The Corner

The Iraqi Army

From a military academic, who wishes to remain anonymous:


I agree that Ignatius’ piece is an excellent read. I–and most of my colleagues, in and out of uniform–also agree that the wholesale disbanding of the Iraqi Army in 2003 was a grave error. This argument has played out extensively elsewhere so I won’t bore you with it again here other than to say that they should have been kept on the payroll for the obvious reason of keeping them and their guns off the streets and to serve as a visible symbol of Iraqi sovereignty (and “manhood”). And points made in other posts subsequent to yours rightly highlight the fact that there wasn’t much left to the Iraqi army in any meaningful sense once the regime was gone.

Still, this also does not mean that a reconstituted Iraqi Army would have been performing at the level we are seeing now in the fall of ‘03 or even in the summer of ‘04. The most capable units, the Republican Guards and the more notorious Special Republican Guards, were either decimated in the fighting or filled with the types of thugs and regime supporters we were not about to keep around in significant numbers. The vast majority of Iraqi units were poorly trained, ineptly led and indifferently equipped. Their officers were largely ineffective and a professional NCO corps virtually non-existent. Even if the majority of the troops remained with their units, it would still take a great deal of time to train a new officer and NCO corps, provide them with new or refurbished equipment and train them in sufficient numbers. One of Ignatius’ other points, however, is that US forces were not as up to speed on counterinsurgency methods, so we faced a steep learning curve as well. Again, this is a point on which many of the officers with whom I work agree–the military’s post-Vietnam attitude (apart from SOCOM) was that we “didn’t do windows.” This was nurtured by Desert Storm and seemingly reinforced by our experience in Somalia and the Clinton administration reliance on airpower for military interventions. Our recently changed 4-phase planning doctrine called for Phase III “Decisive Operations” followed by Phase IV “Transition and Re-deployment”–kind of a hand wave that we would hand off to some civil authority while packing up to go home. That thinking has now been disbanded and our entire planning methodology changed to reflect what we’ve learned in Iraq when the goal is to “decisively defeat” (regime change?) an enemy state–no quick exit and ticker-tape parade. We now place as much emphasis on post-major combat ops planning as we do on “decisive operations.” Likewise, I see no indication whatsoever that any of the services intend to return to “business as usual” following our mission in Iraq. The men and women in Iraq are indeed “getting it right” and fortunately, the institutional service cultures are adapting as well.

Not completely disbanding the Iraqi army would have likely lessened the numbers of “insurgents” we’ve faced in the past 3 years and would have likely given us a better start, resulting in Iraq’s new army reaching their current level of capability perhaps by this time last year (assuming that we were also fully prepared to teach them while “getting it right” in terms of counterinsurgency ops.) So we can conclude that the hasty stand-down of Iraq’s regular army has indeed inflicted additional and unnecessary costs in blood and treasure. But people should not go so far as to think that had Bremer not disbanded the Iraqi Army, we would have had this thing wrapped up back in ‘04. Long-term institutional prejudices and a flawed mission analysis combined with Bremer’s action made this far harder than it had to be, but the mission was going to be a difficult one regardless of other factors.


[name withheld]

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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