Too few good men

By Dan Senor, an aide in the Bush administration, and Walter Slocombe, an under secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, were senior advisers to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/11/05):

THIS month, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense encouraged former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army to apply for commissions in the country’s new army. Much has been made of this initiative, which is sensible and welcome at a time when Sunni cooperation is crucial to Iraq’s stability. But contrary to news reports, the announcement does not mark a policy change.

To explain this requires a bit of history. When the American-led coalition “disbanded” the Iraqi Army in May 2003, it was simply recognizing the fact that the army had long since dissolved itself – in the Pentagon’s jargon, “self-demobilized” – as the mass of (mostly Shiite) conscripts fled the brutality of their (mostly Sunni) officers.

Indeed, by the time Baghdad and Tikrit fell in mid-April 2003, there was not a single Iraqi army unit still intact. Moreover, every significant Iraqi military installation had been rendered unusable by the combined effects of coalition attacks, pilfering by departing officers and enlisted men, and looting by local people who saw the military as symbolic of the privileges and abuses of the old system.

With the old army gone, the coalition turned to building a new military for a new Iraq. Some people now claim that the coalition should have instead tried to reassemble the splintered old force. But such an effort would have run up against formidable practical and political obstacles. Few conscripts would have willingly returned, and in any case there were no barracks, bases or equipment for them. So we would have wound up with, at best, a nearly exclusively Sunni force of regime loyalists, unhoused and ill equipped.

This would have been a political disaster, alienating the Kurds and Shiites who make up more than 80 percent of Iraq’s population and who understandably saw the old army as a key enforcer of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

But that doesn’t mean that the coalition rejected everyone who served under Mr. Hussein. The Coalition Provisional Authority made clear from the beginning that neither service in the old army nor rank-and-file membership in the Baath Party would disqualify applicants for the new army. Only those who had worked in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and political control organizations – rather than the regular army or the Republican Guard – and those at the top four ranks of the Baath Party were barred.

These bases for disqualification affected less than 10 percent of the total officer corps, and even those could apply for a waiver. All other applicants for the new army were judged on their personal records and aptitude. All the non-disqualified officers were also paid a monthly stipend, whether they joined the new forces or not.

So the recent Defense Ministry announcement is not a reversal of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s policy on employing former officers, but is entirely consistent with it. In fact, the new policy is, if anything, even more restrictive: it states that the army will now accept former officers up to the rank of major, whereas the provisional authority’s policy accepted officers as high as lieutenant colonel.

By the time the provisional authority left Iraq in June 2004, Iraq’s security forces drew more than 80 percent of their officers and the majority of their enlisted men from the old military. The army now numbers approximately 90,000.The new announcement does not offer blanket reinstatement. The old officer corps – some 80,000 strong – was so large that it would be impossible to absorb it all. At any reasonable ratio of officers to other ranks, there is a need for only relatively few of the old officers in the new force.

And the announcement notes that those who respond to the latest invitation to apply must go through a rigorous screening process. That, too, continues past practice. Experience has shown that, although many former officers are strongly committed to serving the new Iraq, a few who sought (and in some cases even obtained) new commissions secretly supported the insurgency, while many more, though not actively disloyal, were unwilling to change the attitudes and leadership styles that made the old army both oppressive and ineffective.

Iraq’s security forces need good leadership and a sense, both internally and among the Iraqi people, that they serve the nation rather than any particular sect, ethnic group, political party or warlord. This month’s announcement usefully restates that those who served the old regime but are now prepared to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the new nation are welcome, and that Sunni heritage is no obstacle to serving in the Iraqi military. This is not, however, a change of course so much as the reiteration of a principle that has been applied from the beginning.