My assessment of the battle for Basra has changed significantly. I still think that, in the subjunctive conditional tense, it was a reasonable piece of analysis – al-Maliki needed to do something to start to establish his monopoly on violence within Iraq and I put material weight on his own seeming subjective assessment that he was politically and militarily strong enough to pull it off. But in the actual present tense, things are going the other way. (A disclaimer should certainly be appended at this point that this is all rather toward the punditry end of the spectrum rather than analysis so if that winds you up then skip it, but having picked that ball up I’m sort of committed to running with it).
John is right to be suspicious of this kind of “this looks like such a stupid idea that he must have some private information that explains it all” argument, and there was always the possibility that in fact, it just looked crazy because it was crazy – either a reckless desperation gamble, a wholly unrealistic assessment of the situation or a calculated attempt to precipitate enough of a crisis to force the USA to commit more resources. With the Maliki forces seemingly having made no progess toward their objective in Basra, and with rioting and curfews in Baghdad and actual armed battles in Kut, it looks like Maliki’s gamble is going badly wrong. Napoleon’s maxim is relevant here; “if you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna!” – having picked the fight, Maliki absolutely had to win it, and failure here is likely to mean political failure too.
It’s hard to see a good way out of this. John’s prediction record here is substantially better than mine, and he thinks that we settle back down to a lower-energy state of affairs, with some kind of renegotiated ceasefire, but I’m now less optimistic than that. It seems to me that Moqtada al-Sadr’s control over the movement bearing his name is weakening; the man himself is in Qom, Iran, studying Islamic scripture and trying to stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Mehdi Army has clearly been getting more and more restless over the six months of ceasefire and still seems to me to be potentially quite fissiparous. The really interesting question to which I don’t know the answer is; to what extent do the uprisings across Shia Iraq reflect different branches of the Mehdi Army supporting one another, and to what extent are they local flare-ups which were precipitated by the attack on Basra but not coordinated responses to it?
Finally, the use of airstrikes in urban areas is a tactic which is very difficult to either endorse or condone. It is needlessly destructive and almost never effective. And it creates homeless refugees. One thing we absolutely know from the African civil wars is that people who grow up in refugee camps tend to learn a violent pattern of behaviour; whether or not we are creating terrorists who will end up attacking us, the sheer proportion of the refugee population is very bad news for the future development of political stability in Iraq.
By the way, in my brief excursion onto “the pro war side” (as in, I was expressing a point of view which had the implication that the US troop surge might end up having favourable consequences – I note that something like my original post ended up being the Bush administration spin, although I swear I came up with it independently), I certainly learned something about the true nature of the anti-war opposition, however. Specifically, more or less everyone who had been my former comrade, continued to be perfectly polite to me and discussed the situation in a rational and civilized manner. A lot of people thought I was completely wrong in that analysis (I still think it was sensible and will defend bits and pieces of it, but I clearly missed the big picture) and said so, but I didn’t take it personally and am not thin-skinned, so there you go.
 It was sensibly objected to me in comments that I have in the past been rather harsh on “something must be done” type arguments. In this case, I thought an exception to the general rule was warranted, because it was a situation with a clear deadline – the beginning of US troop drawdown at the end of the surge, and this was enough to shift it from the “now or later” category into “now or never”.
 The alternative view is that Sadr’s claim that the ceasefire is still in force is a stratagem but I don’t believe this. Sadr’s actually much more of a politician than a soldier (and arguably more of a politician than an imam) and has a lot to lose from a collapse of the current government, not least that he would have to put his coalition
 Which used to be referred to as the “Mahdi Army”, and I think my pronunciation/spelling theory of geopolitics is relevant here.