Iraq: Lessons of Basra Battle

The outcome of the Battle of Basra is still unclear. But as things stabilize in that critical city—the southern gateway to Iraq's oil wealth—Basra may well turn out to be Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Kasserine Pass. That notorious battle, which took place in Tunisia in late February 1943, marked the first large-scale encounter between untested American troops and the battle-hardened Germans. The Americans, to put it mildly, did not do well. But they quickly fired incompetent commanders, adjusted in tactics, and never lost another major battle. In Basra the nascent Iraqi Army—also riddled with incompetence and self-doubt—actually came out looking better against Iraq's well-established militias than the American Army had 65 years earlier against the entrenched Nazis, says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "At Kasserine we got our asses kicked. These people didn't," McCaffrey says.

Despite a spate of early grim assessments of Basra in the U.S. media, U.S. military observers on the ground in Iraq are more sanguine, says McCaffrey, who has long been a critic of the war. Yes, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has held on to its weapons and much of its turf. But Iraqi forces appear to be largely in control of the city and its ports, and Basra is still mostly calm. Even more important, the Iraqi security forces have remained mostly intact. Rather than bolting or deserting in droves, as happened so many times in the past, only in relatively small numbers did some Iraqis desert to the other side, McCaffrey told me. That's a big step forward. "On balance it appears as if the Iraqi security forces for the first time stepped up, largely independently of the United States, and tried to establish law and order in the most important city in the country save Baghdad," says McCaffrey, who recently canvassed top U.S. military commanders in Iraq.

If McCaffrey's assessment of the Battle of Basra holds—and we won't really know for months whether it does—it suggests something even more important. With proper equipment, artillery, armor and medical evacuation (medevac) units—and the United States acting as its air force—the Iraqi Army could actually begin to develop enough competence to permit a larger drawdown of American ground forces soon. If so, the Iraqi security forces will need a lot more help. Currently they have only a handful of light armored vehicles, three C-130 transport planes, and none of their own medevac units. Washington, for understandable reasons, has been reluctant to fully equip an army that for a long time was thought to be a cover for Shiite militia sympathizers or a breeding ground for civil war. But a success in Basra—a Shiite-dominated national army willing to bloodily suppress Shiite militias—might put many doubters in Congress and in the Pentagon over the threshold. As Meghan O'Sullivan, who recently retired as President Bush's deputy national security adviser, told me Thursday, "This is a bit where we'd like to see things go in the future. A year and a half ago we'd be talking about [the Iraqi government] sending a force from somewhere in the north and them not showing up."

There is another lesson here as well. If the Iraqi Army proves to be somewhat able to act on its own, and the central government gains the legitimacy it has been so sorely lacking, an actual U.S. exit strategy could begin to emerge. Indeed, it is even possible to imagine a bipartisan consensus on bringing the country to stability—and leaving. Currently the Democrats in Barack Obama's camp and the Republicans led by John McCain could not be further apart. Obama has decided Iraq is a lost cause and called for a pullout of one to two brigades a month. McCain has indicated he would stay indefinitely.

Much of the reason for that huge divide—apart from the politics of getting elected president—is the fact that post-surge U.S. troops remain on the front lines in Baghdad. Even with the planned drawdown to pre-surge levels of 140,000 troops or so, whoever becomes president in 2009 will find that the political will in this country for maintaining such a large U.S. ground force in Iraq is extremely limited. With 4,000 dead and counting, our nation can't stomach many more casualties. And the strain on the U.S. Army in terms of long deployments is almost unbearable. But if the U.S. role could quickly devolve to air support, equipping, advising and training, then we could achieve both Obama's goal of a swift ground pullout and McCain's goal of a long-term U.S. stabilizing presence.

The U.S. air support role has been emerging for some time. Washington has little intention of allowing the Iraqi national government to create a full-scale air force. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration asked for more than $1.7 billion for new military construction in Iraq in fiscal '07, a huge jump from the $200 million it requested for fiscal '06. Much of that money is being spent on U.S. air bases like Balad, north of Baghdad. "One of the issues of sovereignty for any country is the ability to control their own airspace. We will probably be helping the Iraqis with that problem for a very long time," the then-base commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, told me when I was last there two years ago this month. Whatever you think about the start of the Iraq war, if the Iraqi Army starts performing, a practicable bipartisan pullout strategy could start to take shape.