Iraq: Twenty Years After Disbanding the Iraqi Army – Right or Wrong?

This past week marked the twentieth years since the invasion/liberation’ of Iraq by US and allied forces. As might be expected the “experts” were refurbishing their opinions offered at the time. The usual American Bush administration  villains were resurrected for  further chastisement  and in addition  to President Bush, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator, Jerry Bremer,   Deputy SecDef Paul Wolfowitz, Under SecDef Doug Feith, and others known as NeoCons, which many believed to be a sly reference to the number of Jewish policymakers involved in the decision to go to war against Iraq. In the byzantine corridors of power and influence the higher US government officials were all at each others throats, with jealousies, backbiting, and petty maneuvering by the bureaucrats at fever pitch. Given a mandate by President Bush, Jerry Bremer took the baton and ran with it. The two decisions he made, disbanding the Iraqi army, and purging high-level Ba’ath party members from the new Iraqi government, have been skewered by almost all the writers on the occupation/liberation of Iraq. The only people who seem to defend those decisions are Shi’a Iraqis and the Kurds. But thinking about it those two populations are at least 75% of Iraq’s population –or more.

The conventional war was a story book success enhancing the already high level of hubris  manifested at the  top military and political levels of the United States.  However the  triumphant  success of the conventional war was negated and submerged in the following post-invasion phase which most observers and commentators proclaim as a total failure. After years of reading a ton of books and articles on the second Iraqi war my belief is that the overall  initial mission of the allied forces was accomplished i.e. elimination of Iraq’s aggressive military power.  When the nuclear weapons issue turned out to be mostly mirage carefully nurtured  by Saddam himself  to keep his regional enemies at bay, the fatal mistake was made, i.e. the quest to grow democracy and  begin nation-building, creating a new democratic model for the entire  Middle East, a region mired in authoritarian and corrupt regimes.  The same mistake was made by the arabophiles in 1920 SirPercy  Cox,  Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence. As the old imperialist Lord  George Nathanial Curzon wrote,

“Above all we must remember that the ways of the Orientals are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts…..Satan found it better to reign in hell than serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would rather be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans.” He also wrote that he lamented the fact that Western democracies felt it was a cultural and political  imperative to fashion Eastern countries into their own image. This failed in Iraq after WWI despite the best and loving efforts of the greatest and most sympathetic of British Arabists. But without understanding the past ( and probably in many cases not even aware of it) my  countrymen made the same mistake in 2003.  Western nation building in traditional third world countries has never worked. The cultural gap is just too wide. The  mistakes and wrong assessments by the experts are eerily similar in both cases.But this has been explored many times with no real resolution.

In this blog I will concentrate on one particular action by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer, who has been routinely trashed as one  a primary villains for the failure of the American nation-building efforts in Iraq. Almost every post-mortem of the American “failure” in Iraq dwells  two actions of Paul Bremer. One was to prohibit the upper levels of the Ba’ath party functionaries  returning to their old managerial and power positions in government and the military. The other was the “disbandment” of the army. This is the one I concentrate on. I do not agree that either one was necessarily a mistake.In reference to the  I wrote about this eight years ago.

“Every article one reads on the abject failure of the Iraqi army starts with the premise that the disbandment of the Iraqi army by the Bush administration  is the major reason for the failure of the present Iraqi army and chaos  that was a feature of the occupation .This premise has become deeply rooted in the conventional thinking on the post-war Iraq. It is never questioned…. like so many other fundamental analyses of the war and the problems of the post war era.”

Lets examine this supposition more closely. First of all, as the late and great Arab expert with the State Department, Hume Horan,  an advisor to Bremer, wrote some years ago, Bremer did not disband the Iraqi army, It disbanded itself.  Bremer wrote so in his book, My Year in Iraq.I was there in November 2003 and that  was the situation. Of course the argument goes that it the troops could have been recalled and the troops would have flocked back to their units.  The lack of the recall left the mostly Sunni officers “embittered.” No doubt it did but what about the enlisted men, of which most were Shi’a and some Kurds? How many would have returned to the draconian brutal environment of the equally corrupt Saddam army? It was an army held together by fear. In captured  documents from the first Gulf war in some battalions of 200-300 men over 20 soldiers had been executed for desertion or some other  infraction of Saddam’s rules.

IZ uday's love palace

The “Love palace” of Uday. Saddam’s son, Just one example opf the endemic corruption under Saddam

How many would have returned? We will never know but the “experts” who created a cottage industry mindlessly repeating the mantras assume they would have. From just the  sample of those I know, many if not most, would not have returned.  Certainly not the Kurds and Shi’a.The new Iraqi army would remain an army of Sunni officers, the senior officers closely tied to the virus called the Ba’ath party, which was deeply embedded in the Iraqi society.  The depth and pervasiveness of the entrenchment of the Ba’ath party has never been fully recognized by most of the writers on the Iraq war. The books by Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed, and Leila Khoury’s Iraq in Wartime  are outstanding exceptions.

How long would this army of Sunni officered army, indoctrinated to believe the Sunnis rule by something akin to divine right, as they had since the time of the Ummayid dynasty, allowed an elected Shi’a  government to  exist? Certainly not longer than the hasty  and unnecessary withdrawal of the American forces.

.Saddam had to be one would believe he was finished if left alive in some European prison spa like the Serbia SlobodanMilosovich

To the above comments I have some further thoughts to add. Some have said that there were many Shi’a officers  in the Army, and that is true at the lower ranks but most of the Shi’a officers were in non- command positions, e.g., logistics, medical, transportation etc.   For instance the Iraqi intelligence was so lily white Sunni that during the Iran-Iraq war they had problems finding someone to translate Farsi, a language quite a few Shi’a know.There was no way in hell the mostly Shi’a enlisted men would have returned –and one cannot be sure how many of the tribal Sunni recruits would have returned to their units.They were unwilling conscripts and paid a pittance.

Iraq was aptly called  the Republic of Fear by Kanan Makiya. Most Iraqis lived in fear, with the exceptions  being the upper class Ba’ath families, senior Ba’ath officials, and dirt poor fellah ( who had nothing much to lose).   Even senior generals were venerable to the capricious Saddam suspicions and revenge as illustrated in Steavenson’s book.  Many lived in  lived in fear or  a constant  low level dread of the day ahead. Not only were their actions always being scrutinized but  those of their relatives as well. One could live as an  enthusiastic  Saddam supporter and still be vulnerable due to possibility of  anti-Saddam actions of a relative.

nothing useable was left standing at the Government and military buildings

Muhammad Sadr one of the many destructive Iraqi forces

Perhaps more importantly, because of this fear, and the pervasive power of the Saddam persona, the idea of joining an American  created army and incurring the deadly wrath of a returning Saddam would keep anyone with a modicum of sense to stay home. At the time of Bremer’s edicts,  Saddam was still on the loose as were many of the most wanted  Iraqi leaders featured in a “deck of cards. ” Going on the deadly experience of the 1991 Gulf War,  in which the Iraqi army was routed, fleeing  from Kuwait. the Kurds and Shi’a revolted, falsely believing Saddam was finished  and the the Allies would support them. They  remembered the terrible price the rebels paid. George Bush  had -in the minds of the Kurds and Shia- seemingly offered support if they revolted. They were then  left high and dry to fend for themselves. This was a major reason the Coalition forces were not met with flowers and cheers when they arrived. As a matter of fact Saddam had often preached the proclivity of the Americans to cut bait when things went sour- as in Vietnam

at least the little kids liked us …..for a while

I remember at the time  that the fear of a Hussein return was palpable. He had engrained his persona as some sort of Demi God, invulnerable to domestic and foreign enemies. To many Iraqis  his survival within the butchery of Iraqi politics (for 34 years),the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war gave him an indestructible image. In his presence Iraqis froze in trepidation. His reputation for remorseless revenge was well-known by as Sassoon depicts in his book, many at the top benefitted from his bountiful largesse. Advancement in the Ba’ath party or as one who broke into his “Friends of the President” group the benefits were often very rewarding. His use of the “carrot and the Stick” was brilliant. Every neighborhood had informers and one never could be sure who it was., The ultimate result of this was that no one trusted anyone outside his immediate family…which was exactly the environment  Saddam  wanted. As many Iraqis would testify Saddam had to be killed. Allowing him to live comfortably in some NATO or American cell would not have sufficed. There was always the possibility he would return.

In addition to the question of whether the Iraqi troops would return to their colors there were many other questions of doubtful  solution.

  1. There were no facilities to return to. The  bases and  barracks had been looted and stripped  of all electrical wiring and plumbing. Almost every piece of furniture had been taken. There was no place for them to be assembled,  Nor equipment to provide  them.

2.  An excellent article in the Destsche Welle  periodical written by Dr. Abdul Khlaleq Hussein pointed out that the officer corps was so politicized and top heavy with general officers of mediocre talent drawing pay that there was no need to recall them. They would be a burden. He made the somewhat arguable argument that the Iraqi army did not really fight. Only the Fedayeen Saddam, a militia organization.  fought well. The Iraqi army was not professional  army. Created by the Ottoman Turks, the officer corps absorbed the anti-Shi’a attitude of the Turks, and many of their brutal ways of dealing with civil dissidence.

2.  Almost all analysts emphasized the impact of the demobilization of the army on the officer corps in that their pay was not resumed for a number of months and was not intended to continue after a short period.  But in fact many lof the administration centers and and records were destroyed and reconstituting them was a laborious affair. Moreover Iraqis told me that  quite a few officers would have refused to pay because they feared the return of Saddam. Accepting pay from the invaders would have sealed their Fate.

3.The Ba’ath party apparatus and ideology was so firmly entrenched in the officer corps. Compared to the  preeminent place of the army in Syria ,the Iraqi Army was kept weakened by a suspicious Saddam and was totally controlled by the Ba’ath party.  Saddam created al-Makatib-al ‘Askariya( military bureaus)n which controlled every aspect of military life.

4. The records necessary  to pay the officers were entombed in the many destroyed military buildings  and regenerating them was a long arduous process. Everything was in chaos.

A recent book by Melvyn P. :Leffler, Confronting Saddam Hussein puts the problems  and actions  of the Bremer leadership in amuch better light-As it should be- with the usual suspects viciously attacking the book on the Amazon reviews. The total chaos, backbiting and ignorance of the Iraqi culture at all levels of the political  and military bureaucracy in Washington left Bremer with little top level support, only self serving books after the war. In my mind Bremer, given the task he was given, did his best and I know of no one who would have done better. As Toby Dodge in his book Inventing Iraq avers, the muck up in Iraq was inevitable given the creation of Iraq and nation Building “ by the British after WWI.

But the final point. The Iraqis were given a chance to build a decent  country  and their leaders, avaricious, corrupt, often cowardly, and debauched  lost the chance—for the foreseeable future.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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