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Historians at War: The Decision to Disband

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army in May 2003 is without doubt one of the most controversial military and political decisions made in Iraq and perhaps one of the most controversial made since 9-11.


The circumstances surrounding Bremer's CPA Order No. 2, issued May 23, 2003, remain a bit vague, though Douglas Feith's "War and Decision" (Harper, 2008) provides some very useful documentation and footnotes.

Feith writes, "... it would surely have been better if the decision to issue the order had been debated throughout the government. I have no reason to think that the other agencies would have opposed Bremer on the dissolution, but their participation might have improved the crafting or implementation of the policy."

One problem in implementation was the failure to provide "stipends" -- pay for Iraqi soldiers. Feith writes, with profound understatement, that "that would cause serious harm on the ground in Iraq."

Bremer might have asked the man he replaced, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, for his thoughts on the Iraqi military. Garner told me in October 2005, "Tommy Franks and I thought we would have 100,000 to 125,000 Iraqis" to help provide local security. "We (military men) know you don't turn young (former) enemy soldiers loose. Give them a broom or a mop. And pay them."

Last month, I asked Gen. David Petraeus for his opinion on disbanding the Iraqi Army. Petraeus replied that he had been asked in confirmation hearings for reflections "on some of the areas in which there were mistakes made. And I think this is one of them." Still, it was a complex issue, and Petraeus explored some of those complexities: "To be fair to those who made this decision, Iraq did not need that army ... it was a bloated top-heavy force under Saddam. It was really a jobs program for generals," but "at the end of the day, (the Iraqi Army) was Iraq's one national institution" and many of its Iran-Iraq war veterans should not have been left "unemployed, feeling disrespected and uncertain about their future."


Petraeus added: "... we went through a very tough, long, hot five-week period between the decision to disband the armies, that announcement and the announcement of the stipend program that would at least provide some finances to those who used to serve in the army."

War correspondent Michael Yon says he thinks getting rid of the Iraqi Army was a mistake at the time but the new Iraqi Army, built from scratch, is largely free of the old organization's terrible anti-Shia taint. Yon said in a "Deep Background" audiocast that the new Iraqi army is more reliable, and its performance during the summer of 2008 bears out that assessment. Yon said Iraqi officers told him they sometimes contact their former American compatriots and training advisers by phone -- long distance to the United States -- to discuss tactics and exchange ideas. editor James F. Dunnigan insists that the old Iraqi Army had to go. "The Saddam-era security forces were recruited mainly for loyalty to Saddam and the Sunni Arab minority. Unless you wanted an Iraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to a democratic Iraq, you had to disband the security forces."

All true statements -- but like Garner, I say don't put unemployed young males with military experience on the streets. The United States should have fired the officers above the rank of captain and paid the enlisted soldiers -- and then used these "service corps" units as building blocks for a new force.


In the "Iraq" chapter of the new edition of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War," Dunnigan and I had to negotiate this compromise: "Unemployed young men who know how to use weapons are a huge problem. Likewise, retaining 100,000 young Iraqis would have been a route for pumping money into the economy. The problem of determining who would command the "reconstruction corps," however, still remained. ... The CPA concluded that the army and police force had to be rebuilt, and that became a fact on the ground."

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