Historians at War: The Decision to Disband
by Austin Bay
September 30, 2008Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army in May 2003 is
without doubt one of the most controversial military and political decisions
made in Iraq and perhaps one of the most controversial made since 9-11.
The circumstances surrounding Bremer's CPA Order No. 2, issued
May 23, 2003, remain a bit vague, though Douglas Feith's "War and Decision"
(Harper, 2008) provides some very useful documentation and footnotes.
Feith writes, "... it would surely have been better if the
decision to issue the order had been debated throughout the government. I
have no reason to think that the other agencies would have opposed Bremer on
the dissolution, but their participation might have improved the crafting or
implementation of the policy."
One problem in implementation was the failure to provide
"stipends" -- pay for Iraqi soldiers. Feith writes, with profound
understatement, that "that would cause serious harm on the ground in Iraq."
Bremer might have asked the man he replaced, Lt. Gen. Jay
Garner, for his thoughts on the Iraqi military. Garner told me in October
2005, "Tommy Franks and I thought we would have 100,000 to 125,000 Iraqis"
to help provide local security. "We (military men) know you don't turn young
(former) enemy soldiers loose. Give them a broom or a mop. And pay them."
Last month, I asked Gen. David Petraeus for his opinion on
disbanding the Iraqi Army. Petraeus replied that he had been asked in
confirmation hearings for reflections "on some of the areas in which there
were mistakes made. And I think this is one of them." Still, it was a
complex issue, and Petraeus explored some of those complexities: "To be fair
to those who made this decision, Iraq did not need that army ... it was a
bloated top-heavy force under Saddam. It was really a jobs program for
generals," but "at the end of the day, (the Iraqi Army) was Iraq's one
national institution" and many of its Iran-Iraq war veterans should not have
been left "unemployed, feeling disrespected and uncertain about their
Petraeus added: "... we went through a very tough, long, hot
five-week period between the decision to disband the armies, that
announcement and the announcement of the stipend program that would at least
provide some finances to those who used to serve in the army."
War correspondent Michael Yon says he thinks getting rid of the
Iraqi Army was a mistake at the time but the new Iraqi Army, built from
scratch, is largely free of the old organization's terrible anti-Shia taint.
Yon said in a pajamasmedia.com "Deep Background" audiocast that the new
Iraqi army is more reliable, and its performance during the summer of 2008
bears out that assessment. Yon said Iraqi officers told him they sometimes
contact their former American compatriots and training advisers by phone --
long distance to the United States -- to discuss tactics and exchange ideas.
StrategyPage.com editor James F. Dunnigan insists that the old
Iraqi Army had to go. "The Saddam-era security forces were recruited mainly
for loyalty to Saddam and the Sunni Arab minority. Unless you wanted an
Iraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to a
democratic Iraq, you had to disband the security forces."
All true statements -- but like Garner, I say don't put
unemployed young males with military experience on the streets. The United
States should have fired the officers above the rank of captain and paid the
enlisted soldiers -- and then used these "service corps" units as building
blocks for a new force.
In the "Iraq" chapter of the new edition of "A Quick and Dirty
Guide to War," Dunnigan and I had to negotiate this compromise: "Unemployed
young men who know how to use weapons are a huge problem. Likewise,
retaining 100,000 young Iraqis would have been a route for pumping money
into the economy. The problem of determining who would command the
"reconstruction corps," however, still remained. ... The CPA concluded that
the army and police force had to be rebuilt, and that became a fact on the
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