On Point: Historians at War: The Decision to Disband

by Austin Bay
September 30, 2008Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army in May 2003 iswithout doubt one of the most controversial military and political decisionsmade in Iraq and perhaps one of the most controversial made since 9-11. 
The circumstances surrounding Bremer's CPA Order No. 2, issuedMay 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 thedecision to issue the order had been debated throughout the government. Ihave no reason to think that the other agencies would have opposed Bremer onthe dissolution, but their participation might have improved the crafting orimplementation of the policy." 
One problem in implementation was the failure to provide"stipends" -- pay for Iraqi soldiers. Feith writes, with profoundunderstatement, that "that would cause serious harm on the ground in Iraq." 
Bremer might have asked the man he replaced, Lt. Gen. JayGarner, for his thoughts on the Iraqi military. Garner told me in October2005, "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 ondisbanding the Iraqi Army. Petraeus replied that he had been asked inconfirmation hearings for reflections "on some of the areas in which therewere mistakes made. And I think this is one of them." Still, it was acomplex issue, and Petraeus explored some of those complexities: "To be fairto those who made this decision, Iraq did not need that army ... it was abloated top-heavy force under Saddam. It was really a jobs program forgenerals," but "at the end of the day, (the Iraqi Army) was Iraq's onenational institution" and many of its Iran-Iraq war veterans should not havebeen left "unemployed, feeling disrespected and uncertain about theirfuture." 
Petraeus added: "... we went through a very tough, long, hotfive-week period between the decision to disband the armies, thatannouncement and the announcement of the stipend program that would at leastprovide some finances to those who used to serve in the army." 
War correspondent Michael Yon says he thinks getting rid of theIraqi Army was a mistake at the time but the new Iraqi Army, built fromscratch, is largely free of the old organization's terrible anti-Shia taint.Yon said in a pajamasmedia.com "Deep Background" audiocast that the newIraqi army is more reliable, and its performance during the summer of 2008bears out that assessment. Yon said Iraqi officers told him they sometimescontact 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 oldIraqi Army had to go. "The Saddam-era security forces were recruited mainlyfor loyalty to Saddam and the Sunni Arab minority. Unless you wanted anIraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to ademocratic Iraq, you had to disband the security forces." 
All true statements -- but like Garner, I say don't putunemployed young males with military experience on the streets. The UnitedStates should have fired the officers above the rank of captain and paid theenlisted soldiers -- and then used these "service corps" units as buildingblocks for a new force. 
In the "Iraq" chapter of the new edition of "A Quick and DirtyGuide to War," Dunnigan and I had to negotiate this compromise: "Unemployedyoung men who know how to use weapons are a huge problem. Likewise,retaining 100,000 young Iraqis would have been a route for pumping moneyinto the economy. The problem of determining who would command the"reconstruction corps," however, still remained. ... The CPA concluded thatthe army and police force had to be rebuilt, and that became a fact on theground."
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