Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies has some sobering analysis in this report entitled "The British Defeat in the South and the Uncertain Bush Strategy in Iraq: Oil Spots, Ink Blots, White Space, or Pointlessness?"
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.
Cordesman continues to explain that the South has fallen under the control of Shiite Islamic extremists and is not under the control of the central Baghdad government:
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.
Efforts at building the Iraqi army and police in the south have also backfired:
The Iraqi forces that Britain helped create in the area were little more than an extension of Shi'ite Islamist control by other means. The Iraqi police in areas like Basra became another part of the problem, rather than the solution, with extensive police operations against Sunnis.
The British experience has sobering implications for the new strategy embarked upon by the US in Baghdad (more below the fold):
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.
Vice President Cheney doesn't share Cordesman's pessimistic portrayal of events in the South as shown in this ABC interview:
"Well, I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well. In fact, I talked to a friend just the other day who had driven to Baghdad down to Basra, seven hours, found the situation dramatically improved from a year or so ago, sort of validated the British view they had made progress in southern Iraq and that they can therefore reduce their force levels."
Cheney's spin on the British withdrawal from Basra could provide a hint of the Bush administration's master political strategy with regard to Iraq. If the current surge of operations is capable of restoring some measure of order in Baghdad the administration may simply claim that the US has "won" and that we can start bringing our troops home just in time for the 2008 campaign. Journalists who will still be too terrified to travel outside of Baghdad will be unable to report on the situation in the countryside where the various militias and insurgent groups are likely to strengthen their positions while US forces are focused on Baghdad. Nightly television news programs in the US won't have as much grisly footage of bombings and violence to run.
The administration will then turn on critics of the "surge" with a vengeance and claim that they would have "lost" the war if they had had their way. In essence, the administration will redefine "victory" in Baghdad the same way Cheney is rewriting the facts about the British retreat from Basra. Administration spin may be completely disconnected from reality but it could have the effect of averting what is certain disaster for Republicans in the 2008 elections if things remain as they are now.
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