Why We Need to Rearm Iraq

Despite what media coverage is leading the American public to believe, returning control of civil government to the people of Iraq does not end the U.S. mission in that war-torn country.

What else is needed? Beyond restoring the economy, it’s imperative that we rebuild the Iraqi military forces. It’s a time-consuming and very expensive prospect. But if we fail to do it now, we’ll pay far more in the future.

When the United States occupied Iraq last year, it disbanded the Iraqi army. But U.S. officials soon recognized this was a mistake and now believe that some sort of Iraqi military force must be recreated. However, the nature of that force is the focus of debate.

If the new Iraqi force is too strong, Iraq’s neighbors will feel threatened. If the force is too weak, it will either invite aggression by hostile states or require an open-ended U.S. military commitment to Iraq. In short, this issue is of crucial importance to the course of events in the Middle East. It will also determine the future commitment of the United States to Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, in charge of training the new Iraqi army, understands the nature of the problem. In late January, he predicted that Iraq would need an army of eight to twelve divisions to meet its defensive requirements. But he acknowledged the difficulty of reaching this goal, saying that it would require at least three to five years and could be achieved only “prodigious contributions from donor nations.” Eaton is correct on both counts. And the United States absolutely must find the political will to provide Eaton and the Iraqi Army its needed support.

It is imperative that the United States resolve to pay the cost of training the Iraqi army up front. Otherwise the United States will pay much greater costs down the line. Those costs will come in the form either of regional instability that could involve the United States in a third Iraq war or an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq akin to what this country has maintained in South Korea for the past 50 years. Either situation would be more expensive than properly training and equipping a new Iraqi military now.

At the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel: a Soviet zone to the north and an American zone to the south. The Soviet Union withdrew its occupation forces in 1948; the United States followed suit in 1949. However, while North Korea had a Soviet-equipped, Chinese-trained army, the South Korean army was woefully ill-equipped and ill-trained — the result of deliberate U.S. policy choices.

Similarly to today’s concerns about a rearmed Iraq, Washington then worried that Syngman Rhee, head of the new Republic of Korea (ROK), was just as likely to use the South Korean forces to attack North Korea as he was to defend South Korea. Therefore, the United States didn’t supply him with any equipment that could assist in attacking North Korea, no matter that the same equipment would be needed for defense as well. The ROK divisions were dismissed at the time as a “gendarmerie,” not a fighting force.

While leaving him with a weak Army did curb Rhee’s aggressive tendencies, it also eliminated his defensive abilities. North Korea, recognizing the opportunity posed by ROK weakness and the U.S. withdrawal, seized the chance to forcibly reunite the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War cost the United States 35,000 dead and 50 years of forward presence on Korea’s 38th parallel to correct this mistake. We can’t leave Iraq in the same defenseless state.

If the United States doesn’t ensure that Iraq fields an army capable of defending itself, we run the risk of maintaining the same lengthy military presence in the Middle East we have supported in Korea for 50 years. Although a rearmed Iraq might be perceived as threatening by its neighbors, an unarmed Iraq is even more prone to causing regional instability. As in the Korean case, a weak Iraq would invite aggression. Iran, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, all threaten Iraq. And if Iraq can’t defend itself, not only would war be more likely; the United States would have to fight to defend Iraq. It’s far better that Iraq be able to defend itself.

And a prolonged US military presence in Iraq similar to the Korean case is not politically feasible. The South Korean public largely welcomed the Americans. But the people of Iraq would not welcome a long-term American military presence, nor would the American people support it.

The United States fought Operation Iraqi Freedom with the goal of leaving behind a free Iraq, not a country threatened by its neighbors or permanently garrisoned by U.S. troops. We must spend what it takes to properly train and equip the Iraqis to defend themselves now, because if we don’t, history suggests, America will have to pay even more in the future.

Stacy Bergstrom Haldi teaches international relations at Gettysburg College. She is the author of "Why Wars Widen: A Theory of Predation and Balancing" (2003) and is a writer for History News Service.