Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 9, 2005
WAR: From The Ground Up
Absolute required reading: "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden (reporting through the eyes of one of the veterans of Mogadishu) on the difficulties of building a new NCO and officer corps in the Iraqi Army. Bowden suggests that conventional wisdom may be wrong on one major point:
It has become generally accepted wisdom that it was a mistake for the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband Saddam's army after American forces took Baghdad two years ago. If Maj. Lechner's experience is typical, then retaining the old force would have just created a whole different set of problems, and might well have further set back efforts to create a flexible, effective Iraqi army. Solving the problem in the 7th Battalion ultimately required rooting out nearly all of those officers who had served under the old regime.
[I]n almost all cases, the decisions by Bush and his civilian and military advisers involved avoiding alternatives that had their own potential bad consequences, and the critics are judging these decisions in a vacuum. The decision to disband Saddam's army and undergo a thorough de-Ba'athification is a classic example, cited incessantly by critics on the Left. But what if Bush had kept that army together, and they had acted in the heavy-handed (to put it mildly) fashion to which the Ba'athists were accustomed, say, by firing on crowds of civilians? Isn't it an absolute certainty that all the same critics would be singing "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," accusing Bush's commitment to democracy as being a sham and a cover for a desire to set up friendly tyrants to keep the oil pumping, that we'd hear constantly about how we've alienated the Iraqi people by enabling their oppressors, how we showed misunderstanding of the country by leaving a minority Sunni power structure in place over the Shi'ite majority? Wouldn't we hear the very same things we hear now about Afghanistan, about using too few US troops and "outsourcing" the job, or the same civil-liberties concerns we hear when we turn over suspects for interrogation to countries without our restraint when it comes to torture?
I still have no way to judge if disbanding the old army was the right thing to do, and Bowden explains why, either way, the task ahead may yet be long and difficult (although the end result, if it works, could be the most effective military in the region other than Israel and Turkey, given that similar problems with the officer and NCO corps abound in Arab militaries).