On Leaving Iraq and The Long War

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 4 months ago

The press reports are repleat with analyses about the exodus from Iraq and what that might look like.  Most of them are poorly reasoned reports, but some are insightful and informative.  I had previously predicted that it would require more than a year to remove all men and materiel from Iraq.  It looks like this prediction is gratuitous.  The Director of CENTCOM Logistics Operations Center weighs in on just what is going to be necessary to pull off redeployment from Iraq.

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.

Indeed, American power and prestige in the Middle East is an important parameter by which to perform planning for redeployment.  Time gives us a description of the strategic planning problems presented by redeployment in How to Leave Iraq, followed by my own recommendations.

The reality is that it’s difficult to get out fast. It took the Soviets nine months to pull 120,000 troops out of Afghanistan. They were simply going next door, and they still lost more than 500 men on the way out. Pulling out 10 combat brigades — roughly 30,000 troops, along with their gear and support personnel — would take at least 10 months, Pentagon officials say. And that’s only part of the picture. There are civilians who would probably want to head for the exit when GIs started packing. They include some 50,000 U.S. contractors and tens of thousands of Iraqis who might need protection if we left the country.

Slowing things down further is the sheer volume of stuff that we would have to take with us — or destroy if we couldn’t. Military officials recently told Congress that 45,000 ground-combat vehicles — a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees — are now in Iraq. They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps. These items have to be taken back home or destroyed, lest they fall into the hands of one faction or another. Pentagon officials will try to bring back as much of the downtime gear as possible — dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters. William (Gus) Pagonis, the Army logistics chief who directed the flood of supplies to Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War and their orderly withdrawal from the region, cites one more often overlooked hurdle: U.S. agricultural inspectors insist that, before it re-enters the U.S., Army equipment be free of any microscopic disease that, as Pagonis puts it, “can wipe out flocks of chickens and stuff like that.”

Once the U.S. decides to pull its forces back, the security risks to troops leaving the battlefield would increase, and the faster the U.S. withdraws, the greater the dangers. Departing troops lose their focus and become easy targets, says Pagonis. Local militias usually try to prove their mettle by firing at departing columns. “It would be ugly,” says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who supports a partial withdrawal. “You’d burn or blow up a lot of your equipment or hand it over to the Iraqis. You’d be subject to attack on your way down to the coast because on the way, people would say, ‘We can either throw rose petals or shoot at ‘em,’ and they’d shoot at us.” A gradual exit rather than an immediate one isn’t merely the wiser course; it’s the only course.

A reduction in the U.S. combat presence would probably produce one clear benefit: a lower U.S. casualty rate. But a chilling truth is that as the U.S. death toll declined, the Iraqi one would almost surely soar. Just how many Iraqis would die if the U.S. withdrew is anyone’s guess, but almost everyone who has studied it believes the current rate of more than a thousand a month would spike dramatically. It might not resemble Rwanda, where more than half a million people were slaughtered in six months in 1994. But Iraq could bleed like the former Yugoslavia did from 1992 to 1995, when 250,000 perished.

There is no debate about why: in the wake of an American pullout, Baghdad would be quickly dominated by Shi’ite militias largely unbloodied by the American campaign. Already, well-armed security forces that pose as independent are riddled with militiamen who take direction from Shi’ite leaders. Death-squad killings of Sunnis would rise. Against such emboldened forces, Sunni insurgents and elements of Saddam Hussein’s former regime would retaliate with their weapon of choice: car-bomb attacks against Shi’ite markets, shrines, police stations and recruiting depots.

One result of the military’s “surge” strategy is that the U.S. has handed over to Sunni tribal sheiks much greater responsibility for their security — and even the weapons to back it up — in exchange for severing their links to al-Qaeda. That’s a manageable risk while U.S. forces are nearby; if they depart, it becomes tinder in a dry forest. The danger would be not just sectarian slaughter but outright anarchy as well. “Our immediate concern,” says a senior Arab diplomat, “is that sending a signal of complete withdrawal could encourage some elements in every faction in every political group that they can now impose their own agenda. It would be not only Shi’ite versus Sunni … but [war] inside each community itself. The worst case is a Somalia-ization of Iraq.”

Consistent with the thematic presentation here at TCJ, we believe that we are in the “long war.”  It is past time to jettison old paradigms of global conflict from fifty years ago when we were planning to protect Europe from The Soviet Union and the Far East from China, and enter the twenty first century.  The Far East has come of age, and it is time for Taiwan, Japan and South Korea to prepare for its own self defense.  It is simply too costly, both in wealth and in misdirection of U.S. resources from the real conflicts of the future, to continue to defend the Far East.

We favor a redeployment as soon as possible, but one from Germany, Japan, South Korea and Okinawa to the Middle East.  The idea that after expending such blood and wealth to secure a toehold in the Middle East we would relinquish it to be burned and used against us as we depart is not only sickening and psychologically debilitating, but dangerous and inadvisable.  It does not comport with our understanding of the conflict in which we are engaged.

Of course, it will be necessary to reformulate the model.  FOBs and combat outposts in Anbar will eventually go away, much to the delight of the U.S. Marines.  It is doubtful that the Shi’a will acquiesce to British presence for the long term, a problem we will address in upcoming articles.  But make no mistake.  U.S. deployment in some fashion – perhaps to the Kurdish region, for Iraq/Iran and Iraq/Syria border security, assistance with specialized kinetic operations, training of Iraqi troops and police, etc. – is necessary and good for the foreseeable future.  We should be in the Middle East for a long, long time.  The intractable myth that our presence in the Middle East is merely a recruiting tool for the Salafists is nothing more than pitiful hand-wringing.  The U.S. should become one of the most powerful “tribes” in the Middle East.

The way to avoid the paradoxes associated with redeployment of our entire military back to the U.S. is to avoid redeployment to begin with.  It will save the deployment costs associated with the next Small War in which we engage in the Middle East.




You are currently reading "On Leaving Iraq and The Long War", entry #547 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Far East,The Long War and was published July 20th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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