The British in Basra
It is a spectacular U-turn. Until September, when British troops pulled out of the city in what Gordon Brown described as a "pre-planned and organised" move, the fighting was as intense as any since the start of the war in 2003. This year, 44 British soldiers have died as a result of Britain's operations in Iraq. Yet their commanders are now saying they got it wrong.
Rather than fight on, they have struck a deal – or accommodation, as they describe it – with the Shia militias that dominate the city, promising to stay out in return for assurances that they will not be attacked. Since withdrawing, the British have not set foot in the city and even have to ask for permission if they want to skirt the edges to get to the Iranian border on the other side. ...
The British appear to base their new strategy on an almost total faith in one man, Gen Mohan al-Furayji, who came down from Baghdad to take over responsibility for security, promising to sort out the city. The general, a Shia in his early fifties who spent time in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad after falling out with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, is answerable only to Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.
The British are so convinced that he is the answer to Basra's problems that they are making plans to deal with him, instead of the elected provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waily, who one official dismissed as "a problem".
It is a sad ending to a campaign which had been held up as a shining contrast to the US campaign in Iraq, made more invidious with the comparative success the Surge is having even in Shi'ite areas. Recently US Army Colonel Michael Garrett described a process the reverse of Basra in the area south of Baghdad where civilian reconstruction teams were being deployed -- not withdrawn -- into the provinces with increasing success.
Most importantly, successes were being scored not only against al-Qaeda, but against Shi'ite militias. Garrett pointed out that the Shi'ites were starting to provide crucial intelligence which enabled them to neutralize high-value targets.
The Shi'a militia, the JAM special groups remain a problem for us. But interestingly enough, we are seeing the same type of movement that we saw early on in the Sunni communities towards al Qaeda in our Shi'a communities towards JAM and especially the JAM special group members. And so today, with our concerned citizens, with the intelligence that we receive on a daily basis, we are targeting and we are detaining key members of the JAM special group network.
The Surge from the very start was a political and military offensive. Both elements had to be present in order for each to be effective. Without a political process a military effort would be a nothing but coercion. But without a military effort providing security no political solution solution could possibly take root. While it is often said that "there is no purely military solution to the problems in Iraq" it is less frequently realized that there can be no purely political solution either.
Since the final chapter in Iraqi story has not been written it is premature to conclude which strategic approach -- the British or the American -- will ultimately prove the more successful. But the outcomes of military campaigns are often less dependent on initial strategies than the ability to adapt. But crucially, many of the American shortcomings were "software defects" -- deficiencies in doctrine, lack of relevant experience, a lack of institutional memory in "colonial police" type operations -- which the hard experience of several combat tours eventually fixed. On the other hand the British weaknesses where much harder and more expensive to remedy. When the JAM and other Shi'ite militias responded to British political initiatives with sheer violence and mayhem, the British, lacking the means to protect their Iraqi partners, found their strategy collapsing about their ears. Their interpreters were driven into hiding; the inadequately protected pro-British leaders were liquidated or tortured and British operation was too small to recruit forces from outside the power of militia intimidation.