Skip to comments.We Were Right to Disband Them
Posted on 12/23/2004 4:58:55 PM PST by Voice in your head
One of the enduring controversies of the American experience in Iraq has been the decision to disband Saddam's army after toppling his regime. Current conventional wisdom holds that this was a huge mistake which accelerated the breakdown of order in Iraq. The trouble we're experiencing building new and effective Iraqi forces is taken as obvious proof of this truth. Plus, a bonus of the conventional wisdom is that it conveniently places the blame on Ambassador Paul Bremer, who has stepped down from his post and departed the immediate scene.
President Bush's frank assessment of the current state of Iraqi security forces at his press conference would seem to reinforce this argument. At last accepting that the simple size of the Iraqi force--formally 114,000 today--wasn't the real measure of effectiveness, the president acknowledged that, while there were some good leaders and a number of units that were performing well, "the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place." Bush even earned kudos from the editorialists at the New York Times for being "admirably blunt" in confronting this "sobering reality."
It is undeniable that building effective Iraqi security forces is a tough task. But the very difficulty of the job is, if nothing else, a measure of how broken Saddam's army itself was. The old Iraqi army's sole claim to competence was its performance in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. For many years, that impressed American intelligence and military analysts, but their assessment rested on a poor understanding of the facts on the ground and a comparison with an Iranian army whose tactics were built on human wave attacks by troops inspired with religious fervor and mullah-strategists inspired by a lust for power.
The true qualities of the old Iraqi army were more fully revealed--"exposed" might be a better word--during its extended encounter with U.S. forces in the first Gulf War, the no-fly-zone operations of the 1990s, and the invasion of March 2003. It's hard to think of a more one-sided and less distinguished record of human combat; it puts Omdurman in the shade. Most notable is that, in something like 300,000 no-fly-zone sorties, the United States and its coalition partners--remember when France was on our side?--lost not a single aircraft. American forces routinely lose people in training accidents because of the stress of realistic exercises; Iraqi performance was less than training "opposing forces," who, of course, have no live ammunition.
If Saddam's army proved a paper tiger against the U.S. military, it was moderately more capable in its ability to massacre Iraqi civilians. With its Sunni-dominated officer corps, the old security forces were a symbol of the violence that Saddam's minority rule visited upon the Kurds and Shia. Not surprisingly, then, the old army's command structure was picked much more for its Baath party membership and personal loyalty to Saddam than its discipline or competence. It's not just that we would have had to replace a lot of rotten generals after the invasion, it is that the entire structure was rotten to the core.
Our troubles in building competent military and paramilitary forces ought more properly to remind us how truly revolutionary our purpose in Iraq and in the region really are. In fact, there were no legitimate state institutions in Iraq--civil or military. There was no significant body of "technocrats" who, with proper guidance, could accelerate the business of state-building. And embracing the Saddam's army would have sent an unmistakable message to the Iraqi people that the United States was either unwilling or unable to wrest control of the instruments of state power from the Baathists.
Indeed, the challenge in postwar Iraq, as in Afghanistan, is that security institutions "legitimate" to one group, in the sense of having popular support, are violently unacceptable to others. The only effective military forces are those like the Tajik-heavy Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or the peshmerga Kurdish militia in Iraq, which contain an obvious sectarian character. In both places, the United States has been working hard to "nationalize" these forces, bringing them over time, with a mix of carrots and sticks, into emerging national armies and police forces.
Would such a gradual conversion process have been possible with the old Iraqi army--a Sunni militia, writ large? Perhaps, but unlikely. Certainly a more orderly demobilization, in which Sunni officers might have been quietly bought off, could have taken some of the bite out of the insurgency. But one way or another, the old Iraqi army had to go--and with it, the old regime.
Ultimately, it is putting the cart before the horse to believe that there can ever be fully legitimate and effective national military forces prior to the birth of a legitimate national government. Our greatest postwar military mistake in Iraq was thus not that we disbanded the old Iraqi army too quickly but that we moved to create a new Iraqi state too slowly.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Confiscating as many of their weapons and ammo as possible
might have been a decent idea.
Donnelly is a sharp guy but the entire issue is a canard. The Baathist cowards scattered to the winds, there was no Army to "preserve".
Which is exactly what was done.
I agree. And the old Sunni-dominated army would have been unacceptable to the Shiites and Kurds. It had to go. And when it did, those attached to the old order started fighting back to regain their lost power and privileges. Starting from scratch wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but think how much more lethal a Baathist commanded military would have been to our troops the other day in Mosul. The bad guys can still infiltrate the security forces of the new Iraq to hit at us - but they longer control it. In the end, that makes all the difference to Iraq's future.
It's about time somebody pointed this out...
Yep. But Iraq was a vast ammo dump under Saddam. And we're still finding new caches of hidden weapons nearly a year and a half after the country's liberation. With all the violence, I'm surprised it hasn't been even worse.
Our young fellas are paying the ultimate price to give their children and their children's children an opportunity to avoid a conflagration of immense proportion. Can't say enough good about them.
Yeah, it would have been a GRAND idea to hire the the Iraqi army, lock, stock and barrel, arm them and let them mow us down like they did at the UN.
Wouldn't have done any good. They just would have gone out to one of the 10 billion weapons dumps Saddam had all over that country and picked up more. No, we did everything humanly possible. We have exploded billions and billions of dollars worth of ordenence. Dismissing the army was the only way to build up a force that the Iraqi people would have confidence in. As it is, we are seeing some of the problems we would have dealt with anyway.
And on a CONSIDEARABLY smaller scale.
Personally, I don't understand why ANYONE would take the mass media's advice on how we SHOULD handle Iraq. They're the ones that sisn't want us to go in in the first place. Some of them were on Saddam's US funded, UN blood for oil vouchers payroll.
One of my captains in Sadr City says that his area is an Brady-Bill nightmare. Every home has at least one AK and many have RPGs.
Then came 1st AD. They relieved us and were in full Bosnia/Kosovo peacekeeping mode. They started confiscating weapons. I tried to explain to them why it was a bad idea. But, they had their ideas for how they were going to do things and they were not interested in fielding suggestions from us, even though we had been there for months. It didn't take long for the place to go to hell, after that relief in place in June 03. Did the city go to hell because they attempted to disarm everyone, to make the city "safe"? I think so. I can't prove it, but it's one heck of a coincidence. It is not just bad policy to disarm a populace. It is also an arrogant and rude gesture toward a culture such as the Arabs to do something like that. I'm just amazed that the opposition wasn't more fierce.
Finally someone is stating the obvious.
This is one of the perils with our greatest military strength, which is the autonomy and individuality of our officers---each unit is (to a degree) free to establish its own policies. For ex., one of the individual decisions (I forget where, now, it's a blur) was to pull back from many operating posts in the city into a few "enclaves." This was not just for security, but (in the opinion of the Army guy who sent this to me) to make the Iraqis take more of a role in their own security---just as your group apparently did.
The disadvantages of all this is that you get policy changes that the Iraqis don't "get" when one group replaces another, and you get an uneven level of results, as, obviously, everyone won't be as successful as everyone else.
I think you have a good point about the autonomy of the officers being a strength and a weakness. It is my impression that the leaders who came of age in the cold war were still geared towards fighting the Soviet Union and hoping for their war to be one of giant flanking maneuvers in large open terrain. I don't think they anticipated or were particularly interested in counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they got. When you're fighting a big, evil, conventional opponent, you can get away with leadership via email, because the small unit leaders know their job. In other words, the autonomy of the subordinate officers had very few downsides. But, when you're conducting operations that your subordinate officers know little if nothing about (such as counterinsurgency) then you've got to be hands on, interacting with the civilians, observing the troops, and staying knee-deep in all operations, because the smaller unit leaders need guidance. Every company commander was pulling his hair out as he took his best guess as to how to run his sector, knowing nothing about the task that he had been given, resulting in totally different standards of behavior for the civilian populace as they traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood. Among the civilians, this caused confusion, frustration and a loss of confidence in the abilities of the coalition.
Empowering leaders is a great thing, but only if they have been properly trained. This mission, early on, was one for the Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psyops - and there was a large number of those folks here. But, they were used almost exclusively for capturing high value targets. I think that it should have been the other way around. The SF folks know how to build a rapport with indigenous people, work with them and advise them. The regular infantry folks know how to kick a door in and grab or kill whomever is behind it. Unfortunately, our missions were flip-flopped.
I agree. I'm just not sure if we had the resources to pull it off.