CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES*
The British Defeat in the South and the Uncertain Bush "Strategy" in
Iraq: "Oil Spots," "Ink Blots," "White Space," or Pointlessness?
Anthony H. Cordesman
There are many definitions of "strategy," some of which are virtually
indistinguishable from "tactics." To use one of the better dictionary
definitions, however, "strategy" is "the science and art of employing
the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation
or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in
peace or war."
meaningful US strategy in Iraq cannot simply focus on winning in Baghdad
and going on with efforts to fight the insurgents in the most troubled.
A meaningful US strategy in Iraq has to combine all of the necessary
means to achieve a clearly defined objective and it has to have an end game.
In practice, any form of US action that ends in some form of "victory"
means finding a strategy that allows the US to withdraw most US forces
from an Iraq that is stable enough to have reduced internal violence to
low levels that can be controlled by local forces, that is secure
against its neighbors, that is politically and economically unified
enough to function and develop as a state, and which is pluralistic
enough to preserve the basic rights of all of its sectarian and ethnic
Things in Iraq may have deteriorated to the point where none of the
"least bad" options now available allow the US to achieve these goals.
From a perceptual viewpoint, "victory" may already be impossible
because most of the people in Iraq, the region, and Arab and Muslim
worlds will probably view the US effort as a failure and as a partial
defeat even if the US can leave Iraq as a relatively stable and secure
state at some point in the future. The perceived cost of the US-led
invasion and occupation has simply been too high in terms of local
opinion (and most polls of opinion in Europe and the rest of the world.)
*The British Defeat by Shi'ite Islamists*
The British announcement of force cuts in Southern Iraq reflects a set
of realities on the ground that has dominated southeastern Iraq for more
than two years. Southeastern Iraq has long been under the de facto
control of SCIRI and Sadr factions. The British effectively lost any
opportunity to shape a secular and nationalist Basra in the summer of
2003, and the US defeat of the Sadr militia in March and April 2004
never extended to the southeast and Basra area.
The British won some tactical clashes in Maysan and Basra in
May-November 2004, but Operation Telic's tactical victories over the
Sadrists did not stop Islamists from taking steadily more local
political power and controlling security at the neighborhood level when
British troops were not present.
As Michael Knight and Ed Williams point out in an excellent recent
analysis for WINEP, SCIRI, Sadrists, Dawa and other Shi'ite Islamists
won 38 out of 41 seats in the provincial elections in Basra in January
2005, and 35 out of 41 seats in Maysan, and Basra came under the control
of a corrupt Shi'ite Islamist in February. The British decisively lost
the south – which produces over 90% of government revenues and has over
70% of Iraq's proven oil reserves -- more than two years ago.
Worse, local politics then devolved into a fractured mess of factions
that are not clearly loyal even to their national parties, "soft" (less
than openly murderous) sectarian and ethnic cleansing, and crime and
corruption. The Iraqi forces that Britain helped create in the area were
little more than an extension of Shi'ite Islamist control by other means.
British forces occasionally still swept up the mess of crime and
violence created by the ineffectiveness of the ISF, but the Sadr forces
reasserted themselves in Basra and Maysan by the summer of 2005, and
Iranian influence (and possible transfers of arms and EFPs) continued.
The Iraqi police in areas like Basra became another part of the problem,
rather than the solution, with extensive police operations against
Sunnis. British efforts to deal with this led to steadily rising local
Shi'ite attacks on British forces, putting an effective end to the
British "soft" approach, since British forces now could only operate in
many areas as armored patrols. To all intensive purposes, the British –
which had lost at the political level in early 2005 – were defeated at
the military level and confronted with "no go" zones in many areas from
the fall of 2005 onwards.
The elections in January 2006 made this worse by triggering more open
inter-Shi'ite power struggles and violence in Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Basra
with tribal factions, and rival SCIRI and Sadrist police adding to the
equation. Even moderate and more secular Shi'ites came under steadily
growing threat, while crime and corruption affecting almost every aspect
of Iraq's oil industry and exports in the south added mixtures of
Mafia-like groups, criminal police officers, and corrupt Shi'ite
Islamist elements to the equation. British claims to have transferred
responsibility to the ISF in the rest of 2006 were little more than a
recognition of "defeat with honor " or at least crude political cover.
The end result is that British security efforts have devolved to little
more than an attempt to reform the police in Basra and bring some order
to the city. Both Operation Corrode in May 2006 and Operation Sinbad in
October 2006 have made joint British and Iraqi police efforts to bring
some kind of order to Basra in ways that bear a similarity to the new
Bush effort to bring district-by-district security to Baghdad.
The most such British efforts have, or can, accomplish, however, is to
restore a higher degree of control over the Basra police by the Shi'ite
parties in the Shi'ite dominated central government. They have done
nothing to either quell attacks on British forces or bring security to
areas outside Basra. They are virtually certain to have steadily less
effect as British forces withdraw, and trigger a new round of sectarian
and ethnic violence and intra-Shi'ite factional fighting.
The British may not have been defeated in a purely military sense, but
lost long ago in the political sense if "victory" means securing the
southeast for some form of national unity. Soft ethnic cleansing has
been going on in Basra for more than two years, and the south has been
the scene of the less violent form of civil war for control of political
and economic space that is as important as the more openly violent
struggles in Anbar and Basra.
As a result, the coming British cuts in many ways reflect the political
reality that the British "lost" the south more than a year ago. The
Shi'ites will takeover, Iranian influence will probably expand, and more
Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities will leave. British action will
mean more pressure for federation and separatism, but local power
struggles are more likely to be between Shi'ite factions than anything else.
*The Bush Strategy: Mirror Imaging the Strategic Result of the British
The irony is that British defeat and force cuts may well have the same
de facto effect as the new set of US military operations in Baghdad. If
the Shi'ite militias in Baghdad continue to stand down, and US-led
operations continue to focus on local security and defeating the Sunnis,
the end result of creating "white spots" in Baghdad will be to solidify
Shi'ite control over most of the city and province, segregate Sunnis,
and push Sunnis into divided areas outside the city./ In effect, both
the UK and US may end up acting to expand Shi'ite influence in very
different ways./ All of Iraq's factions, including the Shi'ite dominated
central government, know that time is as much an enemy of the US and
Britain in Iraq as any insurgent group or militia. The US can talk about
"long wars," but it does not have a political structure willing to fight
them, and the Bush Administration's past mistakes have vastly compounded
Iraq's factions know that the US is involved in a war of attrition where
these past mistakes have created a political climate where it appears to
be steadily more vulnerable to pressures that either will make it leave,
or sharply limit how long it can play a major role. One year
increasingly seems "long" by American domestic political standards, but
the actors in Iraq and the region can play for years. In fact, they have
to play for years. They live there and they know the chances of true
stability are negligible for years to come.
*Confusing Baghdad with the Center of Gravity*
Just as the British confused Basra with a regional center of gravity,
the Bush Administration may well have compounded these problems by
confusing Baghdad with the center of gravity in a national struggle for
the control of political and economic space that affects every part of
the country. The Iraq Study Group report had many weaknesses, but it was
all to correct in nothing that official US reporting on the patterns of
violence in Iraq may reflect less than a 10th of the actual struggle,
and much of this violence is outside Baghdad.
Winning security control of the city and losing Iraq's 11 other major
cities and countryside to Iraq's sectarian and ethnic factions is not
victory in any strategic, it is defeat. As has been discussed earlier,
the minimal requirement for a successful US strategy is a relatively
stable and secure Iraq, not temporary US military control of Baghdad.
So far, however, the US has not shown that it has a clear plan for
taking control of Baghdad with the US and Iraqi resources it has
available, or described a credible operational plan for moving from
"win" to "hold" and "build." It has completely failed to set forth a
strategy and meaningful operational plan for dealing with Iraq as a
country even if it succeeds in Baghdad.
*Options for Responding to the New Bush Strategy*
As a result, the US does appear to be treating its opponents as if they
did not have options that can defeat the new US approach. It is quite
clear, however, that these opponents do have such options, and that they
may well reduce the odds of US success to less than one in four:
· The insurgents and/or militias stretch US and ISF forces to
their limit to cover all of the greater Baghdad area. Forcing them to
cover more and more area, and either to drain other areas of US and
Iraqi forces or force the US and ISF be too thin on the ground to cover
the entire city. They strike where US and Iraqi forces are weakest. The
US can win in 7 out of 10 districts in Baghdad and still lose.
· The insurgents and/or militias appear to stand down or disperse,
but carry out high profile attacks that avoid military and security
targets and focus on aid efforts, key civilians, and religious shrines
· The insurgents and militias strike at US and ISF forces during
the initial phase of US advances, keep up the pace of combat for a
while, and then disperse to other areas or go underground. They outwait
· Alternatively, they carry out high profile and well-planned
bloody attacks on US forces, and/or use bombings and atrocities in the
areas that are "secure." Time and a focus on influencing US support for
the war become the key weapons.
· The insurgents keep up just enough pressure to lock down US and
ISF forces in Baghdad, while shifting their main areas of attack to
targets outside the city. They then focus on a few, wellplanned attacks
with high visibility, designed to have maximum political impact in the
US and/or do most to provoke Shi'ite vs. Sunni and Arab vs. Kurd tensions.
· The insurgents and/or militias focus on winning control of space
in the rest of Iraq, while the US focuses on Baghdad, shifting the
center of gravity further away from Baghdad. They do so through
intimidation, low-level acts of violence, and other lower profile forms
of struggle that win control of political and economic space while
avoiding open tactical conflict.
· The Shi'ite militias stand down, inevitably shifting the battle
to the Sunni insurgents that are too ideological and exposed to adopt a
similar strategy. The net result could be to make the US and ISF fight
for the Shi'ite side in Baghdad.
*"Defeat" (or "Victory") by the Iraqi Government*
This latter option seems to be becoming steadily more likely, and it is
particularly important because the Iraqi central government does not
have the same interests in creating a unified, democratic, secular Iraq
as the US. In fact, the power structure in the Iraqi government has
every reason to try to use US offensive to consolidate Shi'ite power,
and deflect the battle to strike at the Sunni insurgents and hostile
factions with minimal or no operations against the major Shi'ite militias.
The Iraqi government is dominated by a fractured Shi'ite coalition with
strong religious motivation, a long history of distrust of the US, and
whose main parties (SCIRI and Al Dawa) see their Shi'ite militias and
efforts to dominate the country as legitimate. If the Shi'ites in the
government can spin the new Bush strategy to take control of Baghdad by
having Shi'ite militias stand down, by having the central government
take control of all of the city's districts, and by having US and ISF
troops defeat the Sunni forces in the city, this gives them a major victory.
This is particularly true if the US helps build a Shi'ite-Kurdish
dominated ISF in the process, and a "victory" in Baghdad leads to
continued US support in defeating the Sunni core resistance in mixed
areas and most Sunni-dominated towns and cities. The end result will
still be Shi'ite dominance, and the US will eventually leave – probably
sooner than later even if the US appears to win.
*The Sadr Question*
Sadr is the odd man out, but he is so far standing down his militia and
he is scarcely isolated or dependent on the use of force. All of the
Shi'ite leadership are rivals to some degree. Al Dawa is much weaker
than SCIRI, and Al Dawa ties to Sadr balance out the other main
faction's strength. Sadr also clearly has more to win in a relatively
peaceful power struggle for a political and economic role in a Shi'ite
coalition than having his militia fight a combination of the US and ISF
He faces a future in which outside powers are going to largely leave,
Sistani may well be becoming yesterday's man, and figures like Hakim and
Maliki may fade. Backing other Shi'ite leaders in using the US also
means that various rivals or rogue operations in the Mahdi militia that
are not directly loyal to him will either lose power or be defeated in
clashes with US and ISF forces. He benefits from their defeat and can
exploit that defeat to attack the US politically at the same time.
*The Sunni and Kurdish Questions*
The Iraq government has weak Sunni participation with tenuous Sunni
following. It is unclear that any Sunni leader is emerging who can speak
for the Sunnis with enough support to make conciliation or coexistence
negotiations work. The reality is that even if the Shi'ite leaders
wanted to share power, they may only have the option of defeating the
insurgents, acquiring dominant force, and effectively imposing some form
of compromise that most Sunnis are willing to live with.
The Kurdish faction in the government serves Kurdish interests, demands
at least de facto autonomy, and would like independence if it could find
some way to deal with the Turks and other threats. The Kurds care about
Kirkuk, what they see as other Kurdish territory, and oil. If they can
work out a compromise on the oil law, Kirkuk referendum, and autonomy,
they win what they want. If this is done at the expense of minorities in
the Kurdish region, that is fully acceptable.
*"Losing"While "Winning?" or "Winning While Losing?"*
As has been pointed out in previous analyses of the Bush strategy, a
Shi'ite dominated Iraq scenario might not be "losing" for the Bush
Administration, the US and its allies from a grimly realpolitik,
perspective. A divided Iraq under the control of religious Shi'ite
parties might not be stable or truly democratic in the sense the US
sought in 2003, but from a "realist" perspective, it would be better
than a bloodbath or open civil war. As long as the Sunnis got enough
power and benefits to live with the situation, the governments of Iraq's
Sunni neighbors might be willing to live with the result. As long as the
Kurds and Shi'ites could get enough compromises over money and
territory, they might reluctantly accept the result. The US would not
have to worry about a Kurdish enclave that is a major strategic
liability or serious problems with the Turks.
The end result could be a form of defeat where the US could claim
victory, withdraw, and leave an Iraq that Iran could not easily exploit
and which/ might/ get better over time.
But, such a Shi'ite twist to the declared US strategy could also fail in
a number of critical ways:
· The Sunnis might keep resisting, and do so at a steadily more
popular level, seeing both the Iraqi government and the US as open
enemies. The ISF could divide and/or be far too weak to secure hostile
areas, and they US could not afford to fight a civil war on the Shi'ite
side, given the importance of its Sunni allies.
· Sadr may be far from a rational bargainer, as may many Shi'ite
militia elements and Shi'ites within the government. The US might have
to fight a much broader struggle than it can win, particularly since
such Shi'ite factions may well be able to outwait the US presence even
if they are defeated tactically.
· The Kurds may be too ambitious to compromise, or self-destruct
in dealing with the Turks. There is an old Kurdish saying that, "The
Kurds have no friends." The full statement should be: "The Kurds have no
friends, including the Kurds."
· Iran may be able to exploit the situation even if the Iraqi
government and US do cooperate in a de facto defeat the Sunni insurgent
strategy. Iran must now feel it can outwait the US, exploit US
unpopularity in many Shi'ite areas, and has every reason to be
· Iran wins to some degree even if it does not exploit the
situation. A Shi'ite dominated Iraq is going to need Iranian help and
support for years to come.
· Sunni governments may be willing to live with a Shi'ite
dominated Iraq, rather than face years of regional instability and war.
Sunni peoples may not, particularly if – is as certain – extremist
movements like Al Qa'ida exploit the struggle as an ideological and
One of the grim realities in the search for the "least bad" option, is
that even if the US can actually find the "least bad" option and make it
work, it will still be "bad."
Another key reality is that the US really is no longer in control even
of "Plan A;" the Iraqi government is. The British withdrawal plan may
simply be yet another warning that the real-world contingency is plan I
– one controlled and shaped by Iraq's internal power struggles.
Moreover, if the Bush Administration strategy does fail, virtually all
of the plans to come will be shaped by fighting and power struggles
between Iraqis where the US will have to respond to events shaped by
both enemies and "allies."
One of the lessons that both the Bush Administration and its various US
opponents and critics may still have to learn is that at a given level
of defeat, other actors control events. US discussions of alternative
plans and strategies may well be becoming largely irrelevant.