Exit This Way: What It Would Take to Leave Iraq Whether to pull out of Iraq is one question. How to pull out is another altogether. Extracting 160,000 U.S. troops — and their equipment — would take more than a year and poses dangers of its own, experts say. One of the toughest questions: what to leave behind.
NPR logo Exit This Way: What It Would Take to Leave Iraq

Exit This Way: What It Would Take to Leave Iraq

While President Bush and Congress tussle over whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq, military planners are wrestling with a more fundamental question: how to withdraw.

The planning for such an eventuality is already under way. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a letter sent to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), provided the most explicit signal to date that the Pentagon is, in fact, planning for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"You may rest assured that such planning is indeed taking place, with my active involvement," Gates wrote.

Any U.S. withdrawal is likely to be costly and time consuming, and would take from 12 to 18 months, according to analysts and retired generals familiar with the logistics of such an operation.

"It's going to be mind-boggling — like picking up Los Angeles and putting all the pieces somewhere else," said an official of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command, according to a July 15 article in the The Baltimore Sun.

Logistics and Costs

Everyone is talking about a "troop withdrawal," but that is something of a misnomer. Withdrawing the troops is the easy part. Most could be flown out of the country within two to three months, military planners say.

A much more difficult task is getting the equipment and armor out of Iraq. Tanks, for instance, need to be loaded onto trucks and driven hundreds of miles across the desert to Kuwait, where they would then be shipped back to the United States. It could be a treacherous journey, as insurgents are likely to take pot shots at the departing U.S. troops or resort to their favorite weapon: the roadside bomb.

In addition, as troops depart Iraq, those left behind are more vulnerable to attack, since they are fewer in number.

Also, costs for the war, currently running at $12 billion a month, would spike once a withdrawal begins. The military doesn't have enough aircraft to fly all of the troops out of Iraq, so it needs to rely on chartered commercial airliners, and that's expensive. Contractors are also likely to charge for overtime accrued.

Retired Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis was in charge of withdrawing U.S. troops after the 1991 Gulf War. It took only seven months to ship home 300,000 tons of ammunition, 2,000 tanks, 2,000 helicopters and 150,000 vehicles, but "back then, we had no terrorist activity or any terrorists in sight," Pagonis said. "It's going to be a lot more difficult this time."

One of the more time-consuming aspects of any withdrawal, said Pagonis, has nothing to do with insurgent attacks or roadside bombs but, rather, with the U.S. Agricultural Department. It will inspect every piece of equipment — every tank, every Humvee, every coffee mug — that is shipped back to the United States to ensure that it is not carrying dangerous microbes. The fear is that they could infect U.S. livestock.

Therefore, every piece of equipment must be thoroughly cleaned and shrink-wrapped before it's sent, Pagonis said.

Withdrawing troops is often described as "an invasion in reverse," but in fact, it takes a lot longer to get troops and equipment out of a battle zone than into one. Pagonis compares it to taking your family on a camping trip.

"Loading the camper is easy. But if you want to leave for your next trip, it would take you longer," Pagonis said. "You just can't throw everything in the camper and come home, because then you have to sort everything out once you get there."

What to Leave Behind

Just what equipment and armament the United States should leave behind in Iraq is a big question facing U.S. military planners. On the one hand, the U.S. military has spent years training tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, and of course, those soldiers need armor and ammunition to do their job. On the other hand, arming the Iraqi Army could backfire, should a full-fledged civil war break out after the bulk of U.S. troops withdraw.

"Today, there is a rough parity between the Shia and Sunni forces, and the fear is that, by arming the Shia-majority forces, the U.S. might disrupt that parity," said Steve Simon, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in New York. "If that happens, you could see a much bloodier situation, something like the former Yugoslavia."

The United States is almost certain to leave some sort of troop presence in Iraq, even if most are pulled out, analysts said. That residual force might number from 20,000 to 70,000 troops, says Steve Simon. At the very least, some U.S. troops will be needed to protect the U.S. embassy and other institutions located inside Baghdad's so-called Green Zone.

"As long as we have some civilians in Iraq, we will have a military presence to protect them," says Derek Chollet, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Additional troops might be deployed along Iraq's borders with Syria, Jordan and Kuwait to try to prevent a civil war from spilling over to those countries. In a report prepared for the Brookings Institution, Ken Pollack and Daniel Byman suggest that the U.S. establish "catch basins" along Iraq's borders.

"One of the hardest aspects of containing the spillover from an all-out Iraqi civil war will be to limit, let alone halt, the flow of refugees, terrorists and foreign agents across Iraq's borders. One option would be to try to create a system of buffer zones, with accompanying refugee collection points along Iraq's borders, manned by U.S. and Coalition personnel," the report said.

Jordan and Syria are already home to nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees and cannot accommodate many more. Iraq's borders, though, are long; most analysts said that securing all of it is not something a reduced U.S. force can feasibly accomplish.

Another mission for the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq would be to carry out counter-insurgency missions against al-Qaida. They would act as a sort of fire brigade — rapid-reaction forces that would respond to specific or "actionable" intelligence.

Simon suggests one question is just "how far away do you want the fire brigade?"

The advantage of maintaining bases within Iraq is a shorter response time to get troops to "hot spots" quickly. The disadvantage is that those U.S. troops face a greater security risk themselves.

No Details Yet Set in Strategy

Pentagon officials acknowledge that planning is under way for a withdrawal, but say no specifics have been decided.

"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 recently. Planning has been "under way for some time," he said.

One task the U.S. military faces is a sort of equipment triage: determining what is salvageable and what is not.

"You don't want to leave anything back that the enemy can salvage or use," Pagonis said.

That may have been an easy calculation in past conflicts, such as Vietnam, but in Iraq, the enemy is not so easily identified. Today's ally might be tomorrow's adversary. For that reason, military analysts say, the United States is not likely to leave behind much heavy armor or tanks. They will be either destroyed or shipped back to the United States.

A troop and equipment withdrawal from Iraq is not only a logistical challenge, it's also a strategic one. How the U.S. withdrawal is perceived — by Iraqis and in neighboring countries — could affect whether the mission is seen as a success or failure.

"There is a difference between a defeat and a rout," said Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations. "A defeat entails an orderly, systematic withdrawal, and a rout is categorized by a very rapid pullout."

Announcing a U.S. withdrawal well in advance is a bad idea, most military strategist have said. Once that happens, factions that have been working alongside the United States may reconsider and align themselves with "factions that want to draw American blood as the U.S. leaves," said Simon.

Even under the worse scenario, though, few are predicting a Saigon-style withdrawal, with helicopters plucking Americans out of the Green Zone.