Now that President Barack Obama has announced that all U.S. combat forces will be out of Iraq within the next 18 months, it's up to military planners to make that happen. Not only do they have to move 100,000 troops out of Iraq; they have to figure out what to do with all the gear the troops brought in with them. That means trucking out or selling off everything from tanks to desk chairs. But not everything that U.S. troops brought to Iraq is coming home.
"Huge quantities of desk swivel chairs, for instance, are now in Iraq courtesy of the U.S. military," says Stephen Biddle, a defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We are not going to bring those home." Biddle says there is a huge "iron mountain" of stuff that may get left behind. And some stuff that's not iron, too.
"One of my favorite examples is concrete," Biddle says, referring to the concrete blast barriers the U.S. has erected all over Iraq, especially in Baghdad. "One of the provisions of U.S. law that matters here is we are not allowed to leave militarily relevant equipment behind without somebody signing for it. Turns out that, you know, blast shields are considered militarily relevant material. Does that mean that an Iraqi has to sign for every last Jersey barrier or else we have to pulverize them before we leave?"
Aside from concrete barriers, Army logistics officers are also figuring out what to do with Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and gun ammunition. Most of these items will be coming home, says Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), chairman of the House Armed Services committee.
"We don't want to leave it there, as we did in Vietnam — we left a lot of equipment in Vietnam," Skelton says. "We want to get it back, and train on it, and be prepared for any future contingency that we might have."
A Thorough Cleaning
Getting it back poses a huge logistical challenge. Most helicopters and tanks are likely to be trucked out through Kuwait, though some containers may go through Jordan or Turkey. And before anything can be put on a ship home, it has to be scrubbed and inspected. That's because sand can harbor diseases that might harm poultry or livestock back in the U.S.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis knows all about this — he was in charge of bringing home U.S. troops and gear after the 1991 Gulf War.
"Every piece of equipment, from a tank to a radio to a computer — it doesn't matter, everything has to be cleaned. Wiped down, hosed off — it's a monumental task," Pagonis says.
It was such a tough task that Pagonis jokes his biggest nemesis back in 1991 was the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Military planners this time around should be so lucky.
Pagonis was able to take his time getting things packed up, and he had secure facilities to work from, in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"I just parked everything in the desert, guarded it with a very small force, and even had goat herders going around checking stuff for me," he says. " 'Cause there was no terrorist activity."
This time around, the troops pulling out may still be getting shot at, and every truck moving supplies to the border could be a target.
"Whenever you withdraw from a theater of operation, that's when you're most vulnerable," he says.