Building and maintaining coalitions is one of the most difficult tasks of a nation at war. On the one hand, a state must ensure that its coalition partners share enough common goals and interests to ensure that their cooperation is effective. On the other hand, a state must constantly weigh the political and diplomatic benefits of maintaining its coalition against the price it must pay in terms of military effectiveness by delegating responsibility to others.
The price of maintaining coalitions is starkly exposed by the British military's failure to rein in radical Shi'ite forces and Iranian influence in Basra, Iraq's port city and oil hub. The question of whether having coalitions advances a nation's interests at all is brought to bear in Israel's diplomatic and strategic handling of its relations with the Palestinians and of the emerging situation in southern Lebanon.
Tuesday, a US intelligence official was quoted by the Washington Post saying, "The British have basically been defeated in the South." The Post article goes on to explain that the British "are abandoning their former headquarters at Basra Palace, where a recent official visitor from London described them as 'surrounded like cowboys and Indians' by militia fighters. An airport base outside the city, where a regional US Embassy office and Britain's remaining 5,500 troops are barricaded behind building-high sandbags, has been attacked with mortars or rockets nearly 600 times over the past four months."
The British defeat in Basra was eminently foreseeable. Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003, some 100,000 Iraqi exiles who had lived in Iran since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s entered the city. Under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, during their time in exile, these Iraqis had organized a number of militias, including the Badr Brigade, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party, as well as several smaller militias. Muqtada el-Sadr's Mahdi Army, although Iraq-based, was also supported by the Iranians.
These Iranian-backed forces were the most organized groups in the city in the chaos that engulfed Basra after the regime fell. Capitalizing on their organizational advantage, the groups volunteered to serve in the police and security services the British were raising to run the city. So it came to pass that within a short period of time, radical Shi'ite forces, backed by Iran, successfully took over Basra.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.
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