The Great Green Zone Freak-Out of ‘08
Michael R. Gordon is a careful and sensible reporter and his front-page article in the New York Times today accurately reflects the panic that seized America’s Green Zone honchos when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unleashed Operation Cavalry Charge on March 25.
It is also an early vindication of Talisman Gate’s take on that sense of panic among the diplomats, spies and military brass who populate the Green Zone. The [NYTimes] article does not quote or reference a single Iraqi source.
This is how Gordon’s write-up begins:
Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker first learned of the Iraqi plan on Friday, March 21: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would be heading to Basra with Iraqi troops to bring order to the city.I would like to dispute this assertion for the historical record: although it is almost certain that Gordon is citing Crocker as the source on this timeline, but I believe Crocker is not being entirely truthful since what I’ve heard has it that Crocker and the other top American officials in the Green Zone only knew of Maliki’s presence in Basra after the fact. They knew an operation was being planned for but they did not realize that Maliki would lead it himself along with his war cabinet.
Highlighting the panic and the confusion of the Crocker-Petraeus crew is this telling quote:
“Nothing was in place from our side,” he added. “It all had to be put together.”This is how I put it on March 28:
The other reason why so many have gone so negative is that nobody really knows what’s going on. To start with, the Americans don’t know Basra all that well having had subcontracted handling things down there to the feckless Brits…Gordon’s piece grudgingly gives some credit to the Iraqis:
…Moreover, it seems that there was very little joint Iraqi-American coordination going into Operation Cavalry Charge...
The operation indicates that the Iraqi military can quickly organize and deploy forces over considerable distances. Two Iraqi C-130s and several Iraqi helicopters were also involved in the operation, an important step for a military that is still struggling to develop an air combat ability.But also highlights the grudges of “a wide range of American and military officials” who:
...suggest that Mr. Maliki overestimated his military’s abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. The Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that of his most powerful allies, the American and British military, time to prepare.By that measure, the U.S. military has been overestimating its own capabilities and underestimating the scale of the resistance all throughout the five years it has taken to quell the insurgency.
“He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet’s nest, and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for,” said one official in the multinational force in Baghdad who requested anonymity. “They went in with 70 percent of a plan. Sometimes that’s enough. This time it wasn’t.”
The Americans were planning for something else:
But the Iraqi operation was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived.This was the Iraqi take on it as voiced to me on March 25:
…a detailed plan was being developed by American and Iraqi officials, which involved the establishment of combat outposts in the city and the deployment of Iraqi SWAT teams, Iraqi Special Forces and Interior Ministry units, as well as Iraqi brigades.
Today, the Iraqi Army launched its first major military operation to fully control Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, without any—ANY—Coalition assistance. One source tells me that during the preparation phase of this campaign the Americans offered to position some U.S. Special Forces and air-cover near the Basra battle theater to act as back-up if needed but their Iraqi counterparts planning this operation politely turned down the offer.Some Iraqi officers, headed by the Deputy Chief of Staff, had worked on this Iraqi-American plan that is being referred to by Gordon and they were miffed when Maliki went with an alternative plan laid out by the Army’s point man in Basra General Mohan al-Freiji. These disgruntled Iraqi officers were sounding off during the first days of the offensive but have now gone quiet, opting to join the winning side.
Gordon also writes about the American overreaction that followed the sense of panic:
...the United States mounted an intensive military and political effort to try to turn around the situation, according to accounts by Mr. Crocker and several American military officials in Baghdad and Washington who spoke on condition of anonymityOperation ‘Rescue Maliki’ was very meager indeed since it was limited to this much:
Two senior American military officers — a member of the Navy Seals and a Marine major general — were sent to Basra to help coordinate the Iraqi planning, the military officials said. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were pressed into service as combat advisers while air controllers were positioned to call in airstrikes on behalf of beleaguered Iraqi units. American transport planes joined the Iraqis in ferrying supplies to Iraqi troops.The truth of the matter is that the American military and diplomatic machine was not lean or quick enough to deliver anything more that these slim pickings. In fact, it seems that there was a scramble to gather the most basic intelligence information about Basra—such as differentiating between the good guys and the bad guys down there—even at this late stage of U.S. involvement.
This is how I described the overreaction on March 29:
The other storyline, and the one coming of Washington and the U.S. military in Baghdad, is that Maliki is in over his head and that “we”—that is the Americans—must step in to save him. Never mind that official Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is clueless about what’s going on down there; such admitted ignorance does not alter the sentiment that Maliki is this little kid who somehow got himself into a lot of trouble and it’s up to Petraeus to bail him out. This storyline has been consistently fed into The Washington Post over the last few days, with an emphasis that in no way is Operation Cavalry Charge an independent Iraqi operation. What does the WaPo cite as evidence? A couple of airstrikes and a team of U.S. military observers who are performing absolutely no combat duties in Basra, that’s all but it is enough to make the assertion that had it not been for Americans then Maliki would have sunk even deeper. The Brits are quick to assert too that they are in the game too by holding the hands of the Iraqis. This is called infantilism and it would make sense had the Iraqis [not] thought that American and the British help is more of a burden than a relief.Another aspect of the Green Zone gripe sprung from a sense that the timing was politically inconvenient back in Washington:
Petraeus is also preparing a push of military and logistical aid onto Maliki that the latter has not asked for. Expect more tensions to arise, and more DC officials resorting to trash-talking Maliki’s intransigence, which a couple of weeks ago meant he wasn’t quick enough on the ball but today it means that he is doing too much on his own.
For the Americans, the timing was not good. The American military had little interest in seeing a hastily conceived operation that might open a new front and tempt Mr. Sadr to annul his cease-fire, which had contributed to the striking reduction in attacks over the past several months. Mr. Crocker and General Petraeus were also scheduled to testify to Congress the next month on the fragile political and security gains achieved in Iraq.This is how I had put it on Day 1:
Those counseling caution and delay stressed that smashing Sadrist-related criminal cartels would spark a large-scale Sadrist reaction across Iraq at a time when the Bush administration wants to keep Iraq quiet especially with the ‘4000’ milestone that was being approached and got passed a couple of days ago. Another argument against action counseled that the Iranians are angling for a fire-fight to sully any talk of progress that Gen. Petraeus may give in a couple of weeks when he appears before Congress, and that the Democrats and their allies in the US media would take these images out of Basra and elsewhere and package the news as a “security meltdown”…And:
…Maliki decided that he doesn’t give a damn about US presidential elections and that the only timeline that concern him are Iraq’s own upcoming elections...
Maliki is pretending to have all the time in the world, while the Bush administration is all flustered over Petraeus’ upcoming day before Congress. Petraeus does not want to be burdened with negative headlines…and he certainly doesn’t like the fact that Maliki is running the show down in Basra without his input. Thus Maliki’s actions imperil Petraeus’ political standing while the latter can’t do a thing to curb the former…Gordon also reports on the role that airborne logistics played in the operation:
…Petraeus was hoping to do Mosul next, that is before Basra, so that he can tell Congress that he’s defeated Al-Qaeda, but to do that he would need the Iraqi Army divisions now engaged in Basra.
The Iraqis, however, also began to fly in supplies and troops using their two C-130s. More than 500 Iraqi replacement soldiers were moved by air while an additional brigade was sent by ground. The Iraqis also flew Huey and Hip multimission helicopters.I called this one out at the time:
It seems that much of the logistics for Operation Cavalry Charge were delivered through an airlift by the Iraqi Air Force because the military planners assumed that the outlaws would mine transportation routes in and out of Basra with IEDs. According to one source briefed on the campaign’s logistics, the Iraqi Army in Basra (…I think we’re talking about 3 Divisions that are in this fight) is amply supplied and overstocked with food, ammunition and spare parts, indicating that the planners are foreseeing a long campaign.Gordon then adds that buying tribal and communal allegiance was Crocker’s idea:
Taking a page out of the American counterinsurgency doctrine, the United States encouraged the Iraqis to distribute aid and mount job programs to try to win over the Basra population.This is another disingenuous claim being made by Crocker since by the time the Americans had drawn-up lists of who could be counted on for support against the criminal cartels in Basra, Maliki had already met and expended his largesse on many of them:
“We strongly encouraged him to use his most substantial weapon, which is money, to announce major jobs programs, Basra cleanup, whatnot,” Mr. Crocker said. “And to do what he decided to do on his own: pay tribal figures to effectively finance an awakening for Basra.”
Maliki has given slots to the major tribal chiefs to recruit soldiers and policemen, for example, the sheikhs of the Bani Tamim tribe were given 950 jobs in the Interior Ministry. These are 950 families that will begin to draw a salary from the Iraqi state—no wonder the cartels are turning to dust when faced with the resources that Maliki has at his discretion.The Americans are also conveniently forgetting that the tribal alliance that started it all, Sattar Abu Risha’s outfit in Ramadi, was financed and supported by Maliki even before the Americans had wizened up to its uses and turned on their own spigot of funds and benevolence.
This is the point of Gordon’s piece as I see it: the Americans had infantilized the Iraqis, and had reacted to Operation Cavalry Charge much like a panicked parent that's just realized that his kid had screwed off the trainer wheels and consequently had then fallen off his bike and scraped his knee. The Green Zone's clucking hens got freaked out and they went scurrying about trying to find the nearest Emergency Room while the kid simply stood up, shrugged the hurt off and got back on his bike.
Longtime readers of Talisman Gate will know that I’ve counseled against hyping-up the capabilities and characters of both Crocker and Petraeus. I understand that simplified narratives need hero figures and both these guys conveniently fit the bill, but this blog directs itself toward thinking people who worry about lessons learnt and how to apply them to the challenges ahead rather than sinking towards the lowest common denominator of “We’re No. 1”. Crocker and Petraeus panicked and overreacted and in their confusion and fright contributed to the negativity surrounding Operation Cavalry Charge, a negativity that only now is being countered at the strategic level by cooler and more rational heads.
Today, one of the most dangerous of Basra’s crime cartels was broken-up, one with an alleged direct connection to high-level officers in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard: Yusuf Seenawi, the head of the Tha’r Allah “Allah’s Revenge” movement was picked on an outstanding arrest warrant going back to 2006. This cartel was particularly influential in Basra’s port area and Seenawi, who led a particularly brutal and politically-connected gang, would saunter around Basra without being the least bit worried by the numerous warrants for his arrest.
Seenawi’s Allah’s Revenge organization is indicative of how criminality and politics mesh in a lawless place like Basra. Most of these cartels have at their core family and clan bonds giving them cohesion and brute force, and they then establish horizontal and vertical links with political power—either acting directly or by enacting partnerships—through sharing the loot with others. One estimate, which I find a bit overblown although it comes from a knowledgeable source, has it that up to 400,000 barrels of oil go “missing” in Basra every day and end-up smuggled to Iran or the United Arab Emirates. This source estimates that the various crime cartels kick-up at least a million dollars to the Sadrist movement per day, making Basra the crown jewel of the Sadrist ‘fundraising’ machine.
Maliki, for his own purposes, was vocal in his musings earlier today that certain areas of Baghdad such as Sadr City need an Operation Cavalry Charge of their own. Maliki seems confident and this confidence is reflected in the smiling faces and good cheers throughout the halls of the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.
Not exactly the kind of rhetoric and behavior one would associate with the losing side.
Just a few days ago, the Sadrists were saying that the Iraqi Army and police were defecting to their ranks en mass, and this unsubstantiated account was eaten-up by the reporters on the scene (…it should be noted that even at this late hour and with the situation being much calmer, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has a ‘bylined’ reporter covering events in Basra). The Ministry of Interior has conceded that it will be punishing 550 officers and policemen for either defecting or abdicating their duties—hardly an ‘en mass’ breakdown. But today, the Sadrists are sounding a different note: they are saying that Maliki “is fighting us with Sunni troops” and that the majority of military divisions and police units involved in the fight were comprised entirely of Dulaim tribesmen from Anbar. Many Sadrist leaders also seem very weepy about civilian casualties, asking whoever would listen to “pity the children” of the hard-hit areas. Uncharacteristically, these leaders seem very conciliatory nowadays towards whoever they’ve managed to alienate over the years.
Not exactly the kind of rhetoric and behavior one would associate with the winning side.
Even the Washington Post has picked up on these contradictions in its editorial today, saying “the judgment by some Western analysts that the cease-fire was a triumph for the Mahdi Army seems premature”, adding “But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction”.
Operation Cavalry Charge is still in full effect and Maliki is brazenly saying that he hasn’t signed a ceasefire with anyone. He’s still out to arrest the criminals on his Most Wanted list, according to the press conference he held today in which he suggested that Sadr City too needed a clean-up.
The Sadrists have called for a ‘March of Millions’ next Wednesday to protest America’s presence in Iraq. Government spokesmen have already said that a peaceful protest is perfectly fine with them but that any violence will be met with overpowering violence.
Stay tuned for grossly exaggerated estimates by western reporters of the numbers attending these rallies where these same western reporters will likely be the most animated of activists.