Where’s That Iraqi Army?

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Yesterday, Dan Senor and Walter Slocombe, two former CPA officials, wrote a New York Times op-ed defending the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army in early 2003. It’s a bit like having Oliver North write an essay on why using Iran to sell arms to the Contras was actually a pretty clever scheme (oh, hell, it’s a bit like hiring Oliver North as a commenter for your news network), but in this case, these two are probably right. Had the U.S. kept Saddam’s old army in place in Iraq, it could have very easily alienated the Shiites and Kurds, and in that alternate universe, who knows what kind of insurgency the U.S. may be facing right now.

But that’s just to say that the prospects for success in Iraq always looked bleak, and the country isn’t a mess now merely because the Bush administration botched the execution. The war hawks certainly did just that—especially when they didn’t even bother to plan for the occupation—but even if the planners had done all their homework, “victory” was always a pretty remote possibility, and the real lesson in retrospect is that we should have only invaded if we had to, which we didn’t.

On a related note, James Fallows has a good cover story in this month’s Atlantic on why the U.S. still hasn’t yet created a new army for Iraq yet. Basically, the task hasn’t ever been a priority for the administration—it’s not sexy enough, apparently, certainly not for Donald Rumsfeld—and for the most part it’s not really a glamour job within the military, which means that top officers aren’t usually assigned to the job. (Although Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the guy who helped turn training around in 2004, became something of a mini-celebrity.) Things are going better now, but the training’s still too sluggish and new insurgents are cropping up faster than new forces can be trained. As long as the army remains too small, and too unequipped, and too fractured by ethnic and sectarian divisions, there won’t be order in Iraq.

So the U.S. needs to either ‘magically’ figure this problem out, or else it needs to start recognizing that “it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly.” That’s the basic logic of it, not overly difficult to grasp, and it was pretty much John Murtha’s point when he came out in favor of withdrawal yesterday, although the usual lunatics are accusing him of wanting to “retreat”.

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