Disbanding Saddam’s Army Revisited
In a strange coincidence of timing, on the day the news is led by a report urging the dismantling of the Iraqi National Police, the NYT runs an op-ed by former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremmer arguing that he didn’t decide to disband Saddam’s army but that it was nonetheless the right thing to do.
Most of it is standard bureaucratic CYA stuff, replete with dull regurgitations of timelines and Who Shot John. Somewhat more interesting, though, is Bremmer’s explanation of the rationale behind starting from scratch.
By the time Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, the Iraqi Army had simply dissolved. On April 17 Gen. John Abizaid, the deputy commander of the Army’s Central Command, reported in a video briefing to officials in Washington that “there are no organized Iraqi military units left.” The disappearance of Saddam Hussein’s old army rendered irrelevant any prewar plans to use that army. So the question was whether the Coalition Provisional Authority should try to recall it or to build a new one open to both vetted members of the old army and new recruits. General Abizaid favored the second approach.
Moreover, the largely Shiite draftees of the army were not going to respond to a recall plea from their former commanders, who were primarily Sunnis. It was also agreed that recalling the army would be a political disaster because to the vast majority of Iraqis it was a symbol of the old Baathist-led Sunni ascendancy.
On May 8, 2003, before I left for Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave me a memo titled “Principles for Iraq-Policy Guidelines” that specified that the coalition “will actively oppose Saddam Hussein’s old enforcers — the Baath Party, Fedayeen Saddam, etc.” and that “we will make clear that the coalition will eliminate the remnants of Saddam’s regime.” The next day Mr. Rumsfeld told me that he had sent the “Principles” paper to the national security adviser and the secretary of state.
Meanwhile, Walter Slocombe’s consultations with Americans officials in Washington and Baghdad showed that they understood that the only viable course was to build a new, professional force open to screened members of the old army.
Moreover, we were right to build a new Iraqi Army. Despite all the difficulties encountered, Iraq’s new professional soldiers are the country’s most effective and trusted security force. By contrast, the Baathist-era police force, which we did recall to duty, has proven unreliable and is mistrusted by the very Iraqi people it is supposed to protect.
Now, this is right so far as it goes. That Slocombe, Rumsfeld, and others were key to the demobilization decision has been long established, although FIASCO and Cobra II laid plenty of blame on Bremmer for overreach and mismanagement of the process.
And the need to shed the military, and the rest of the Iraqi bureaucracy, of the worst of the Baathist elements was obvious. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out more than three years ago,
Can you imagine what the antiwar critics, and many Iraqis, would now be saying if the Baathists had been kept on? This point extends to Paul Bremer’s decision to dissolve the Baathist armed forces. That could perhaps have been carried out with more tact, and in easier stages. But it was surely right to say that a) Iraq was the victim of a huge and parasitic military, which invaded externally and repressed internally; and b) that young Iraqi men need no longer waste years of their lives on nasty and stultifying conscription. Moreover, by making it impossible for any big-mouth brigadier or general to declare himself the savior of Iraq in a military coup, the United States also signaled that it would not wish to rule through military proxies (incidentally, this is yet another gross failure of any analogy to Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, and all the rest of it).
The problem, as with de-Baathification generally, was that it was handled in the most incompetent manner imaginable. Getting rid of Saddam’s henchmen was absolutely essential. Putting competent professionals on the streets simply because they signed a party card to get jobs, not so much.
Indeed, Bremmer reversed his original policy in April 2004. By then, though, the insurgency was out of hand and a crucial year had been wasted. That’s not entirely Bremmer’s fault, by any means, but he certainly bears substantial responsibility.