America Failed at Building Up the Iraqi Army Back in the ’50s
The Pentagon worries about the poor state of the Iraqi military. Despite pouring weapons and advisers into Iraq, America’s war planners still don’t believe Baghdad’s troops are ready to launch a major offensive against Islamic State.
“We’re working with Iraq’s military and civilian leaders to determine the pace at which we will encourage them and enable them to do a counteroffensive,” U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Jan. 8.
But almost a half century ago, when a very different regime ruled Iraq, U.S. military advisers also tried to build up Baghdad’s military. It didn’t go very well—and recently declassified transcripts from meetings between the advisers reveal surprisingly candid comments.
The Iraqi military barely functioned. The Americans didn’t think Baghdad could hold off an invasion or deal with a serious uprising—even with U.S. aid. Worse, if Washington provided weapons, the Iraqis wouldn’t know how to use the bulk of them.
But the advisers supported giving Iraq advanced weapons anyways. Mainly for propaganda reasons.
In February 1957, American officers gathered in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to discuss backing a number of countries with military aid, including the Iraqi monarchy.
At the same time, an Iraqi delegation led by Crown Prince Abdullah—the uncle of 22-year-old King Faisal II—traveled to Washington to plead for weapons.
Pres. Dwight Eisenhower had asked Congress for $200 million to support foreign forces in the coming year. American advisers to Pakistan already had that much money in their budget … and they wanted more.
During the meeting in Karachi, Lt. Col. Marcus Powell—the deputy chief of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group for Baghdad—knew he had a problem.
The U.S. advisers to Iraq lacked funds—and the Iraqis were in Washington clamoring for a slice of the pie. The Baghdad officials were trying to “get in an early claim on the 200 million [dollars] requested by the President,” Powell said.
The problem was that Iraq’s military was falling apart in such a catastrophic fashion, it’s unlikely American aid could have fixed it.
Baghdad’s three infantry divisions had less than 60 percent of their necessary equipment, Powell complained. Not that it necessarily mattered. These three units—the bulk of Iraq’s combat forces—were short thousands of troops, too.
The same problems existed in the country’s air force. Baghdad had almost two planes for every trained pilot in its ranks. But given these shortfalls, American advisers doubted Iraq’s military could have handled more weapons.
“The Army and the Air Force are facing a serious problem in properly maintaining and utilizing the equipment they have on hand,” Powell noted.
Baghdad wanted a lot of weapons. But the Iraqi army—which also oversaw the country’s air force—could only realistically handle two dozen World War II-vintage light tanks.
Even if the Iraqis couldn’t use them, flashy and advanced weapon systems would still have a “tremendous political political and psychological value to the country,” said Powell.
So the Pentagon could probably get away with delivering a battalion of 90-millimeter anti-aircraft guns to Iraq, Powell explained. Even though the big cannons were obsolete and practically useless against modern aircraft.
The advisers also considered sending jet fighters.
“Again for political and psychological reasons, we believe the addition of one squadron of F-86s could be justified,” Powell said. The Pentagon was already exporting these first-generation fighter jets to friendly nations around the globe.
With so many shortcomings, Powell didn’t think much of Iraq’s military. “The Iraqi Army, as currently trained and equipped, is not capable of offering more than a token resistance to aggression by any major force,” he lamented.
This revelation had serious ramifications for the Baghdad Pact—a now-defunct anti-communist military alliance akin to NATO across the Middle East and Central Asia.
As the name implies, the organization based in the Iraqi capital. If Baghdad could not fend off a serious attack—namely a Soviet invasion through Syria—then it brought the whole enterprise into question.
The Suez Crisis had also strained the coalition. Five months before the gathering in Pakistan, the United Kingdom and France invaded Egypt after Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal. The fledgling state of Israel joined the attack against Egypt.
While the British, French and Israeli forces eventually withdrew, Iraqi officials refused to attend Pact council meetings when London’s representatives were present.
But perhaps even more damning, Powell voiced fears about whether Baghdad could deal with internal threats. Like the country’s current government, the Iraqi monarchy found itself caught up in a whirlwind of political pressures.
Pan-Arab nationalists, communists and Kurdish separatists—among others—all opposed the regime. The Soviet Union actively supported hostile governments in Cairo and Damascus.
Iraqi troops could keep King Faisal on the throne “unless it is faced with simultaneous uprisings throughout Iraq in conjunction with a Kurdish uprising in the North,” Powell posited. “In such a case, it is somewhat doubtful if she could maintain internal security.”
In the end, Powell recommended the Pentagon boost support for the Iraqi military. The extra aid would help keep the monarchy alive, the communists out and Baghdad in the western camp.
“The accomplishment of this particular objective may well mean that we will be required to give Iraq … certain equipment that we know full well they cannot utilize and maintain at this time,” Powell said as he finished his remarks.
Not surprisingly, the Pentagon classified Powell’s comments. “To facilitate circulation, TOP SECRET material has been omitted,” according to the full report, now declassified and released by the Army’s Heritage and Education Center.
In July 1958, a conspiracy of nationalist military officers overthrew the monarchy. The “Free Officers” murdered King Faisal, Crown Prince Abdullah and Prime Minister Nuri Al Said—an ethnic Turk not related to either of the royals—during the coup.
The U.S. delivered only a handful of weapons in the short time before Faisal’s death. Iraq’s new military junta pulled out of the Baghdad Pact. The organization changed its name to the Central Treaty Organization and moved its headquarters to Turkey.
Fast forward to today and Iraq’s troops—and their American advisers—are experiencing many of the same difficulties. In November, officials in Baghdad discovered that 50,000 troops on the rolls simply didn’t exist.
In addition, Iraqi soldiers are having trouble making use of their advanced M-1 Abrams tanks. And while Baghdad struggles to acquire 18 high-tech F-16 fighters, the country’s air force is stuck flying propeller-driven attack planes instead.
“We continue to work towards a train and equip program for Iraqi troops,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said at a press conference earlier in January.
“There’s more work to be done,” Kirby added. “So nobody’s taking this for granted.”