The Iraqi Army Ten Years Ago

In response to a tweet from Tim Noah, I looked back at a 2005 piece in the Atlantic by WaMo Editorial Advisory Board member James Fallows about the struggle to reconstruct an effective Iraqi Army. It’s a story that’s still depressingly familiar. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Early in the occupation American officials acted as if the emergence of an Iraqi force would be a natural process. “In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis,” Donald Rumsfeld said in October of 2003. “Indeed, the progress has been so swift that … it will not be long before [Iraqi security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it shouldn’t be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition forces combined.” By the end of this year the count of Iraqi security forces should indeed surpass the total of American, British, and other coalition troops in Iraq. Police officers, controlled by Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, should number some 145,000. An additional 85,000 members of Iraq’s army, plus tiny contingents in its navy and air force, should be ready for duty, under the control of Iraq’s Ministry of Defense. Since early this year Iraqi units have fought more and more frequently alongside U.S. troops.

But most assessments from outside the administration have been far more downbeat than Rumsfeld’s. Time and again since the training effort began, inspection teams from Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), think tanks, and the military itself have visited Iraq and come to the same conclusion: the readiness of many Iraqi units is low, their loyalty and morale are questionable, regional and ethnic divisions are sharp, their reported numbers overstate their real effectiveness….

[I]f American troops disappeared tomorrow, Iraq would have essentially no independent security force. Half its policemen would be considered worthless, and the other half would depend on external help for organization, direction, support. Two thirds of the army would be in the same dependent position, and even the better-prepared one third would suffer significant limitations without foreign help.

It’s a long, long piece that discusses the scant attention paid by the Bush administration to the post-war occupation of Iraq; conflicting assessments of the viability of the military Saddam left, leading to the decision to disband it entirely; competing priorities that kept placing training of the Iraqis too far down the list for resources and attention; and of course, the Sunni insurgency that fed on earlier American mistakes.

Republicans would like us to believe that the “surge” defeated that insurgency once and for all and had Barack Obama left enough U.S. troops in place everything would be hunky dory now. Sure sounds from Fallows’ account that such claims follow a familiar pattern of American self-delusion about the country we broke and cannot put back together.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.