The Washington Post has a front-page story on the situation in Basra, the main city in southern Iraq, where Britain has taken the lead with respect to security. According to the Post, things have deteriorated significantly since the British have pulled back. Because Basra is in the Shiite south, there is basically no Sunni-Shia violence. However, at least three Shiite factions apparently are “locked in a bloody conflict that has left the city in the hands of militias and criminal gangs, whose control extends to municipal offices and neighborhood streets.” Indeed, a recent report by the International Crisis Group claims that the city is plagued by “the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendetta, neighborhood vigilantism. . .together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors.” The Post quotes unnamed U.S. officials who agree with the general tenor of this narrative.
Assuming that the Post’s report is accurate, the Basra experience provides arguments for both sides of the Iraq debate. On one hand, it strongly suggests that a substantial diminution of American force levels in Baghdad, for example, would lead quickly to general deterioration, including extremely intense sectarian violence. On the other hand, the Basra experience seems to show that even in an area of ethnic homogeneity, stability achieved through the efforts of foreign forces (Basra used to be considered a success story) is unlikely to survive the withdrawal of these forces. This means that, to prevent deterioration, the U.S. would probably have to remain substantially engaged in places like Baghdad for many years.
Ultimately, these appear to be the real choices — chaos or long-term engagement on a large scale. In Basra, Britain may have made the right call. In-fighting among Shiite militias arguably does not pose the kind of security risk to Britain or the U.S. that would justify years of additional occupation. In places like Baghdad and Anbar province, the calculus is probably different. However, I doubt that the American public will support a substantial troop commitment on a long term basis to any part of Iraq.
UPDATE: It may well be that the U.S. is paying more attention than the Brits did to building relationships and structures that might promote stability even after the bulk of our armed forces have left. But it’s very far from clear that we can build structures any time soon that will hold up to the whirlwind of sectarian politics in a place like Baghdad if we draw down.
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