Hastily disbanding Iraq army was key error

On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Americans are more focused on threats to the economy than on events in Baghdad.

But, having spent five years focused on this war which will haunt us for at least five more, I’m mesmerized by new revelations about a crucial postwar mistake. I refer to the administration’s decision to officially dissolve the army of Iraq.

America’s abolishment of the Iraq army on May 2003 left tens of thousands of armed men without salaries or job prospects. It practically guaranteed the emergence of a strong Sunni resistance. I was in the audience in Baghdad when Paul Bremer, Bush’s special Iraq envoy, made the momentous announcement. It astonished me and those of my colleagues who had any knowledge of Iraq.

After the press briefing, I rushed to a district where many army officers lived. The message from all of them was the same: “You dropped leaflets telling us not to fight, and we obeyed, and this is our reward. We will fight you.” And that was just what they did.

This week the New York Times ran an investigation of how this fateful decision was taken. It reveals the decision was made without the counsel of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or the senior American commander in Iraq at the time, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan. Both say they would have objected.

The Times investigation shows a president who signed off on this momentous decision but was oblivious to its meaning. My interviews with Bremer and Walter Slocombe, his senior aide on this issue, showed them to be equally out of touch.

American commanders, along with Jay Garner, the administration’s first Iraq czar, had originally planned to use the Iraqi military to keep order and rebuild the country. Although much of the army had deserted, the idea was to recall units and vet them. Those units most loyal to Saddam Hussein would be disarmed and dismantled.

Such a plan had been approved just before the war at a meeting led by President Bush. So who changed the plan?

Bremer told me in 2006 that he made the recommendation. But “this decision was made with the full agreement of the Pentagon. Discussions started between Slocombe and (deputy defense secretary Paul) Wolfowitz and (undersecretary of defense Douglas) Feith even before we left” for Iraq.

The Times says Bremer sent a draft memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in early May 2003, and Rumsfeld gave his approval. But Powell and McKiernan say they were never consulted.

As for the president, he signed off on the decree on May 22 during a videoconference with Bremer. Never mind that he had just approved a totally opposite plan; according to the Times, Bush raised no questions. Rumsfeld refused to be interviewed.

This slapdash decision-making on crucial issues reflects the way the whole war was handled. Bush didn’t ask, Rumsfeld wasn’t interested. U.S. military commanders were ignored, and those with knowledge of Iraq were left out of the loop. Here we have the whole story of the war.

Equally disturbing is how little Bremer and Slocombe understood about the country they were charged with remaking. I interviewed Slocombe in Saddam’s palace in November 2003, at a time when car bombs were already exploding and an incipient insurgency was apparent. He brusquely dismissed the idea that the army could have been rebuilt and demanded we change the subject.

The crucial force in Iraq would not be the army, he told me, but the police. “In a normal society,” Slocombe said, “police do law enforcement. The critical point is getting the police force up.”

Never mind that Iraq was obviously not “a normal society” but one sinking into uncontrolled violence. Never mind that such violence could not be handled by police, who command little respect in Iraqi society. Slocombe envisioned a small Iraqi army, with U.S. troops taking on “the terrorists” for the foreseeable future. This misperception of Iraq’s needs haunts us today.

Bremer seemed equally oblivious to the world outside the Green Zone. I asked in 2006 why he hadn’t at least offered pensions and severance to army officers to allay their anger. (This policy later had to be changed.)

He told me that, at the time, he didn’t know how many officers were involved so couldn’t give the Pentagon a cost estimate. Can this bureaucratic explanation really be responsible for such a costly mistake?

Yet it is an error to lay all the blame for disbanding the army on Bremer and Slocombe. The White House put Rumsfeld and the Pentagon in charge of the postwar, and the buck stops at the president’s desk.

Bremer and Slocombe were doing what they thought their superiors wanted. We now know now their superiors were too oblivious to question what Bremer and Slocombe did.