The New York Times, desperate to re-energise the flagging drumbeat of bad news from Iraq, continues to obsess about the shortcomings, both real and imagined, in the performance of Iraqi forces who battled Shia militias in Basra and elsewhere last week. Today's report begins:
More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week, a senior Iraqi government official said Thursday. Iraqi military officials said the group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle.
The desertions in the heat of a major battle cast fresh doubt on the effectiveness of the American-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further withdrawals of American troops on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.
As is usually the case with New York Times stories, once you read beyond those eye-catching first couple of paragraphs the story slowly starts to come apart – decompose would be a better term, and also an apposite metaphor for journalistic ethics at the Times.
The desertions were mostly in the ranks rather than among officers. They represented a fraction of the forces committed to the fight, and may were the result of simple fear or inexperience rather than anything more sinister. Maliki has promised to deal with them harshly. The Times report adds:
The American military official said, “From what we understand, the bulk of these were from fairly fresh troops who had only just gotten out of basic training and were probably pushed into the fight too soon.”
“There were obviously others who elected to not fight their fellow Shia,” the official said, but added that the coalition did not see the failures as a “major issue,” especially if the Iraqi government dealt firmly with them.
The story here is not the understandable shortcomings of the Iraqi military, but the fact that they've come so far in such a short time, and under such testing circumstances. So yet again we have to ask: where is the Times going with this?
Well for one thing, they never tire of emphasising that the Iraqi forces are 'American-trained'. As I wrote in a piece for Pajamas Media about an earlier NYT story on Basra:
For most observers the fact that the Iraqi forces have been trained by American (and British) troops has no bearing whatsoever on the events in Basra, but the Times considers it noteworthy enough for the opening line of the story, and the implication is clear: all that American training has failed to lick the Iraqi army into shape, or, even worse it’s actually a contributing factor to the failure of government forces to subdue the insurgents.
And anyway, how can the Times say that the desertions 'cast fresh doubt' on the effectiveness of Iraqi forces? The Times has already cast so much doubt on their effectiveness that there can't possibly be any 'fresh' doubt left to cast.
While last week's clashes were, in the Times' words, 'inconclusive', few serious observers doubt that both Maliki and the Iraqi army emerged with their reputation enhanced, while Moqtada Sadr was further exposed as a puppet of Iran unable to control his own militias.
For some genuinely insightful and informed analysis as to who won and who lost, rather than the boilerplate offered by the Times' reporters and their anti-government Iraqi stringers, I recommend you read this blog post by Nibras Kazimi. Kazimi is a Hudson Institute scholar and New York Sun columnist, and he's also an Iraqi who's increasingly optimistic about his country's future, and has excellent connections there. His hugely encouraging conclusion:
It is unfortunate that what little news the American public gets to see and read about Iraq gets so distorted by the neurotic contortions of a handful of maladjusted, misinformed journalists. This active disinformation will further confuse those uppity congressmen who’ve made running Iraq from afar their business, and may even sway elections one way or another. But the regular readers of this blog will know that such mistaken perceptions and the actions they may entail no longer worry me, since I see very little that America could do to alter realities in Iraq proper, realities that I find encouraging. Sure, Americans could make things even better had they had the chance to see why Iraq is so worthwhile, but for that to happen integrity would have to be reintroduced into the profession of journalism—don’t hold your breaths. For now, I’d settle for how things are developing on their own accord.
Incidentally, one of the commenters posted a link to a photo of hundreds of Shias queuing up to join the Iraqi military in Basra, which Ace of Spades posted here.
You might think the Times would be talking up the performance of the Iraqi military, eager as it claims to be for US forces to leave Iraq. But a US withdrawal on its own terms, leaving behind a capable Iraqi government and military and a relatively stable country, would be a spectacular defeat for the Times, and for all those who have invested so much in America failure there.
The Times' efforts to spin continuing progress in Iraq as failure are becoming increasingly desperate. Aside from the Times' own staff, Obama and Hillary, no one's listening any more. Its behaviour reminds me of how, when I was younger, I would resort to increasingly desperate measures in an attempt to win back some girl who had very obviously dumped me.
Just as I used to think ‘Hey, I’ll make her a really moving compilation tape! That'll do it!' The Times seems to think that reporting on how a whole Iraq infantry platoon put their boots on the wrong feet will finally convince those who remain committed to victory in Iraq to abandon all hope.
I'm not even angry at the Times any more. It's just pathetic.
Related: Two months of higher casualties in Iraq, and the BBC declares a 'trend'.