Commentary Magazine


One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

An interesting article appeared in the Sunday New York Times updating developments in Basra. Things are not going so well in this large city in southern Iraq, where various Shiite militias are battling one another for control of political power, oil, and various criminal enterprises.

The British had prided themselves for years on having a better approach than their more heavy-handed American counterparts to counterinsurgency, but, lo and behold, four years into the war, the trends seem more positive in Anbar than in Basra.

What went wrong?

A recent military visitor from Iraq posited that the British tried a mild peacekeeping approach in an environment that instead called for a tough counterinsurgency strategy. As the Times’s Stephen Ferrell notes, “the British-led coalition forces have adopted a far less aggressive and interventionist stance than American troops have farther north.” That approach seemed to work initially because there wasn’t much violence, but it came at a cost. As Farrell writes, “critics accuse the British of simply allowing the Shiite militias free rein to carry out their intolerant Islamist agenda, which involved killing merchants who sell alcohol, driving out Christians and infiltrating state institutions and the security forces.”

Now the militias are feeling their oats and the British are feeling under siege. The palace in Basra that serves as their headquarters has become one of the most-mortared positions in all of Iraq—according to the Times, the troopers call it the “worst palace in the world.”

The British difficulties have been exacerbated by their well-publicized decision to reduce their troop levels in Iraq, and to pull back from the center of Basra to a compound located outside of town. Far from placating the armed gangs, the British decision has only emboldened them. Everyone, it seems, is determined to get a last lick in—no doubt trying to establish “anti-colonial” bona fides in the coming struggle for power.

There is a lesson to be learned here by advocates of an American troop drawdown. Even if the drawdown were to be only partial, it could easily get out of hand by creating the perception that we’re on the way out and can be attacked with impunity. As Napoleon said, “In war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the actual balance of forces only for the other quarter.” If we set a withdrawal timetable, the moral balance will tip against us even faster than the actual balance of forces—with deadly consequences.

We can avoid that problem by sticking with the “surge,” which, as another Times article notes, is working. This one is an op-ed written by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who have just returned from Iraq with a glowing report on all the progress that General David Petraeus and his soldiers are making. Pollack and O’Hanlon echo the sense of cautious optimism that I have been feeling for the past several months. That’s pretty significant coming from two Democratic analysts who, as they note, “have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.”

A White House official has labeled their article “significant, and possibly climate-changing.” Let’s hope that’s the case.