2004 October 26 Tuesday
The Disbanding Of The Old Iraqi Army Was A Turning Point

Michael Gordon has another long article in the New York Times about US policy on Iraq. The latest is on whether it was a mistake to abolish the old Iraqi Army.

"It was absolutely the wrong decision," said Col. Paul Hughes of the Army, who served as an aide to Jay Garner, a retired three-star general and the first civilian administrator of Iraq. "We changed from being a liberator to an occupier with that single decision,'' he said. "By abolishing the army, we destroyed in the Iraqi mind the last symbol of sovereignty they could recognize and as a result created a significant part of the resistance."

I think the disbanding of the old Iraqi Army was clearly a huge mistake.

Here is a surprising instance where a leading neocon figure in the Bush Administration, Douglas Feith who is #3 in the DOD, was actually arguing for the same postion as uniformed officers and against higher level civilians.

At the White House meeting, Mr. Feith made another argument for using the existing army. Iraq was racked by unemployment and taking 350,000 armed men, cutting off their income and, in effect, throwing them out on the street could be disastrous.

American commanders also backed that approach. In a March 2003 meeting with a team of visiting Pentagon officials, General John P. Abizaid, then Gen. Tommy Franks's deputy, expressed concerns that the Americans would arouse resentment if they enforced security in Iraq largely by themselves. He favored a quick turnover of power to an interim Iraqi authority and the use of Iraqi forces to complement and eventually replace the Americans.

"We must in all things be modest," General Abizaid said, according to notes taken by a Pentagon official. "We are an antibody in their culture."

There was a military imperative as well. The American commanders knew they might have sufficient forces to oust Mr. Hussein, but it would be difficult to control a large nation with 25 million people and porous borders with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait. The V Corps, which oversaw United States Army forces in Iraq, wanted Iraqi Army units to patrol the borders to block terrorists, jihadists and Iranian- sponsored groups from sneaking into the country and to prevent loyalists and possible caches of unconventional weapons from getting out, a former V Corps officer said.

The US could have given a lot of young men supervised paying jobs. Some could have worked in security. Some could have worked doing reconstruction. There would have been less insurgency, bombings, and crime. What a huge opportunity lost.

Update: Note when you read deeper into the article that Feith now defends the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. When he shifted his position is less clear. However, Paul Bremer and his advisor and former Clinton Administration undersecretary of Defense Walter B. Slocombe were big pushers for the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and therefore clearly share a large chunk of the blame for the resulting debacle.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 October 26 04:40 PM  Mideast Iraq

lugh lampfhota said at October 26, 2004 6:18 PM:

I don't recall the statement that "disbanded the Iraqi army" and , in fact, I don't recall the formal surrender of either the Iraqi army nor the Iraqi government. Seems like both entites just melted into the population or fled the country.

It's nice to sit here in 2004 and speculate on the what ifs. But the reality is that we don't know if there would have been less violence or more if we could have employed either former military or government folks. It seemed to me after the major combat operations ended that most Iraqis were just too damned afraid to step up and help the Great Satan. Funny what 30+ years of tyranny will do to people's trust.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2004 6:47 PM:


It would help if you clicked thru and read the full text of the articles I link to.

After arriving in Iraq, Mr. Bremer formally issued Order No. 2, The Dissolution of Entities, which abolished the army.

Then you say:

It's nice to sit here in 2004 and speculate on the what ifs.

Can we not learn lessons from history, including recent history?

Also, if you read the article you'd find that there were lots of Iraqi military guys who were, yes, ready to step up and help the Great Satan. They wanted jobs. They probably had other motivations as well.

Fly said at October 26, 2004 6:53 PM:

I do remember some of the arguments pro and con for disbanding the Iraqi army.

The command structure was Baath Party controlled, heavily Sunni, and strongly tainted with Saddam’s brutality. Changing the leadership without reforming the middle ranks might have been seen by the Kurds and Shiites as installing a US puppet without changing the existing power structure.

Much of the strife in Iraq seems centered on Sunni’s who want to restore their traditional dominance. Leaving the Iraqi army largely under the control of the Sunni’s may have reduced the Sunni threat only to greatly increase Kurd and Shiite resentment.

The alternative chosen was to disband the army and rebuild the Iraqi military structure from the bottom up. Clearly there have been significant problems.

In hindsight a better option might have been to keep the Iraqi army largely intact but severely reduced in power. Then use that army to patrol the borders and Sunni areas. That might have kept Iraqi’s employed in makework and the Sunni’s happy while the coalition built a modern Iraqi force, untainted by the Baath Party.

Eventually the old Iraqi army would still have to be disbanded and the Baath Party members removed from authority.

This strategy might have been more successful or it might have created a different set of problems.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2004 8:29 PM:


You state:

The command structure was Baath Party controlled

To repeat my advice to Lugh: Why don't you read the article I linked to and see your view is correct.

lugh lampfhota said at October 26, 2004 9:42 PM:

Yes the US military planned on using portions of the Iraqi government when the war was over. Operatives had the cell phone numbers and deals were struck before US forces departed Kuwait. But very little that was promised was delivered by Iraqis. Both the government and army faded away after wholesale looting. America had been burned by Iraqi promises ....why should they believe Naimi and friends. Bremer just acknowledged fact with dissolution.

I think US actions after the 91 war made Shias very apprehensive of Americans. One could make a strong case that Shias are the future of Iraq and Sunni-Baathists made Shias nervous.

You can perform due diligent planning for war but once the shooting starts all plans are out the window. Things went wrong and the center collapsed. Then the debate between those who wanted stability at any cost and those who wanted change began. We went to Iraq for change, not stability. Seems reasonable that we canned the Baathists.

Discussing what-ifs is amusing....unless it is used as partisan political propaganda solely to unseat a President while projecting indecision and weakness to an enemy in the field. Then it gets soldiers killed.

gene berman said at October 27, 2004 4:49 AM:

Randall: "Can we not learn lessons from history, including recent history?"

I'm not arguing one way or another on the matter under discussion--only commenting on the rhetorical question (about history).

Experience we call history, unless of the narrower sort called "experiment" conducted under the assumption that the variables relevant to outcome are controlled, has no "lessons" with which all (or even most) reasonable people would agree. Raising that question is no more than a sort of argument tactic of the sort intended to propagandize a somewhat less-than-substantively-critical audience. Proponents of every policy or action, even those diametrically opposed to one another, are eager to justify their particular rationale by resort to such "lessons" and are rarely hard-put to find them. Critics after the fact, whether of success or failure, are likewise blessed with abundance.

I am quite surprised, actually, to find that chestnut in the bag of one publishing the always interesting and thought-provoking FuturePundit. Every innovation of whatever sort, including "new and improved" variations of ordinary commercial products but most especially those deemed "cuttin edge," are precisely those things to which the lessons of history would have posed insuperable objection--otherwise they would already be actual and there would be no history to discuss. And, although it is true that the vast preponderance of such innovation (patented contraptions, for instance) bear out the nay-sayers, still there are successes. That's just the way things are, no matter the area of endeavor.

Not to demean the oft-quoted Prussian, but just which are the "big, well-equipped battalions" is not nearly as obvious until after the smoke of battle has cleared. Even the matter of whether a "long shot" is a good bet or not must take into consideration other things than taught by the probabilities of success.

Randall Parker said at October 27, 2004 11:27 AM:


So then we can't learn anything from history?

Look, we do not have access to a bunch of parallel universes in which we can start from identical points and introduce different changes into each universe. When it comes to questions of public policy we are usually going to be presented with large numbers of facts and we can't do experiments to prove the importance of each fact. Are you therefore arguing that in formulating new policy we should ignore arguments from historical experience and only consider facts that have been controlled for in social science experiments to show that they have an effect?

History does not prove that each innovation can't be made. I look at history and extrapolate the rate of innovation from the past into the future and expect to see many more innovations.

As for what is clear beforehand: Greg Cochran makes the excellent argument that we should pay closer attention to those who did predict accurately how things were going to turn out. So, for example, we should pay more attention to Greg on questions of which countries are doing what with WMDs. Also, we should pay more attention to those Generals who argued against the disbanding of the Iraqi Army or who argued for more troops (e.g. Shinseki) to do the occupation.

gene berman said at October 27, 2004 4:50 PM:


I didn't say we shouldn't learn from experience (whether our own or that of others). What I said was that statements (or, in this case a question) have nothing whatever to do with learning from history; rather, they are intended specifically and exclusively to buttress one's argument or opinion, to furnish a sheen perhaps lacking in the simple laying out of substantive explanation, or to demean the arguments of others on some other basis than the merits involved. You know it, I know it, so does everyone else when they think about it (as when it's pointed out). Rhetorical devices of the sort are traps for us all--at least when engaged in trying to get at whatever may be the truth of matters.

I hadn't commented on innovation (at least in the above post) but, since you've brought it up, I shall. I think your FuturePundit blog an excellent "cross-fertiliztion" project, despite not having much knowledge--expert or otherwise-- of most of the subjects covered. One of the
often-overlooked facets of the process by which it takes place is that the world has an immense quantity of already-thought-out-but-not-yet-ready for prime time "new ideas"--like an invisible pile stretching to the stratosphere. Even the quantity of unsuccessful ideas includes many for which success is only a matter of some other shift in the totality of material and production relations, which themselves are rearranged by every new introduction. In a very real sense, we'd never run out of innovation even were all further innovation to cease. Every marginal mine or farm may become productive with the right innovation. A simple improvement in a refining or metallurgical technique my open up new potentials in the most diverse fields imaginable, sometimes even resuccitating the viability of projects abandoned as impractical in the past. It is impossible to justify any but the most optimistic of attitudes regarding the future development of useful materials, processes, and devices, regardless of how much success attends any of the specific favorites of the moment or of the age.
(Incidentally, the "invisible pile of innovation reaching to the stratosphere" isn't my idea but I can't remember where I read the metaphor.)

lugh lampfhota said at October 27, 2004 7:17 PM:


Insufficient troops. Expectations of perfection.

Sounds like Clinton-speak to me. Shinseki always had a million reasons why we should keep the US Army in the barracks (where liberals think they belong). Clinton's NSC and JCS always took the position that there was nothing they could do about Al Qaida because they needed to pass every global test, plan for every contingency, amass a half a million troops with logistics which would take at least nine months. Reasons to do nothing. Ever.

You need the number of troops that you need....no more...more troops feels more like occupation and the Iraqis need to do the policing. You can never police to absolute safety especially if the neighborhood doesn't want to be a civilized place. Witness any inner city n the US.

Randall Parker said at October 27, 2004 9:57 PM:


There were people (eg James Quinlivan) who in advance of the invasion of Iraq said that previous occupations showed that we needed a few times the number of troops to occupy Iraq than the Bush Administration was sending. US Army General Eric Shinseki got a lot of abuse from Rumsfeld for telling a Congressional committee estimates for troop needs for an Iraq occupation that were similar to what you'd expect from Quinlivan's analysis. Other think tank analysts made similar calculations and published similar numbers.

Quinliven's writings on this go back to the 1990s. So these numbers were available before the invasion. See, for example, James T. Quinlivan, “Force Requirements in Stability Operations,” Parameters, 25 (Winter 1995-96), 59-69 which this article references. Rand has that article available here for order if you are interested. Quinliven was delivering briefings around at Washington DC think tanks on troop needs for occupation before the Iraq invasion. See his Summer 2003 Rand article Burden of Victory: The Painful Arithmetic of Stability Operations for an accessible summary of his research.

So when I react to Lugh's "It's nice to sit here in 2004 and speculate on the what ifs." I'm arguing that it doesn't take hindsight from what happened in to see that the Bush plans for Iraq's occupation were obviously foreseeably flawed and that they were foreseeably flawed based on lessons from history. But there is this attitude that critics of Bush are guilty 20:20 hindsight for calling Bush on blowing the post-invasion planning so badly. I heap the contempt on that attitude that I think it so richly deserves.

lugh lampfhota said at October 28, 2004 12:56 AM:

All depends what you are trying to accomplish and what you are willing to pay Randall. What would a squad of American soldiers standing on every street corner 'feel like' to ordinary Iraqis? Would that squad provide any additional security or would they be just be targets for increasingly pissed off Iraqis? The US military are not policemen, they have neither mandate, language skills nor training to fight crime. You've heard Iraqis complain about heavy-handed tactics by our troops. Do you think more doors broken down at night would win hearts and minds? Would our troops reduce disorder with more raids on Iraqi homes?

If it costs a $1B per day to keep 130,000 troops in Iraq, what would two or three times the troops cost per day? If we struggle with the costs of the occupation today, could we live with double or triple the cost?

The force that went into Iraq was undersized due to French pressure on Turkey which made 4ID come up from the south. That hurt the plan to further reduce the Iraqi army in the Sunni homeland. Spilt milk now. The goals have been building Iraqi government and security forces this year. So we have been in political mode, willing to defer to Iraqis. We have a light hand on the controls and take guidance from Iraqis. Iraqis are starting to 'feel like' they are getting control of the nation. Now Iraqi and American forcesare crushing the resistance; and Iraqis order the mission. There is no 'popular resistance' in Iraq and the resistance is doomed.

A couple of years from now we can have a nice debate on what went right and what went wrong. Right now it 'feels like' partisan politics in an election and regrettably the enemy has internet access. All this criticism 'feels like' America is ready to bring the troops home because we failed to the resistance. I sure don't want to have the blood of dead American soldiers on my hands.

Randall Parker said at October 28, 2004 2:16 AM:


You say:

The US military are not policemen.

But in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans they have been functioning as policemen.

If they lack the language skills and training (and I agree they do) then that means they are not only understaffed but they are really lousy policemen.

Look Lugh, the people getting paid to plant IEDs are criminals. Saddam released 90,000 criminals from jails before he was overthrown. Those people are being hired by Baathists and Jihadists to plant IEDs and to kidnap people. The fact that the US military can't round up all these criminals means that US soldiers and US reconstruction workers die. You can't spin this as somehow not being part of the US military's job to deal with the criminals.

The US force was undermined because Rumsfeld wanted to demonstrate just how potent modern weapons made infantry. We needed a lot more than the 4th ID to be able to immediately take control over such a large territory with so many hostile elements. We needed a couple of extra divisions just to go around and collect all the arms, ammunition, and bomb material. We didn't have enough soldiers to secure weapons deopts.

The first U.S. military units to reach the Al-Qaqaa military installation south of Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq did not have orders to search for some 350 tons of explosives that are now said to be missing from the site.

"We were still in a fight," said the commander of the U.S. military unit that was first to arrive in the area, in an interview with CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin, confirming that they did not search the bunkers at the site for explosives, and did not secure the site against looters.

"Our focus was killing bad guys," he continued, adding that he would have needed four times as many troops to search and secure all the ammo dumps his troops came across during the push into Iraq.

A special unit known as Task Force 75 finally searched the compound seven weeks later and found no sign of the explosives, which experts have said had the potential to be used either conventionally or to trigger nuclear weapons.

Note that the Pentagon is now spinning that the explosives must have been removed before the invasion. But the point remains that the insurgency is well armed because the US military didn't have the resources needed to properly sweep the country and still doesn't have the resources needed to stop the flow of arms and fighters coming in over Iraq's borders.

As for struggling with the costs of occupation: What, you mean the value of invading Iraq was not so high as to be worth spending a couple hundred billion more to do it right? Well, yes, if that is what you think then I agree.

Randall Parker said at October 28, 2004 12:07 PM:

Also, note that the Pentagon doesn't really know whether the explosives were removed before the invasion. If they'd sent enough people to the facility as soon as troops entered the facility they could have cataloged what was there and then they'd have known later what got removed. Or they could have sent enough troops to secure the facility and prevented the removal of anything. But of course Rumsfeld was trying to demonstrate how potent a couple of divisions of US soldiers were. So that wasn't done.

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