Home/Daniel Larison/On the Meltdown in Basra

On the Meltdown in Basra

This would be admirable if it were true. But we are not providing security in southern Iraq. The rescue mission to free two undercover soldiers from the clutches of local gunmen was a measure of how anarchic Basra has become. The police ignored both the Army and their own national government when requested to hand the men over, preferring to pass them on to one of the Shia militias which effectively control the place.

The population is at the mercy of the men from the Badr Brigades, military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mahdi Army, who follow the radical religious leader Moqtada al Sadr.

Civil society has failed to put down any roots in the 30 months since the invasion. Local institutions are hollow. The chief of police admitted recently that he can trust only half his men. No wonder the duo apparently shot first and asked questions later when they ran into a checkpoint. ~Patrick Bishop, The Daily Telegraph

Recent events in Basra should make it plain to the British people that their soldiers will not be able to play at peacekeepers in southern Iraq any longer, and that their soldiers are seen as an occupying army and, what it worse, as a weak occupying army that has long since abdicated its role of providing order, making the soldiers a target of both the militias and the ordinary inhabitants. If the ‘coalition’ (that is, America and Britain) were to make a go of the “nation-building” and the even more implausible “democracy-building” (the two are not the same thing, and much of the so-called thinking on the subject has muddled the two with painful regularity), it could not pretend that the Badr brigades or Mahdi Army were tolerable substitutes for maintaining proper order.

But the ‘coalition’ it has had to live with this fiction to avoid seeming too neo-colonialist and to avoid, in the case of the Badr brigades, the hostility of their political wing, SCIRI, and their masters in Tehran. Confrontation with these groups has little public backing at home, as the absurdity of killing still more Iraqis for their own good will embarrass most of the last holdouts of the War Party, and accommodation with them combined with continued occupation has become impractical and dangerous.

Mr. Bishop’s proposal for announcing an exit strategy and then proceeding to undertake two years of “reforming” the security forces, to somehow divorce them from the militias after they have had two years to become solidly enmeshed together, is folly. Westerners frequently talk of depriving or lending Iraqis insurgents and militiamen legitimacy by some policy decision that the government might make (I confess to having advanced this same oversimplified argument on more than a few occasions), but the real dilemma is that the insurgents and militiamen have no need of the political legitimacy our continued presence probably does lend them. They will not becomes less of a real-world political force, based on armed force, because their initial reason for being has disappeared, and to this extent any antiwar arguments that have claimed this have also been engaged in a certain wishful thinking. Neither, however, can their real-world political power be stripped from them by anything so empty and vague as “reforming” the security services. Neither can they be dislodged from their positions of power without significant casualties and a widening and escalation of the insurgency with potentially explosive international implications. Realists acknowledge when some problems, lacking practical solutions, are no longer really problems–the militias, by turns criminal and fanatical, control southern Iraq because they were the organisations that were always going to dominate southern Iraq in the event of Hussein’s overthrow.

“Civil society” has not put down roots because, as educated and cultured as some Iraqis might be, civil society requires authority that can constrain violent action and make something approaching public discourse possible. But all of these terms are simply absurd in the context modern Iraq–there is no public, nor is there any public space, because these very concepts or their equivalents mean nothing in southern Iraq today, and there can really be no civil society where these things are lacking. For the foreseeable future the only likely authorities to rule in southern Iraq are Islamic clerics and their associated militias, and that is something that will not be fixed, as neither the American nor British public wants to support the sort of effort necessary to “fix” it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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