Global Policy Forum

The Long, Hard Haul from Iraq


Withdrawal of Troops, Supplies Could Take at Least 20 Months, Officials Say

By David Wood

Baltimore Sun
July 15, 2007

When it comes, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the dismantling of the vast American presence here promises to be as risky and unpredictable an ordeal as the past four years of war. Political and public demand for a quick withdrawal is rising. But nothing about withdrawal will be quick. The 20 ground combat brigades deployed here will fill 10,000 flatbed trucks and will take a year to move, logistics experts say. A full withdrawal, shipping home some 200,000 Americans and thousands of tons of equipment, dismantling dozens of American bases and disposing of tons of accumulated toxic waste, will take 20 months or longer, they estimate. Yet the administration, long intent on avoiding what it once called a "cut and run" retreat from Iraq, has done little to lay the groundwork for withdrawal, officials here said.

"We don't have the plan in detail yet. We're seriously engaged in trying to figure this out," said Marine Brig. Gen. Gray Payne, director of the U.S. Central Command's logistics operations center. Even with the benefit of a detailed plan, Payne said, "this is going to be an enormous challenge." Extricating combat forces during an active war is a tricky military maneuver under the best of circumstances, according to interviews with senior military officers and dozens of tactical and strategic military planners and logistics experts in Iraq and at U.S. military facilities across the region. A hastier departure could find military convoys stalled on roads cratered by roadside bombs, interrupted by blown bridges and clogged with fleeing refugees; heavy cargo planes jammed with troops could labor into skies dark with smoke rising from abandoned American bases.

How the United States manages to disentangle itself from Iraq, whether in a graceful redeployment that strengthens stability or in a more chaotic retreat, will have profound repercussions for American power and prestige in the region, military and civilian strategists said. Indeed, even though the word withdrawal has become this summer's most shopworn term in Washington, few have grasped the staggering difficulty, time and cost of actually carrying it out. "It's going to be mind-boggling - like picking up the city of Los Angeles and putting all the pieces somewhere else," said an official of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command, which will oversee much of the work.

The sprawling American presence here has been built up slowly over the past four years, most of it trucked in over roads that were initially uncontested but now routinely come under attack as the sectarian war has intensified. Almost no stretch of the main military supply road, Route Tampa, is safe from IED attacks, intelligence officers said, making withdrawal more problematical. The end of America's last big war, in Vietnam, was planned in detail. Despite the popular image of a helicopter plucking the last Americans from a Saigon rooftop, the withdrawal of 365,000 soldiers took place in increments between 1969 and 1973. The planning took two years. Even so, Army history notes that "many U.S. bases" scheduled to be turned over to the South Vietnam government were plundered by the Vietnamese and the loot sold on the black market.

Today, with 71 percent of Americans in the most recent Gallup/USA Today poll endorsing the withdrawal of American troops within 10 months, there does not appear to be the patience for two years of planning and a three-year withdrawal. While President Bush sought last week to win more time for the escalation of combat forces to take effect in Baghdad, congressional Democrats vowed to continue their fight for a withdrawal of forces by next spring.

Apart from politics, the beginning of a withdrawal may be triggered then when many of the combat brigades in Iraq are scheduled to be rotated home, since the Army says it will have difficulty finding fresh units to replace them. Already, six National Guard ground combat brigades are set to deploy to Iraq next spring; to sustain current levels, even more active or Guard units would have to be pressed into service - called up in a presidential election year. For that reason, and for the sake of stability in the region, many in Washington favor a phased troop withdrawal. One idea gaining ground is to withdraw all "combat forces" and reassign the remaining troops to fighting insurgents and training and advising Iraq's forces.

But those missions would require almost as many troops as there are in Iraq today, officers said, and would hardly remove Americans from the fight. Those who remained would still require the full spectrum of support: food, housing, medical care, intelligence support and the air cover provided by U.S. strike fighters. As they do now for resupply, all would depend on dozens of daily truck convoys, which themselves require ground troops and air support for protection. Some officers here worry about the ripple effects a limited withdrawal could start. "You start pulling the string," said one senior officer who asked not to be identified, "and things start to unravel."

Once Washington signals its intent to withdraw, Iraqis working in the security forces will begin looking elsewhere for protection, making them "unreliable combat partners," said Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former White House National Security Council official. Some expect large-scale desertions. Iraqi government officials, translators and others closely identified with U.S. forces may join the exodus from the country, crippling critical government services. For U.S. troops during a withdrawal, "casualty avoidance" will become the main mission. "It will be politically untenable to sacrifice lives in a cause that has already been abandoned," Simon explained, adding: "It's going to be dangerous for everybody."

These potential difficulties have provoked rising concern about the lack of planning for withdrawal, not only among military officers here but also in Washington. On Friday, two of the Senate's most respected Republican authorities on international and military affairs, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and John W. Warner of Virginia, introduced a measure to compel the Bush administration to "immediately initiate planning" for the next steps in Iraq, "including a drawdown or redeployment of troops."

"We saw in 2003 after the initial invasion of Iraq the disastrous results of failing to plan adequately," Lugar said in a floor speech. "We need to be planning for what comes next." Others have urged the administration to persuade Iran to use its influence with Shiite insurgents in Iraq to achieve a relatively peaceful withdrawal - just as the United States reached an understanding with China to persuade its Viet Cong allies not to interfere with the American reduction of forces.

Pentagon officials rushed to assure lawmakers that a plan will be ready in time. "When the time comes and the decision is made to begin to draw down forces, we will have put in place the capabilities logistically to do that in the right order with the right amount of equipment coming down in the right sequence," Jack Bell, deputy under secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, told a Senate committee last week. He said planning has been "under way for some time." Costs for the war, already running at $12 billion a month, will increase as withdrawal begins, other officials said, with the military paying premium prices for a "surge" in airlift and contractor support, among other costs. Until recently, KBR Inc. has held a controversial cost-plus contract, allowing them to bill the government for expenses plus profit, to provide logistics support to the military in Iraq and elsewhere. Since 2001, KBR has earned $22.1 billion under this contract. A Pentagon audit of $16.2 billion of this work found that $3.2 billion in KBR billing was either questionable or unsupported by documentation. Under a new arrangement announced last month, the Army has awarded three cost-plus contracts to separate companies to do the work, with a total value of $15 billion a year. A shortage of aircraft means the Defense Department will have to charter transports to move troops out of the region. Under current agreements, the Pentagon will pay companies such as FedEx and UPS $627.80 for each soldier it flies home - for example, from Baghdad to Baltimore. For cargo, the Pentagon will pay roughly $1.3 million for each cargo-loaded 747 aircraft flight.

Despite the costs and other problems, logisticians insist they can handle withdrawal. "We know how to do this - it's our job," said Maj. Stephen Sherbody, an Army logistician at Camp Anaconda in Iraq who studies Wal-Mart's trucking operations in his off-hours. The difficulty, he said, "is people are shooting at us." But others doubt that all will go smoothly. A new report by the Government Accountability Office, the analysis agency of Congress, found severe problems in the U.S. Central Command logistics system, which will handle the withdrawal. The GAO found fragmented lines of authority, a shortage of skilled logisticians, and computer systems that can't connect with each other.

GAO investigators found that Army logistics staff at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, spent half their time scribbling notes on paper from one computer database and manually entering the data into another system. One result, the GAO found this spring, is that one third of all the steel shipping containers in Iraq and Afghanistan - 54,390 containers - are simply lost.


Despite such difficulties, here's how logisticians and planners here lay out the job ahead:

Officially, the military lists 160,000 troops assigned to Iraq. Army officers here say they are also supervising 56,000 contractors and between 30,000 and 50,000 foreign workers, including some Iraqis who are dependent on the U.S. military for jobs and protection. U.S. Central Command planners are figuring having to move 207,000 troops, said Air Force Col. Dennis J. Nebara deputy director of the Central Command Deployment and Distribution Operations Center.

Most of the Americans, at least, will be flown out of Iraq. "You don't want a lot of people riding around on buses," said Lt. Col. Eric Casler, an Air Force logistician. But commercial charter aircraft are not allowed to fly into combat zones such as Baghdad or any of the large airfields in Iraq at Balad, Al Asad or Al Taqaddam, Casler said. That means troops will have to be ferried out in C-130 cargo planes so worn out that Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said last spring he is worried that "their wings are going to fall off." The 40 C-130s in the region each can carry about 55 troops at a time, but Iraq's airfields are small and crowded, and some can handle only one C-130 at a time, said Col. Brian Reno, an air logistics officer. Rocket attacks against airfields in Iraq are rising, U.S. officials said, and there are concerns about terrorist attacks on massed American troops in Iraq and Kuwait as well.

"Hopefully, you're not in a rush to get everyone out," said Air Force Brig. Gen. John Fobian, who commands an airlift wing in the region. Already, the skies over Iraq are crowded with bombers, jet fighters and drone aircraft piloted by technicians at bases in Nevada and North Dakota. "There's a lot of people operating in a tight space, so [the rule is] 'see and avoid,' " said Lt. Col. Mike Sick, commander of the 746th Expeditionary Air Squadron, who said frequent brown-outs make spotting other aircraft difficult. "My big worry is midair collision," he said.


The problem of withdrawal "is the sheer volume of stuff," said Maj. Gen. Thomas D. Robinson, commander of the 377th Theater Support Command at Camp Arifjan, the sprawling U.S. logistics base in Kuwait. In fact, officers concede that they don't know how much "stuff" there is to be hauled away. Initially, equipment was moved in during the heat of battle; temporary buildings were thrown up and eventually replaced by more permanent structures. Combat units moved in and out, leaving some vehicles and weapons behind while replacement units brought their own stuff. Unit supply officers routinely ordered two of every item they needed in hopes of getting at least one, a battalion logistician said.

Weapons include about 1,900 heavy Abrams tanks, Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles. Logisticians also count some 43,000 vehicles and 700 aircraft - mostly helicopters. Other stuff is piled up at 14 major bases similar to Camp Anaconda, which boasts housing tracts, sumptuous dining halls, two multimillion-dollar fitness centers, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, office complexes, a new surgical hospital, a supermarket, a movie theater, a power plant, and even a concrete factory. Contractors and military officers ride around in fleets of new white SUVs and minivans.

One Army office at Anaconda is tracking 1.2 million items of property worth $14 billion, a partial list of materiel that includes objects such as dentist's chairs, chapel pews, swimming pool filtration systems and surveillance blimps. Separately, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which operates military supermarkets and shops across Iraq, holds an inventory that includes 2.7 million candy bars, 15,000 strips of beef jerky, 1.6 million cans of soda and 330,696 CDs and DVDs. Facilities like Anaconda, built at a cost of billions of dollars, are beyond the needs of the Iraqi military and may have to be abandoned, perhaps to the fate of two British bases in southern Iraq left behind when forces pulled out last year: Both were looted. Whatever remained was destroyed.

But logisticians who have to pack up and move bases or abandon them also count more than 60 other small bases, 38 major supply depots, 18 fuel storage centers and 10 ammunition storage sites stocked with bullets, grenades, rockets, mortar rounds, tank shells, flares and various kinds of explosives.

At four bases in Iraq, a Pentagon agency maintains toxic stockpiles of hazardous material, including battery acid, contaminated oils, lead and industrial solvents, in stacks of 50-gallon drums. A spokesman for the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service said it wasn't clear what would become of the toxic dumps. "Some of this stuff we can sell for scrap, some equipment we'd give to the Iraqis, but at the end of the day we will move a lot of this stuff back," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Ron Ladnier, director of the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Most of it will move by truck, south to Kuwait or north into Turkey for eventual shipment home. Convoys will move along Route Tampa, already jammed with 2,000 trucks a day needed for normal resupply of U.S. forces.

"We will need more trucks," said Robinson, the logistics commander. "The problem is the sheer volume." Intelligence maps showing Route Tampa, a dusty, mostly two-lane road that twists hundreds of miles from the Turkish border south past Baghdad and into Kuwait, is peppered with stars where IEDs, or roadside bombs, have been detonated by insurgents against U.S. military vehicles. Recently, the daily updated maps have shown bridges that are destroyed by explosives. "Here about six weeks ago, they put 3,000 pounds of explosives in a culvert and blew out the highway where it's four lanes wide," said Army Maj. Ken Patterson, a signals officer involved in convoy operations along Route Tampa. "It took us four days to fix it."

Further complications are expected on the road. On their way out, convoys cross battle lines between U.S. units, each with distinctive call signs and radio frequencies. "If you're in Charlie Dagger's battle space and you need a medevac or the quick reaction force and you are calling Charlie Mike, nobody's going to answer," said Maj. Ken Patterson, an Army convoy communications officer at Camp Anaconda. Insurgent attacks, truck breakdowns, blinding sandstorms - all can combine to turn a methodical withdrawal into a snarling snafu, said Army Lt. Col. James Sears, a logistics battalion commander. He described the elegant choreography needed: tight deadlines for packing and loading trucks, inserting truck convoys into a stream of southbound traffic, coordinating the convoys with security patrol and overhead air cover, and feeding the convoys into ports and airfields in Kuwait at the precise moment when ships and aircraft are ready. "Anybody who takes six extra hours with a truck just crashes everybody else's schedule," he said. "The ripple effect can kill you."




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