January 12, 2005

Disbanding the Iraqi Army - A Mistake

In a January 12, 2005 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Paul "Jerry" Bremer, former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, defended his decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the fall of Saddam Husayn in 2003. Although I agree with his decision that disbanded the Ba'th Party and the civilian internal security organizations, disbanding the Iraqi armed forces was a mistake.

Bremer's defense of his decision includes the usual litany of how the army was used as an instrument of Saddam's tyranny and repression of his own people. No doubt, the army was involved in the regime's atrocities, but not everyone in the army. He claims that the army "disbanded itself." Many of the soldiers, including the noncommissioned officers and officers, fled in the face of the advancing American forces, refusing to fight for the regime. Many of these units had been contacted by U.S. intelligence prior to the war and had agreed to not fight. There was an expectation in these units that they would make up the army of a post-Saddam Iraq.

There were many senior officers in the Iraqi army that needed to be dismissed, some even deserved to be prosecuted for war crimes. That does not translate into the need to disband the entire institution of the Iraqi army. Having to recreate an entire military structure from scratch has led to the abysmal security situation we find in Iraq today. He states that the creation of a "well-equipped, professional army cannot be done overnight." Absolutely correct, which is why completely eliminating the existing infrastructure was ill advised.

Bremer's assertion that "more than three quarters of the enlisted men in the New Army and virtually all he officers and NCOs served in the old army" is a bit misleading. The actual numbers of former soldiers in the new army are not significant, it is the lack of coherent, cohesive units capable of conducting effective operations.

The effects of disbanding the armed forces were immediate and widespread. Rather than having an existing security force of native Iraqis patrolling the streets, the disbanding created a power vacuum that led to chaos and widespread looting and violent crime. It also instantly created massive unemployment, putting over 300,000 armed men out of work. In fact, the newly unemployed soldiers may have taken part in the looting and violence. Many have probably found their way into the insurgency.

The bulk of Iraqi security duties now falls on the shoulders of American and coalition troops. They are resented by the Iraqis, who consider them an occupation force, regardless of whether or not there is a sovereign Iraqi government. It didn't have to be that way.