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Back to Basra: Challenging the Blunderbusses


by Austin Bay
April 23, 2008

Remember the Iraqi government's Basra offensive, launched a month ago and quickly declared a failure by an overwhelming majority of the talk show and editorial commentators? "Basra Blunder" was the headline of a column that received wide distribution; the column described Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an inept, impulsive figure "in way over his head."

Today, Maliki and Iraqis in general have earned the right to sneer at such instant and shallow media negativism, for Knights Charge (code name for the anti-Shia gang offensive in Basra and southern Iraq) is proving to be an extraordinarily significant political and military operation with rather heady long-term payoffs.

That's key -- understanding Knights Charge is an integrated political-military operation. Maliki made it clear that this multidimensional operation was planned and executed by the Iraqis themselves and that the United States was not consulted. For this, his insta-critics chastised him. But Maliki knows his enemies, particularly Mahdi Army chieftain Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr would tout U.S. "prior approval" as proof Maliki is "a puppet." Instead, a democratically elected prime minister who happens to be a Shia ordered his nation's troops to strike a Shia gangster. The Iraqi government took the initiative -- now it stands to reap several impressive political benefits.

Even attempting Knights Charge signals increasing Iraqi confidence in their own capacities. Confidence does not ensure competence -- cockiness can get you killed -- but experienced military trainers and teachers know achieving trainee or student competence requires building confidence.

Knights Charge, however, was much more than a confidence-building measure; it may be the most decisive example of a country-building measure we have seen since Saddam fell in April 2003.

Knights Charge involved 15,000 soldiers deployed in six Iraqi Army combat brigades and one police brigade, or roughly two divisions of troops. I have helped plan division-sized mobile operations. Basra and Baghdad are complex urban terrain; moreover, they are politically complex, which amplifies risks. Planning the movement of seven brigades is itself a sophisticated task; executing the plan requires a sophistication that only comes from experience.

Knights Charge put boots and wheels and tracks on roads and into combat. Units coordinated supporting fires and maneuvered in close combat. Sometimes they failed. They needed U.S. and British artillery and air support -- but note they called for it. Here's the battle's bottom line: The various Shia gangs performed much worse. On April 20, The New York Times ran a story that said the Iraqi Army had taken the last Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhood in Basra.

The offensive put several serious Iraqi military problems on display -- tough, immediate medicine -- but what matters is how the leadership corrects them. Desert Storm demonstrated that some soldiers in some Iraqi units are unreliable. In 1991 and 2003, American forces exploited this moral flaw. During the early stages of Knights Charge, a disgusting percentage of Iraqi soldiers fled combat. The Iraqis have since sacked and publicly shamed 1,300 soldiers, which says Iraq's current leaders intend to fix the flaws.

When Knights Charge began, I wrote that the Maliki government knows first and foremost it is waging a political war. Long ago, it decided to isolate and "suffocate" Sadr. In the wake of Knights Charge, Sadr is being publicly mocked.

Fierce Iraq Kurd and Sunni Arab political support for Knights Charge has strengthened Maliki's government -- that's nation-building by the Iraqis themselves. I believe this was the Iraqi government's key strategic domestic objective. In over their heads or a heady move?

Knights Charge demonstrates the Iraqi democratic government's expanding reach and increasing effectiveness. Iran's mullah dictatorship will always try to destabilize Iraq, that's a given. But now Tehran says publicly it supports the Iraqi government's counterinsurgent efforts. Why? Fair bet the smart mullahs have noticed the political success of Knights Charge as well as the Iraqi military's improving counterinsurgency capabilities. Unfortunately, the Basra blunderbusses in the American media haven't.

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