Logistics Mean an Iraq Exit Can't Happen Quickly
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's a lot of talk in Washington about withdrawing American troops from Iraq. Some want troops out quickly; others want to draw down U.S. forces over the next year.
As NPR's Tom Bowman explains, military planners say any withdrawal would be far more complex and time-consuming than many people realize.
TOM BOWMAN: Democrats on Capitol Hill want most American troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2008. And some Republicans are also saying it's time to leave.
Here's Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon.
Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): We need to start our glide path out of Iraq. Our troops should be safely taken off the frontlines.
BOWMAN: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, wants that glide path to end in December.
Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): Look where we are now. There's a civil war. There's sectarian conflict. Right now, I believe we must withdraw all our troops by the end of this calendar year with no residual forces.
BOWMAN: Military planners at the Pentagon say no way, it can't be done by year's end. To take all U.S. forces and their equipment out of Iraq, it would take 10 to 14 months. Why so long? Well, there's packing and cleaning thousands of vehicles and other equipment. Then there's an orderly movement of 160,000 troops. They would likely have to fight insurgents over land all the way to Kuwait.
No Pentagon planner would agree to be quoted for this story. They say it's too politically sensitive. No administration officials are even talking about withdrawal, but that 10- to 14-month estimate makes sense to retired Army General Gus Pagonis.
General GUS PAGONIS (U.S. Army, Retired): I think 12 months is a reasonable time frame.
BOWMAN: Pagonis should know. He was in charge of bringing U.S. troops home after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. At the end of that war, Pagonis packed up half a million American troops and equipment in just seven months. Pagonis was lucky: He had more port facilities both in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and no one was shooting at them.
Gen. PAGONIS: Fortunately, when the war was over, we didn't have to worry about terrorist threats. So we just parked all the equipment in the desert, provided minimal guarding just to make sure that no one would pilferage anything.
BOWMAN: This time, no parking in the desert. Troops and their equipment will have to move constantly over dangerous roads to Kuwait. Hundreds, if not thousands, of American troops will have to shadow those departing forces to guard against insurgent attacks.
Army Colonel Greg Cusimano worked in Kuwait until recently as a logistics officer. He moved out small numbers of tanks and Humvees and other equipment that needed repair. He says a year sounds about right to withdraw all U.S. troops, and safety will be key.
Colonel GREG CUSIMANO (U.S. Army): We will do whatever it takes to, you know, protect personnel and equipment as we're conducting a operation such as coming out of the theater.
BOWMAN: Cusimano says that means large amounts of combat power will be needed to cover an exit.
Col. CUSIMANO: Attack helicopter, reconnaissance helicopter in the air. On the ground, possibly strikers and tank, and of course armored Humvee.
BOWMAN: But experts like Pagonis say one of the greatest challenges is this.
Gen. PAGONIS: All the equipment has to be cleaned and spotless.
BOWMAN: That means power-washing the sand and mud and grime off thousands upon thousands of tanks, Humvees, generators, to meet the strict U.S. government standards. That will have to be done in both Iraq and Kuwait.
Again, Gus Pagonis.
Gen. PAGONIS: The Agriculture Department of the United States will conduct inspections of every piece of equipment, every duffle bag, every container, because sand can harbor all kinds of diseases that can be brought back into the United States. So that's going to be a monumental effort, especially coming out of the desert environment.
BOWMAN: The job of inspection now falls to the U.S. Navy. Hundreds of inspectors like Petty Officer David Frailie(ph) clean Humvees and other equipment in Kuwait.
Petty Officer DAVID FRAILIE (U.S. Navy): We're looking all over the vehicle. We're looking underneath; we're looking in every nook and cranny.
BOWMAN: That eats up time.
Petty Officer FRAILIE: It takes about an hour to give it a good wash and another hour for an easy inspection. You know, the more complicated the vehicle, the more parts, it does take longer.
BOWMAN: Taking longer - that is becoming less and less an option in Iraq as public and political support continues to erode.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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