ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now that President Barack Obama has announced that all U.S. combat forces will be out of Iraq in 18 months, it's up to military planners to make it happen. Not only do they have to move 100,000 troops out of Iraq, they also have to figure out what to do with all the gear the troops brought with them. As NPR defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports, that means trucking out or selling off everything from tanks to desk chairs.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let's start with this reality: not everything that U.S. troops brought to Iraq is coming home.
Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Defense Policy Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Huge quantities of desk swivel chairs, for instance, are now in Iraq courtesy of the U.S. military. We are not going to bring those home.
KELLY: That's Stephen Biddle, defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Biddle says there is a huge - as he puts it - iron mountain of stuff that may get left behind - and some stuff that's not iron, too.
Mr. BIDDLE: One of my favorite examples is concrete.
KELLY: As in the concrete blast barriers the U.S. has erected all over Iraq, especially in Baghdad.
Mr. BIDDLE: 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. 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?
KELLY: Aside from concrete barriers, Army logistics officers are also figuring out what to do with Abrams tanks, with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, with gun ammunition. Most of these items will be coming home, says Congressman Ike Skelton of Missouri. Skelton chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri; Chairman, 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. We want to get it back and train on it and be prepared for any future contingency that we might have.
KELLY: Getting it back poses a huge logistical challenge. Most helicopters and tanks will 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 here in the states. Retired Army Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis knows all about this. He was in charge of bringing home U.S. troops and gear after the 1991 Gulf War.
Lieutenant General GUS PAGONIS (US Army, Retired): Every piece of equipment from a tank to a radio to a computer, it doesn't matter - everything has to be cleaned.
KELLY: And cleaned meaning hosed down, wiped off, disinfected.
Gen. PAGONIS: One hundred percent wiped down, hosed off. It's a monumental task.
KELLY: So much so that General Pagonis jokes his biggest nemesis back in 1991 was the US Agriculture Department. Military planners this time around should be so lucky. General 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.
Lt. Gen. PAGONIS: 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 because there was no terrorist activity.
KELLY: 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. General Pagonis says, quote, "Whenever you withdraw from a theater of operation, that's when you're most vulnerable".
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.