After the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in occupied Iraq, took a bold step. He dissolved Iraq’s military, deciding to replace Saddam’s 350,000-man army with a lightly-armed border protection force that would start with 12,000 troops and eventually peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by various police and civil defense forces.
Bremer’s best-laid plans imploded as an insurgency blossomed from the roiling mass of well-trained Iraqi military veterans he had ushered to the unemployment line and a civil war soon wracked the country. A bloodbath ensued and never ended, even as the U.S. surged in more troops and pumped in tens of billions of dollars to build what eventually became the 930,000-man strong Iraqi security forces. (That’s not much smaller than the South Vietnamese Army the U.S. built up in the late 1960s!) Along the way, there was plenty of progress. “Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2005. “You know, the one thing — the one thing we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta six years later. “And I think that’s a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country.”
And yet by 2014, the Iraqi military had (and was paying) more ghost soldiers — troops who existed only on paper — than the number of real soldiers Bremer had envisioned to secure the whole country back in 2003. As it happened, Iraq was anything but secure. Today, it’s a half-failed state, riven by sectarian strife, and has lost a significant portion of its territory to an extremist group incubated in U.S. prison camps. The country is now far worse off than the one the U.S. invaded in 2003.
The U.S. military is great at a lot of things, just not things like winning wars or effectively training foreign forces. TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich takes on the how-and-why of this latter failure, tracing the sorry history of U.S. nation- and army-building from the battlefields of Vietnam — which he knew intimately — to the festering wars of today. Buckle up for a long, strange trip.