down. 

Those who continue to fight will be ready prey for the Iraqi security forces, many of whom are from the Badr faction.  As Wretchard noted, the de facto arbiter of the Shia situation is al Sistani, who has declared that the militias are not legitimate authorities in Iraq.  And — again, crediting Kaus for his careful thinking about what he reads — the political debates within the Iraqi government seem to favor this overall movement.  (It’s also worth nothing that the calls for the JAM to surrender its arms have really been only for heavy weapons — that is, they could retain small arms, as the Sons of Iraq do.) 

The recent violence has been healthy, then.  Disaggregation of irreconcilable elements is a key element to our COIN strategy; here we see it happening naturally.  The political process appears to be strengthened, and the Sunni blocks are now participating in helping to settle the Shiite question in a manner acceptable to themselves — as are the Kurds.  That sounds like a genuine national coalition forming, one that will accept Sadr as a political figure.

I have moderate disagreement with Grim on Basra.  In Jeremiah 13:23, we are rhetorically asked if a leopard can change its spots?  We have seen how Sadr allegedly is eyeing Sistani’s position of authority, undergoing religious training in Iran.  Sadr is a radical Islamist, and for him to be a legitimate political figure in Iraq is akin to the Mullahs ruling Iran.  He is an arm of Iranian military and political power, just like Hezbollah in Lebanon.  He isn’t finished yet.  It is badly premature to draft his obituary.  It would be better for Iraq and the U.S. to make it clear that Sadr isn’t welcome inside Iraq any more.

Furthermore, as we observed in Basra and Iran, “In order to cut ties with Iran, the SIIC “members” of the Iraqi Security Forces – who had to fight only rival miltias in Basra this time around – should be forced to rid Iraq of all Iranian influence, including Quds, Hezbollah, IRG and any other proxy Iranian fighters.  Failure to do so, from leadership down to the lowest ranking soldier, should be addressed as treason.  Until the SIIC is forced to fight for Iraq as opposed to fighting against rival gangs, they too are merely Iranian proxy forces.”

Badr was originally formed as part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and still receive pensions from the IRGC.  It is important to get a clear picture on this issue.  They are, quite literally, on the payroll of Iran.  Until they are put into a position where they have to prove their loyalty to Iraq, the fighting in Basra might be intra-Shi’a gang warfare aided by the Iraqi Army (and some by U.S. forces).

There are tens of thousands of Iranian fighters inside Iraq.  Five days of fighting in Basra and a few more in Sadr City are not enough to rid Iraq of Iranian influence.  We are only at the very beginning stages of the fight in the South.  Since Britain implemented the “we may as well go ahead and give all of the terrain to the enemy” approach to counterinsurgency, the developments in the South lag far behind the West and North.

There are miles to go before we sleep.

More British Trouble in Basra

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

The Times is reporting that British command was recently snubbed by Maliki during the latest Basra fighting.

Relations between Britain and Iraq suffered “catastrophic failure” after Baghdad bypassed the British military and called in the American “cavalry” to help the recent offensive against Shia militia in Basra, The Times has learnt.

About 550 US troops, including some from the 82nd Airborne Division, were sent from Baghdad to Basra to join up with 150 American soldiers already serving with Iraqi forces in the southern city.

The Ministry of Defence made much of the fact that British troops, based at Basra airport outside the city, were not requested in the early stages of the operation. British officials claimed that the Basra offensive was proof that Iraqi troops could cope on their own.

The Times has learnt, however, that when Britain’s most senior officer in Basra, Brigadier Julian Free, commander of 4 Mechanised Brigade, flew into the city to find out what was going on, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who was orchestrating the attacks on militia strongholds, declined to see him.

Brigadier Free flew to Basra city with Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the commander of American and coalition forces in Iraq, on March 27, two days after the operation began. The Iraqi Prime Minister spoke only to the US general.

A source familiar with the sequence of events said that Mr al-Maliki seemed to have it in for the British because of the alleged “deal” struck with the Shia militia last year under which they agreed not to attack Britain’s last battalion as it withdrew from Basra in return for the release of several of their leading members from prison.

According to The New York Times, Baghdad turned to the Americans for help when the Basra operation was launched. Two senior American military officers, Rear Admiral Edward Winters, a former member of the US Navy Seals special forces unit, and Major-General George Flynn, a Marine, were sent to Basra to help to coordinate the operation. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were drafted in as combat advisers and air controllers were positioned to call in airstrikes …

A source told The Times that US forces were in Basra, eating and sleeping alongside their Iraqi counterparts, “basically doing the work that we were supposed to do. It was a catastrophic failure of diplomacy.”

The source described the moment when the American general arrived at the British base from Baghdad: “Suddenly the cavalry appeared.”

The source said that the Americans provided “loads of technical equipment and combat power”. As soon as the Americans arrived and started hitting houses in Basra, the daily attacks of indirect fire on the British base stopped. The source said that during that time the mood among the British forces on the base was “miserable”.

We knew that the security situation was bad in 2007 and before, but now we learn that Britain dealt with the deaths of seven soldiers due to sniper fire in Basra last year due to the same shooter.

Seven British soldiers were shot in Basra last year by the same sniper rifle, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.

The troops were picked off one by one on the streets of the southern Iraqi city by a weapon firing high-velocity American-made bullets.

Rifleman Aaron Lincoln, 18, Kingsman Danny Wilson, 28, Kingsman Alan Jones, 20, Corporal Rodney Wilson, 30, Rifleman Paul Donnachie, 18, and two others who have not yet been named, were all killed by bullets from the same weapon, said a spokesman for the MoD.

But he could not verify that a single gunman was responsible.

Rifleman Lincoln, of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, was killed on April 2 last year by a single bullet that penetrated his protective glasses and helmet, an inquest in Spennymoor, County Durham, heard yesterday.

Of the five soldiers that have been identified, four were shot in April. Corporal Wilson was killed on June 7.

Ballistics expert Ann Kiernan told the inquest: “There had been several incidents where projectiles have all been discharged from the same rifle.”

The bullets were made by arms manufacturer Lake City Arsenal and the hearing was told the military cannot yet provide helmets strong enough to withstand such powerful ammunition.

Rifleman Lincoln’s platoon had been sent on to the city streets as part of an operation to divert enemy attention from a re-supply convoy of 30 trucks due at the British camp.

Coroner Andrew Tweddle said he was concerned the bullet had penetrated the soldier’s helmet, but noted evidence given that the Army were unable to “provide a higher level of protection”.

He recorded a narrative verdict of unlawful killing, adding that Rifleman Lincoln was shot by enemy fire. “He sustained a single gun shot wound to the head,’ he said. ‘This 5.56mm, U.S. manufactured round was not fired by friendly forces.’

The answer for the U.S. when sniper fire was encounted in Anbar and Tarmiyah was force projection.  The answer for the British was withdrawal, but only after a deal had been struck to give prisoners back in order to avoid being targeted again.

Just deplorable.  I lack adequate words to respond.

The Basra Backfire

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Preliminary Reading:

The Battle in Basra

Continued Chaos in Basra

Flushing out the British Narrative

Five days ago when warning of the potential affects of lack of political will to see the battle for Basra through to the end, In The Battle in Basra, we said:

These elements will never renounce violence, but the danger is that they will call Maliki’s bluff and make a show of standing down, only to watch the Iraqi troops redeploy elsewhere and strike up the violence later when they don’t face such trouble.  We have seen this scene play out for quite a while now, starting in 2004 with Sadr.  If this happens, Maliki will look like an inept stooge.

The lack of political will seems to have caused just that, with Maliki calling for repeated extensions of the amnesty program for the Sadrists and lack of progress by the Iraqi Army.

Residents buried their dead after calm returned to the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Monday, but fighting broke out in Baghdad despite a truce called by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to end a week of bloodshed.

Sadr called his Mehdi Army fighters off the streets on Sunday, nearly a week after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on them, sparking clashes that spread through the mainly Shi’ite south and also the capital.

Political analysts said the government offensive in the oil port of Basra appeared to have backfired by exposing the weakness of Maliki’s army.

Worse still, the Iranians brokered the ceasefire and stand down of the Sadrists.  The indications of lack of political will are numerous: [1] The British are sitting behind barbed wire at the Basra airport while the battle ensues, [2] Maliki extended the offer of amnesty multiple times, [3] the Iraqi Army targeted the Sadrists and left the SIIC unmolested, [4] Maliki appears to be hailing the ceasefire as a good move, [5] Iran is further empowered, and [6] Sadr and the SIIC leadership are still alive, unmolested and in command or their respective militias (perhaps Sadr less so, with Iran more so than before).

The upshot is that the sickness in the Maliki administration is laid bare and the strength of Iran was clear from the beginning.  The Captain’s Journal has understood this all along.  But for the uninitiated, these things might be revelatory.  Now that the truth is unmasked, what will be the response of the Multinational Force?  What will Maliki do, if anything?

Flushing out the British Narrative

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Preliminary reading:

The Battle in Basra

Continued Chaos in Basra

In the midst of the chaos in Basra at the moment with the British forces sitting at the Basra airport, it is necessary to construct a narrative for what happened and why.  One problem is that not even all of the British commentators agree on that narrative.

Some Brits are saying that the current battle is just what we’ve been waiting for.  It’s good that it has finally come and that the Iraqis are carrying it out.

The British military always knew the test would come and it has arrived with the offensive that Iraqi forces have launched in Basra against the Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs who have run too much of the city for too long. British-trained Iraqi units have been in action, directed by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, in what is clearly a crucial encounter for the future of Iraq.

The object of the British exercise since 2003 has been to train Iraqi forces and hand control to them as soon as possible. If the strategy is seen to work then whatever follows this battle of Basra might fairly be regarded as the responsibility of the Iraqis themselves and the British will have taken a big step towards final withdrawal.

Maliki is taking a stand on his ability to exert central government authority over the increasingly lawless second city of Iraq. If the British seemed to acquiesce too easily in the slide into lawlessness in the four years they controlled Basra, a victory for Iraqi forces now would demonstrate the wisdom of being patient and letting the Iraqis run the country in their own way.

It would also be a powerful rejoinder to American mutterings that the British delude themselves into thinking their approach is sophisticated when it is simply permissive. This battle of Basra, say British military spokesmen, is what we have been working for.

Yet there is another narrative that is directly contradictory.

Rather than being – as the anti-war brigade claimed – a humiliating retreat, the tactical withdrawal from Saddam’s old summer palace on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab was undertaken on the basis that the continuing presence of British troops was exacerbating, rather than helping, the local security situation. The fiercely nationalistic Iraqis did not want outsiders telling them how to run their affairs.

Formal control of the city was returned to the Iraqis in a short ceremony at the air base last December, but much of Basra has remained under the control of a combination of radical Islamic militias and criminal gangs, which has made it virtually impossible for the Iraqi government in Baghdad to exercise its authority over the city.

The contradiction takes a second reading to understand, but once found out, creates an awkward state of affairs for the British commentators who are aping the British officers.  In the first narrative, there was a fight waiting to happen, and it is best that the Iraqis are engaging it.  In the second narrative, the violence is not a necessary state of affairs, but rather, is a direct function of the British presence in Basra.  Therefore, the best policy is a “tactical withdrawal.”

It is difficult to imagine any respectable counterinsurgency strategy anywhere on earth and in any era where it is a positive or productive thing to allow an area to devolve into chaos over the course of four years.  But there are Brits who are able to put aside pride and false narratives.  Peter Oborne’s commentary is as hard hitting as any analysis we’ve seen.

British military history contains more than its fair share of glorious victories, but there have also been notable disasters. It has become horrifyingly clear that one of these is our involvement in southern Iraq, culminating in our soldiers’ exit from Basra Palace late last year.

At the time, the Government presented the withdrawal of British troops as a success. Gordon Brown assured us that they had done their job so well that it was safe to hand over to local forces.

It is difficult to tell whether the Prime Minister was deliberately lying, or whether – more likely – he was mistaken about what was going on. Either way, the truth was very different. Far from calmly handing over Basra to the new regime, we were driven out by Iranian-backed militias, leaving behind a state of murderous anarchy.

This became horrifically plain last week when widespread fighting broke out inside Basra. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, has ordered his army to try to regain control of the city. Meanwhile, Britain’s 4,000 troops, safely cocooned in Basra air base outside the town, are taking no part in what may well prove to be a crucial battle.

This is a humiliation. All this week, commentators used the state visit of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to mock his country’s shamefully inadequate military involvement in Afghanistan – keeping their troops well out of harm’s way while the burden of fighting has been carried out by others.

But that has been the wretched fate of our 4,000 troops sitting idle in Basra air base, listening helplessly – and positioned a safe distance away – as mortars pound and machine-gun fire rattles in battles that are deciding the long-term future of Iraq.

Twelve years ago we were rightly censorious after Dutch troops sat on their hands while 7,000 Muslims were massacred during the Balkan War at Srebrenica.

Of course, it would be utterly wrong to accuse our soldiers of the miserable cowardice displayed on that infamous occasion by the Dutch. But their current impotence in southern Iraq as fighting rages nearby sits most uneasily with the exemplary British fighting tradition.

It needs to be said at once that no blame attaches itself to our soldiers, 176 of whom have given their lives in this ghastly conflict.

However, the same cannot be said of our politicians. Last September, the Prime Minister made a snap visit to Basra during which he revealed the decision to withdraw British forces …

Shamefully for Britain, the White House is now considering sending its own forces to sort the mess that the British have left behind. Last week, one White House official acidly remarked: “American blood is going to have to buy off the British failure in Basra.”

Already at the Basra air base, I can reveal, the British subsidiary of U.S. construction giant KBR is building four huge dining facilities – known to the American army as DFACs. These are capable of feeding 4,000 men and suggest that the U.S. Army is contemplating a massive deployment to southern Iraq – including a major presence inside Basra itself.

Oborne correctly refuses to lay the blame at the feet of the British enlisted men, and also correctly points out that the drawdown was precipitous.  But he also fails to mention that the British commanders fabricated a ridiculous narrative while the politicians were playing political games.  There is enough blame to go around, but creating narratives that deny the failure prevents learning and adaptation of British counterinsurgency doctrine.


British retreating from Basra in 2007, courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Continued Chaos in Basra

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 4 months ago

Following or coincident with our own article on the recent Basra violence (The Battle in Basra), there are numerous commentaries and articles on the same subject.  We will assess some of the more interesting ones below.  In addition to the chaos in Basra, there is chaos in the blogs and main stream media reports.

The Small Wars Journal blog has an interesting roundup of links (Debating Basra) with summary paragraphs for each.  As usual, the SWJ editors are on the spot with valuable information.

At Abu Muqawama, Charlie has a post up offering suggestions as to what exactly might have happened to the British in Basra (Abu’s blog is friendly to the Brits and soft COIN doctrine, so this is an interesting take).  Charlie blames it on the possibility that “the Brits adopted a “peacekeeping” mindset in Basra and never really engaged in a broader COIN or CT effort. That meant that all the myriad Shi’a groups were able to pursue their (relatively) non-violent political agenda and consolidate control over the political levers of city.”

Relatively non-violent agenda?  Charlie has been reading too many books and hasn’t kept up with the goings on in Basra, and later Spencer Ackerman weighs in: “Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we’re seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos.”

To read these two opinions, it’s as if the British had control of Basra and then for some inexplicable reason left without any political strategy (no military issues, just political machinations).  Such a view ignores the reality of the situation.  Let’s backtrack a bit and recap what we know (see Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement).  In 2003, the British Army fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off.  In early 2007, all troop movement in and out of the city were conducted at night by helicopter because it was deemed too dangerous to go on the road and it was too dangerous to fly choppers during the day,” said Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London.  Today, women in Basra are being beheaded by Islamist gangs by the hundreds.

In mid-2007 when the British retreated from Basra, they did so while telling the tall tale that since the very presence of the British themselves was causing the violence, it would be better if they just left.  In other words, no one would shoot at the British Army if the Army wasn’t there.  There wasn’t a rush of anyone or any faction into Basra.  They were already there and had control of the city.  The British never had control of Basra, and from the beginning it was left to Shi’a factions, criminal elements, Iranian proxy fighters (Badr, Quds), and the loss of Basra was a constant diminution of civilization up to the point that the British ended up behind barbed wire at the Basra airport, contributing nothing to the Iraq campaign.  We have already linked Nibras Kazimi who, in the update to his post, conveys the Iraqi sentiment concerning the British Army.  It isn’t flattering, and British Colonel Tim Collins knows and has said that the retreat from Basra has badly damaged the reputation of the British Army.

From my contacts in the Marines, they had always known that after securing the Anbar province, it was always a possibility that they would have to go in and clean up the mess left by the British in Southern Iraq.  There are now published reports that the Marines may get saddled with this chore.

Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark has a very smart post in which he examines the idea that Iran is liquidating its no longer useful proxies, including Sadr.  This idea has some merit, since Moqtada al Sadr is currently in Iran, especially as seen against the backdrop of what Iran did with Hassan Nasrallah last year.  Nasrallah was demoted and the responsibility for military operations of Hezbollah were removed from him.

The Belmont Club questions the absurd narrative where Iran is trying to advance peace by restraining Sadr.  This theory follows closely in line with Amir Taheri’s silly New York Post article where he promulgated the idea that Tehran now worries about a premature Iraq exit, and wants stability in the region.  From the absurd to the sensible.

Reidar Visser has a sophisticated article entitled The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra, in which he points out something that obviously troubled us when we wrote The Battle in Basra, writing “The Captain’s Journal is as concerned about the SIIC as it is the Sadrists, and maybe more so given how well they have been able to work into the political scene in Iraq.”  Visser writes:

… there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) – which is doubtless correct – and the battlefield facts of the ongoing operations which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.

This is a powerful point, and undercuts Nibras Kazimi’s narrative of Maliki as in charge and powerful enough to retain control of Iraq and oust the Shi’a militias.

There are indications that the campaign in Basra may not be going as well as planned.

With the threat of a civil war looming in the south, Nouri al-Maliki’s police chief in Basra narrowly escaped assassination in the crucial port city, while in Baghdad, the spokesman for the Iraqi side of the US military surge was kidnapped by gunmen and his house burnt to the ground.

Saboteurs also blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil pipelines from Basra, cutting at least a third of the exports from the city which provides 80 per cent of government revenue, a clear sign that the militias — who siphon significant sums off the oil smuggling trade — would not stop at mere insurrection.

In Baghdad, thick black smoke hung over the city centre tonight and gunfire echoed across the city.

The most secure area of the capital, Karrada, was placed under curfew amid fears the Mahdi Army of Hojetoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr could launch an assault on the residence of Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the head of a powerful rival Shia governing party.

While the Mahdi Army has not officially renounced its six-month ceasefire, which has been a key component in the recent security gains, on the ground its fighters were chasing police and soldiers from their positions across Baghdad.

But Maliki says there will be no retreat.  “Iraq’s prime minister vowed Thursday to fight “until the end” against Shiite militias in Basra despite protests by tens of thousands of followers of a radical cleric in Baghdad and deadly clashes across the capital and the oil-rich south.”

Bill Roggio says that the current operation has been in the planning stages since the middle of 2007.  This Al Jazeera coverage (h/t Noah Shachtman) gives one the impression that the surge and strategy change had absolutely nothing to do with the the drop in violence across Iraq, but rather, the so-called ceasefire by Sadr is credited, this ceasefire being in danger of breaking down.

One of the many problems with this analysis is that it ignores the role that the British played, unwittingly, in the strengthening of the Sadrists.  Further, this analysis treats Basra as if it represents all of Iraq, and clearly it doesn’t.  At approximately 17:20 into this Charlie Rose interview of John Burns, you can see for yourself the role the British played in the release of Sadr who was actually in the custody of the 3/2 Marines in 2004.There are troubling aspects of the current campaign, but in the end, the SIIC is too deeply embedded into the political fabric to root out at the moment with military action, or so Maliki may think.  This is disconcerting, in that it continues Iran’s influence inside of Iraq.  But in the end, it may be too easy to see too many complexities in the campaign, thus missing the forest for the trees.

The British wore soft covers and went into Basra with the counterinsurgency doctrine learned from their experience in Northern Ireland.  As we said in COIN is Context-Driven, “whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, greater U.K. or English, the fact of the matter is that this was COIN among their own people.  They were the same, at least as compared to Iraq.  The religious, cultural, societal, and political framework was the same; the ethical morays were the same; the language was the same; and by and large the history is the same.  When the British landed in Basra, they may as well have been placed on a different planet.  Nothing was the same, and thus whatever the British learned in Northern Ireland instantly became irrelevant.”

Southern Iraq was not Northern Ireland, and the Shi’a gangs, criminals and Iranian proxy fighters were looking for the stronger tribe to rise to the top.  It did, and it wasn’t the British, due to no fault of their enlisted men, a failure that must be laid entirely at the feet of their command.  General Jack Keane recommends that the U.K. engage in a “surge” of its own in Basra.  But this misses the point.  There not only weren’t enough troops, the strategy was mistaken from the beginning and the British have spent their wallet on the campaign.  They no longer demand respect from the Iraqi people and thus have become merely baggage.

Today Basra is paying the price for their ill-conceived strategy.  The Basra problems are not, as so many main stream media reports have mistakenly said, proof of the failure of the surge, since U.S. troops are not now and have never been in Basra.  Nor is Sadr powerful enough to thwart the intentions of U.S. forces in Iraq.  It is frankly hard to imagine any more difficult a situation than Anbar a year or two ago.  One could have asserted the impossibility of pacification of Anbar because of the competing Sunni factions – al Qaeda, Saddam Fedayeen, Ansar al Sunna, holdover hard line Ba’athists, and all of the other groups – but the Marines prevailed.  They did so because they were the stronger horse (a notion that Osama Bin Laden has himself hailed as being important in this region of the world).  Until forces enter Basra who are seen as a stronger horse as compared to the Iranian-sponsored criminals, peace will not come to Iraq.

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