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Revisiting COIN in Basra
Glen Segell, 4/1/2010

The author of this article is an analyst currently in Kuwait; it reflects an important question arising from the Iraq conflict, and poses a question about culture and counterinsurgency operations (COIN) in Iraq’s third largest city – the southern port city of Basra, which is no stranger to conflict. During the early 20th Century Basra hosted British colonial forces; during the 1980s it was the site of major battles between Iranian and Iraqi forces in that decade’s prolonged war; and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and subsequent COIN operations it was constantly headlined.

COIN is normally a term for the armed conflict against an insurgency aligned with the recognized government of the territory in which the conflict takes place. In the main, the insurgents seek to destroy or erase the political authority of the defending authorities in a population they seek to control, and the counterinsurgent forces seek to protect that authority and reduce or eliminate the supplanting authority of the insurgents.

The arising question posed during these COIN operations was “who is the recognized government in the city of Basra?” This question arose to the dismay of the Pentagon when it was all too apparent by late 2006 that foreign intervention in Iraq, primarily from Iran, was ensuing in cities and regions not being under the authority of an elected government in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army, a bastion of Shiite militias that follow the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and that is directly under Teheran’s influence was militarily and politically controlling Basra. Even local businesses requiring permits often stated that they turned to Teheran for import/export permits rather than Baghdad.

By March 2008 Basra had become a target of the surge forces of the U.S. Military. The question then posed was whether or not this was a COIN operation or indeed a proxy war with Iran. Notwithstanding this the U.S. military persisted and brought a semblance of stability to the city. However on the withdrawal of U.S. and British forces it was clear that Teheran (Iran) was firmly in control of the daily social and economic life and activities of the population of the city of Basra firmly recognized as being within the borders of Iraq. No one questioned that the local police forces and government officials had also been infiltrated and were reporting to Teheran rather than to Baghdad. So was this COIN or not in reference to the U.S. military definitions?

Now in 2010 such questions about Basra and conflict with Iran once again arise since Iran is testing missiles and resisting international pressure on its uranium enrichment while the U.S. is bolstering allied defenses with PATRIOT missile batteries. Deliberations on the answer to the question of whether or not the U.S. has already entered a state of war with Iran through engagement of proxy Shiite forces in Basra lies in understanding the cities culture and indeed the strategic culture of such any situation.

The concept of strategic culture noted by such scholars as Colin Gray captures the essence of interstate behavior, by explaining it from the perspective of the national cultural traits.[1]

This approach is relevant to the proxy conflict in Basra because it serves as a palliative to a more traditional approach of interest-based theories such as Waltzian neorealism that focus on direct inter-state conflicts. This view quoted from the school of thought following the international-relations scholar, Kenneth Waltz.[2]

Such philosophizing is important as this viewpoint contends and concludes that a deeper analysis of past COIN operations in Basra from the angle of culture is one way of showing that Teheran is firmly intending to engage the U.S. and its allies in the direct support of proxy forces and indeed the support of terrorist organizations.

This is apparent in the provision of a social, economic, political and military umbrella, maybe even a nuclear umbrella to cities such as Basra in another sovereign state. This is also apparent in considering terrorist organizations that Iran actively supports, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed it may be stated that Iran and the U.S. are thus engaged in a proxy war on this front.

Having posed the situation here, it remains for in-depth scholarly research to tackle the issues and present the findings both theoretically and empirically. It is of extreme relevance for policy-makers to contemplate how to handle culture as a variable in any conflict situation, especially with regards to COIN and counter-terrorism.

About the Author

Dr. Glen Segell is Director of the London Security Policy Study. He has over 200 publications, and was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand, Hebrew University, King’s College London, Trinity College, and Canterbury University.


1. Colin Gray, “Strategic Culture as Context: The First Generation of Theory Strikes Back,” Review of International Studies 25, No. 1 (January 1999), 49-69

2. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1979.


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