Why Iraq Has No Army

An orderly exit from Iraq depends on the development of a viable Iraqi security force, but the Iraqis aren't even close. The Bush administration doesn't take the problem seriously—and it never has

"My effort was not intended to re-activate the Iraqi military," Hughes says. "Whenever the Iraqi officers asked if they could re-form their units, I was quite direct with them that if they did, they would be attacked and destroyed. What we wanted to do was arrange the process by which these hundred thousand soldiers would register with [the occupation authorities], tell us what they knew, draw their pay, and then report to selected sites. CPA Order Number Two simply stopped any effort to move forward, as if the Iraqi military had ceased to exist. [Walt Slocombe's] statement about the twenty dollars still sticks in my brain: 'We don't pay armies we defeated.' My Iraqi friends tell me that this decision was what really spurred the nationalists to join the infant insurgency. We had advertised ourselves as liberators and turned on these people without so much as a second thought."

The argument will go on. But about what happened next there is little dispute. Having eliminated the main existing security force, and having arrived with fewer troops than past experience in the Balkans, Germany, and Japan would suggest for so large a territory, American officials essentially wasted the next six months. By the time they thought seriously about reconstituting Iraq's military and police forces, the insurgency was under way and the challenge of pacifying Iraq had magnified.

There is no single comprehensive explanation for what went wrong. After the tension leading up to the war and the brilliant, brief victory, political and even military leaders seemed to lose interest, or at least intensity. "Once Baghdad was taken, Tommy Franks checked out," Victor O'Reilly, who has written extensively about the U.S. military, told me. "He seemed to be thinking mainly about his book." Several people I spoke with volunteered this view of Franks, who was the centcom commander during the war. (Franks did not respond to interview requests, including those sent through his commercially minded Web site, TommyFranks.com.) In retrospect the looting was the most significant act of the first six months after the war. It degraded daily life, especially in Baghdad, and it made the task of restoring order all the more difficult for the U.S. or Iraqi forces that would eventually undertake it. But at the time neither political nor military leaders treated it as urgent. Weeks went by before U.S. troops effectively intervened.

In June of 2003, as the looting was dying down but the first signs of insurgent violence were appearing, the CSIS sent a team of experts who had worked in past occupations. They were alarmed by what they saw. "There is a general sense of steady deterioration in the security situation, in Baghdad, Mosul, and elsewhere," they reported. "Virtually every Iraqi and most CPA and coalition military officials as well as most contractors we spoke to cited the lack of public safety as their number one concern." At that time, the team pointed out, some 5,000 U.S. troops were tied down guarding buildings in Baghdad, with two and a half battalions, representing well over a thousand troops, guarding the American headquarters alone.

Anthony Cordesman, of the CSIS, says there was never a conscious decision to delay or ignore training, but at any given moment in the occupation's first months some other goal always seemed more urgent or more interesting. Through the first six months of the occupation capturing Saddam Hussein seemed to be the most important step toward ending the resistance. His two sons were killed in July; he himself was captured in December; and the insurgency only grew. Along the way the manhunt relied on detention, interrogation, and break-down-doors-at-night techniques that hastened resentment of the U.S. presence. "The search for Saddam colored everything," Victor O'Reilly told me. "It is my belief that the insurgency was substantially created by the tactics used by the occupying force, who were initially the saviors, in their search for Saddam. Ambitious generals, who should have known better, created a very aggressive do-what-is-necessary culture. Frustrated troops, with no familiarity with the language or culture, naturally make mistakes. And in a tribal society if you shoot one person it spreads right through the system."

The hunt for WMD troves, conducted in the same way as the search for Saddam and by troops with the same inability to understand what was being said around them, had a similar embittering effect. The junior-level soldiers and Marines I interviewed consistently emphasized how debilitating the language barrier was. Having too few interpreters, they were left to communicate their instructions with gestures and sign language. The result was that American troops were blind and deaf to much of what was going on around them, and the Iraqis were often terrified.

General Mattis had stressed to his troops the importance of not frightening civilians, so as not to turn those civilians into enemies. He, too, emphasizes the distractions in the first year that diminished the attention paid to building an Iraqi security force. "There was always something," he told me. "Instead of focusing on security, we were trying to get oil pipelines patched, electrical grids back into position, figure out who the engineers were we could trust, since some of them hated us so much they would do sabotage work. It was going to take a while."

When Americans did think about a new Iraqi army, they often began with fears that it might become too strong too fast. "Everybody assumed that within Iraq it would be peaceful," says T. X. Hammes, the author of The Sling and the Stone, who was then in Iraq as a Marine Corps colonel. "So the biggest concern was reassuring all of Iraq's neighbors that Iraq would not be a threat. One of the ways you do that is by building a motor infantry force with no logistics"—that is, an army that can't sustain any large-scale offensive operation. Such an army might assuage concerns in Syria and Iran, but it would do little to provide internal security, and would not be prepared for domestic counterinsurgency work. (This tension has not been resolved: to this day the Iraqi government complains that the United States will not help it get adequate tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery.) Corrupt use of U.S. aid and domestic Iraqi resources was a constant and destructive factor. Last August the Knight Ridder newspapers revealed that Iraq's Board of Supreme Audit had surveyed arms contracts worth $1.3 billion and concluded that about $500 million had simply disappeared in payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.

Training the police would be as big a challenge as training the army. "There was no image of a non-corrupt police force anywhere in the country," Mattis says. And to make matters more difficult, the effort began just as the police were coming under attack from insurgents' bombs and grenades.

Throughout the occupation, but most of all in these early months, training suffered from a "B Team" problem. Before the fighting there was a huge glamour gap in the Pentagon between people working on so-called Phase III—the "kinetic" stage, the currently fashionable term for what used to be called "combat"—and those consigned to thinking about Phase IV, postwar reconstruction. The gap persisted after Baghdad fell. Nearly every military official I spoke with said that formal and informal incentives within the military made training Iraqi forces seem like second-tier work.

There were exceptions. The Green Berets and other elite units of the Special Forces have long prided themselves on being able to turn ragtag foreign armies into effective fighting units. But there weren't enough Special Forces units to go around, and the mainstream Army and Marine Corps were far less enthusiastic about training assignments. Especially at the start, training missions were filled mostly by people who couldn't get combat postings, and by members of the Reserves and the National Guard.

Walter Slocombe told me that there could have been a larger structural attempt to deal with the B-Team issue. "If we knew then what we know now," he said—that is, if people in charge had understood that public order would be the biggest postwar problem, and that Iraqis would soon resent the presence of foreigners trying to impose that order—"we would have done things differently. It would have made sense to have had an American military unit assigned this way from the beginning. They would be told, 'You guys aren't going to fight this war. You're not going to get Medals of Honor. But you will get due recognition. Your job is to run the occupation and train the Iraqis.' And we'd configure for that mission."

But of course that didn't happen. "I couldn't believe that we weren't ready for the occupation," Terence Daly, a retired Army colonel who learned the tactics of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, told me. "I was horrified when I saw the looting and the American inaction afterward. If I were an Iraqi, it would have shown me these people are not serious."

II. Autumn 2003-Autumn 2004: Overwhelmed

By late 2003 the United States had lost time and had changed identity, from liberator to occupier. But in its public pronouncements and its internal guidance the administration resisted admitting, even to itself, that it now faced a genuine insurgency—one that might grow in strength—rather than merely facing the dregs of the old regime, whose power would naturally wane as its leaders were caught and killed. On June 16 Army General John Abizaid, newly installed as centcom commander, was the first senior American official to say that in fact the United States now faced a "classical guerrilla-type campaign." Two days later, in congressional testimony, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, seemed to accept the definition, saying, "There is a guerrilla war there, but ... we can win it." On June 30 Rumsfeld corrected both of them, saying that the evidence from Iraq "doesn't make it anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance." Two days after that President Bush said at a White House ceremony that some people felt that circumstances in Iraq were "such that they can attack us there. My answer is, Bring them on." Meanwhile, the insurgency in Iraq grew worse and worse.

Improving the training of Iraqis suddenly moved up the list of concerns. Karl Eikenberry, an Army general who had trained Afghan forces after the fall of the Taliban, was sent to Iraq to see what was wrong. Pentagon briefers referred more and more frequently to the effort to create a new Iraqi military. By early 2004 the administration had decided to spend more money on troop training, and to make it more explicitly part of the U.S. mission in Iraq. It was then that a grim reality hit: how hard this process would actually be.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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