Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Disbanding Issue

I've been consistent in my view on the controversy over disbanding the Iraqi army after we defeated the Saddam regime. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for just some of the most recent.)

My view was that disbanding it was a pure formality since it disintegrated. It wasn't there to retain. My assumption was that we were trying to get some commanders to defect with their units, but that did not happen.

Second, given the role of the army in repressing the Shias and Kurds, we had to get rid of the Baathist-led army to end the rumors that we weren't liberating Iraq but just trying to put in our own Sunni Arab strongman.

Finally, the events of spring 2004 showed why it was good we did not have the old army around. The new Iraqi security forces broke apart (about half) in the dual jihadi/Sadrist offensive. Can you imagine what would have happened if "former" Baathist-led units were faced with the same situation? They would have defected and fought us. It would have been our own Sepoy Mutiny right there.

So when this RAND study on the Coalition Provisional Authority came out, I went right to the "Disbanding the Army" section, starting on page 52.

So what does the RAND study say, or what can I conclude from the piece?

--The pre-war plan, despite considerable worries about doing this, was to retain some of the old army, but to reduce it in size and retrain it from forme Baathist idelogical identity.

--In the end, the Iraqi army "self demobilized" and there were "no organized Iraqi miltary unit left."

--Some believed despite the disintegration, that we could recall a significant fraction of the old army and they'd respond.

--Even if we could reconsititute the units, they'd have to be retrained (too many Sunni Baathist officers).

--Recalling the old army would have been a terrible signal to the Shias that the old order was just being rearranged, since the old army, as a pre-war State Department study stated, "has been made into a tool of dictatorship." As noted, despite these worries the original plan was to retain some of the old army.

--The bases were so looted that there was no place to station any units.

--Any scheme to use the old army for security required a benign security environment and not the insurgency and terror campaigns that began in fall 2003. Indeed, our plans for a new army planned initially to slowly build a small army focused on conventional defense from foreign threats, using as much of the former personnel as we could. In the summer of 2003, we started forming light infantry units for internal security, the Iraq Civil Defense Corps (I will note, apart from the text, that later this was renamed the National Guard and it was eventually absorbed into the army when we finally decided the army needed to be focused on internal threats). Indeed, even our building plan assumed a benign security environment (which I will note was not unreasonable given the rapid collapse of Baathist resistance and the assumption that Syria and Iran were too scared to fuel violence in Iraq).

--The Iraqi army was so top-heavy with officers (Baathists) that there was no way to use even a fraction of them in a new or reconstituted army.

--We did pay stipends to the former army personnel but it was not announced until a month after the disbanding order and getting the funds out took another month. The question is whether this delay, coupled with not wanting their immediate service, caused them to join the insurgency that developed. I think it is silly to say that Saddam's loyalists would have willingly accepted Shia rule but for the lack of small stipends.

--During the First Battle of Fallujah in spring 2004, one of the new Iraqi army battalions refused to fight other Iraqis when ordered to support our Marine attack. We ended up dismissing a number of troops and replacing a number of leaders. How would an army of Baathists have done better than a new army unit? (Note that it took this enemy offensive where Baathists allied with foreign jihadis to finally get the majority of Shias--except those supporting Sadr--to really side with us and be willing to fight at our side against the real foreign invaders--al Qaeda. This also planted the seeds to get Sunnis to switch to our side, though that took nearly three years more to sprout in the Sunni Awakening.)

So my conclusion remains that the army was gone and disbanding it was a pure formality; maybe we could have recalled some personnel; there was no place to put any army at first whether retained or built; any security force--whether new or retained--would have been so fragile in the early years that it required a benign security environment to function, meaning there was no way to avoid the need for our forces to take the lead in fighting our enemies; and retaining former Baathist officers would have made it more difficult to get the Shias to side with us.

I simply don't understand why it is still a widely held assumption by so many, either for or against the war, that "disbanding" the Iraqi army after the fall of Baghdad was our biggest mistake in the war.