After the Surge
About three days ago, when the clash between the Iraqi Army and the Madhi army was in its fourth day, I asked a senior officer returned from Iraq after his presentation whether Maliki would go all the way against Sadr. He said he didn't know, but added that militias were a problem that had to be eventually addressed. Another questioner asked about the quality of the Iraqi Armed forces, and on this point the answer was more definite. The quality was uneven. Many parts of it were rudimentary; some parts of it were extraordinarily good.
But the subject of the talk that night on the strategic history of the campaign in Iraq provided the perfect background to understand how the fight with the Mahdi Army might develop.
Maliki's campaign against the Mahdi Army carries many echoes of the two Battles of Fallujah; with the First Fallujah bearing an extraordinary superficial resemblance to the events -- so far. Like the First Fallujah, Maliki's campaign against the Mahdi Army appears to have begun suddenly, just as the plan to reduce that city was sparked by the unanticipated massacre of a contractor convoy by Sunni insurgents. Like the First Fallujah, the campaign against Sadr has reached a non-binding truce, with Moqtada al-Sadr ordering his men to stop operations. Like the First Fallujah, the truce is really a sham. A half dozen mortar rounds fell again on the Green Zone right after the so-called "truce" was declared. Like the First Fallujah the enemy is claiming political victory, with the New York Times in particular claiming glowing Sadrist victories against US troops who "opened fire randomly in a crazy way and shot many people". Yet like the First Fallujah the current operations are likely to have been a military disaster for enemy forces. Bill Roggio reports that Sadr's men have been decimated by operations, which have been conducted largely by the Iraqi Army.
But the similarities to the First Fallujah, go even deeper. Both operations against were conducted against an enemy in an "unshaped battlefield", meaning one which had not been previously emptied of civilians. The extraordinary interaction between political and military events in Iraq was captured in the adage around MNF-I (according to the senior officer's presentation) to 'fight to the politics'. In the case of the First Fallujah, political forces demanded that an unplanned operation be put together immediately; and it was also political forces which demanded their cessation for fear of civilian casualties.
Ehsan Ahrari at the Asia Times understands both the political roots and constraints of the current battle against Sadr perfectly. He correctly sees that it is a showdown for supremacy within the Shi'ite community for legitimacy. He writes:
What is missing in Iraq is the legitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which is perceived as highly inept and equally corrupt. That legitimacy can only be obtained and expanded by making and implementing comprehensive policies that are aimed at raising the level of comfort and standard of living of the Iraqi people. It is possible that Maliki has decided to acquire that legitimacy by confronting the JAM-related groups, which have been involved in increasing amounts of lawlessness and thuggery in the south.
The fight against Sadr is a struggle for political supremacy and legitimacy among the Shi'ites; and not simply in the context of their representation within Iraq but also with respect to regional Shi'ite politics. Pajamas Media covers Moqtada al-Sadr's claim that he has been betrayed both by Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iraqi Shi'ite factions. The two aspects of the desired legitimacy, the first in relation to Teheran and the second in relation to domestic Iraqi Shi'ite politics, are amply demonstrated.
Moghtada Al Sadr, who has long been suspected of receiving support from the Iranian government, decided to publicly condemn the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. ... Sadr is furious at the fact that members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), have joined the Iraqi army’s offensive against his forces in important areas such as Baghdad and Basra. ... Al Sadr is not only upset because ISCI has decided to turn its guns against fellow Shiites, but also at the fact that ISCI has been the recipient of a larger amount of aid from Tehran than his organization. This may lead Al Sadr to believe that ISCI has embarked on this adventure, with Tehran’s blessing. This belief would explain why, during his controversial interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday night, Al Sadr condemned what he called “Iranian intervention in Iraq’s security and politics.”
In other words, according to this version of events, Sadr sees this as a showdown for political supremacy among Shi'ite factions. And he is worried that Teheran has sold him down the river and given Maliki the green light to wipe him out.
Like the First Fallujah the effect of fighting in an "unshaped battlefield" will create limits on military operations. Ehsan Ahrari at the Asia Times, of all the MSM outlets, recognizes the problem of "raising the misery index" among Shi'ites explicitly.
If this battle were to raise the misery index in southern Iraq, then his [Maliki's] government is doomed by its very chief constituency. If he is conscious of that reality, then Maliki will have to look for peace signals from Muqtada and opt to negotiate. At the same time, he will continue to face the uncertainty about how serious Muqtada really is in making peace offerings. The Americans in Iraq also know this conundrum, but they are just as uncertain about solving it as Maliki.
The Mahdi Army's best defense is to keep fighting in Shi'ite neighborhoods. This strategy will "raise the misery index" and inevitably put political pressure on Maliki to stop the fighting. And unlike the Sunni insurgents (who in the felicitous phrase of the the senior officer I heard speak) "shaped the battlefield for us", Ehsan Ahrari notes that Sadr may have ways of keeping Maliki from inflicting a Second Fallujah on him. Therefore Ahrari argues that Maliki has no choice but to try and defang Sadr by negotiations.
Another serious problem that Maliki is encountering in southern Iraq is that - unlike the strategy of al-Qaeda that relied so heavily on killing anyone who disagreed with its interpretation of "jihad" in the Sunni sectors of Iraq and thereby alienating the Sunnis - Muqtada enjoys a considerable amount of popularity and support. By unleashing the Iraqi security forces without serious forethought regarding its long-term implications, Maliki might also face the kind of unpopularity in the Shi'ite sectors of Iraq that al-Qaeda is encountering in the Sunni region. Maliki is well advised to avoid that path in every way he can.
I disgree. While Ahrari correctly argues that Maliki's decision to use force against Sadr runs considerable risk, the hard reality is that sooner or later there has to be a showdown between the Iraqi government (which although Shi'ite dominated is neverthless partly made up of Kurds and Sunnis) and the militias. And this showdown can never be concluded purely by negotiation, however one may wish them to be. Recommending negotiations also doesn't address the fact that Sadr and other militias probably won't respect any ceasefires, especially if they are encouraged by NYT stories describing their glowing victories. The mortar volley on the Green Zone today demonstrates that a ceasefire is only understood as working one way.
These realities mean that any cessation in the battle for supremacy between the Shi'ite militias and the Iraqi government is temporary. The showdown is on, truce or no. And this showdown is the next big phase beyond the Surge. There are several features in that landscape that are coming into view.
The coming campaign will probably be an all-Iraqi or predominantly Iraqi affair. The recent campaign was a major test of the Iraqi Army operations without British or US ground forces (apart from Special Forces) involvement. In all the hue and cry demanding a US withdrawal from Iraq, in one sense at least this has already happened. US forces are in the area the way training wheels are on a bike, but as long as they don't materially figure in ground operations, like training wheels which don't come in contact with the ground, they aren't really there.
In the recent fighting against Sadr (in built up areas against an entrenched enemy) the fledgling Iraqi force did not go to pieces; remained under orders (unlike the First Fallujah when whole Iraqi battalions vamoosed); and did not engage in unrestrained attacks on civilian targets. In short, it behaved in an extraordinarily competent way, by regional standards. In contrast, some Iraqi police units (many of which were linked with the militias, dissolved immediately). If we are looking for an indicator of whether or not the Iraqi Army (as opposed to the interior forces) can cut the mustard, recent days have provided a preview.
The second feature of the coming campaign is that it will be about the Shi'ite polity and perhaps, about Iran. This doesn't mean that a ground invasion of Iran is at all contemplated. But the issues around which the fight against Sadr revolve go straight to Teheran.
At the presentation I attended, the senior officer described the remarkable fluidity of the Iraqi battlefield ("a nation bordered by six countries") in which every strategy on either side was matched by a counter-strategy. The collapse of Saddam's Army was met by the rise of the Sunni insurgency. The Sunni insurgency was answered by a political offensive which installed the new government. That new government was challenged by an innovative al-Qaeda strategy aimed at precipitating a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a ("they changed the battlefield on us in Samarra"). The civil war threat was met by the Surge. But now the battlefield is switching again. The question is whether the switch puller is MNF-I or Iran. We know Maliki's hand was on the switch; but one can only guess at the strategic thinking behind it.
My guess is that the Iraqi Army will soon be going through its equivalent of the period between the First and Second Fallujahs. The Iraqi Army, having survived its first major engagement, will probably get much better. While Maliki must scale back operations to avoid the political consequences of increasing the "misery index" among Shi'ites, there is probably no turning back in the showdown. The town isn't big enough for the Iraqi government and the militias. How will things go from here? Probably more "leadership" attack operations against the Mahdi Army; probably more shaping of the battlefield. All preludes to ... what? My guess is that Iran and Sadr are now casting around for a way to reswitch the battlefield in ways that re-engage the US forces on the ground. Unless they can recast the battle in the this way, the current conflict between the Shi'ite factions will eventually be about the role of Iran itself and perhaps the future of the Islamic Revolution.
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