Over the weekend, I’ve only been able to keep up on press reports sporadically. But what caught my eye over the last two days was the failure to take the southern city of Basra. It made me think that things weren’t going quite as well as the initial reports implied.
Now, in this case, it’s very important to give some context to words like ‘failure’ or things going better or worse than expected. Over the last year I’ve spoken to many US military planners. And what’s happened so far seems well within the range of what they considered expected outcomes. It’s only that the best case scenario does not so far seem to be materializing.
Let’s take Basra first. Part of the lightning approach the US is following here is to set everything aside in pursuit of getting to Baghdad and decapitating the regime. On that thinking, it’s fine just to seal off Basra — and its military capabilities — and move on to Baghdad. One needs to be sure that it’s sufficiently secured so as not to allow Iraqi units to circle back and attack the relatively vulnerable US supply lines on the way to Baghdad. But that’s probably not too big a worry. The Iraqi Army’s real bite, if it has one, is going to be in defensive actions, particularly in urban settings. The issue is not that Basra’s resistance is a problem in itself. It’s what it may portend for Baghdad, Tikrit and other Iraqi cities.
Basra is in heavily Shi’a southern Iraq. And it’s garrisoned by the regime’s least reliable troops. So if the regime’s military were going to fold quickly or be overwhelmed by restive civilians, you’d expect it to be there. The fact that it hasn’t makes it much less likely that that sort of happy outcome will happen in Sunni central Iraq, among the Special Republican Guards, Saddam’s Tikriti tribesmen, and others closely associated with the regime. In short, Saddam seems to have a good number of troops who are willing to fight and die for what appears to be a doomed regime.
Here’s a key passage from an article in today’s Washington Post …
The Iraqis holding out in Basra are members of the Iraqi army’s 51st Division, not the elite Republican Guard who have been moved to defend Baghdad and were expected to put up the stiffest resistance the U.S.-led invasion. That regular soldiers have stood so long and fought has surprised some who were predicting that Basra could be taken on the first day of fighting, to provide the American-led coalition a quick victory and deliver an early psychological blow to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Now, the failure of a rapid capitulation in Basra doesn’t necessarily mean the Basrans want to fight the US soldiers. It may mean there is a sprinkling of Republican Guards and still-fearsome security forces in the city who have been able to keep a reign of terror in place which has prevented any slide toward capitulation. In a sense, though, the fact is more important than the ‘why.’
This is why the uniformed military wanted to do this operation with a massive number of US troops (as we do have there now) rather than pursuing the so-called ‘Afghan model.’ It was always possible that the regime would just fold. But if it didn’t, they wanted to have on hand overwhelming force to crush such resistance very quickly.