The daunting logistics of
withdrawal By David Isenberg
Almost no consideration has been given to
the question of just how fast the US can remove
its forces from Iraq. But one can bet that
logisticians in the Pentagon and Central Command
planning cells have already been working on that
question for some time
have a saying: "Amateurs talk about strategy,
dilettantes talk about tactics, and professionals
talk about logistics."
On the plus side,
the US military is experienced in moving forces
out of the Persian Gulf region. In 1991 it was
able to bring back
Kuwait to the US and Europe almost all of its over
half million forces in a matter of months. Since
then US military infrastructure has improved.
Additionally, since the US invasion of
Iraq in 2003, US forces have undergone three
rotations into Iraq (the last one taking place
from March to July this year) and are preparing
for a fourth. They have lots of experience in
moving troops and equipment, in divisionsize
formations, out of Iraq.
however, the US would not be using the excellent
ports and airfields in Saudi Arabia that it had
access to in 1991. Nor were US troops battling an
organized and deadly insurgency
mind that the number of troops in the Iraqi
theater includes those in adjoining and nearby
countries. According to the US Congressional
Budget Office (CBO), "The US occupation forces in
the Iraqi theater has required about 16 to 18
combat brigades, or 160,000 to 180,000 personnel."
From the viewpoint of being able to sustain US
forces in Iraq, a withdrawal can't come soon
enough. According to the CBO, the US military can
sustain 67,000 to 106,000 personnel in Iraq over
the long term.
Another difference is that
to a far greater degree than was the case in 1991,
the US military has outsourced its logistics
functions to the private sector. Companies like
Halliburton and its Kellog, Brown and Root
subsidiary will have to coordinate with the
military to an unprecedented degree, through the
Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP),
which Halliburton was re-awarded in 2001.
US forces will also have to assist allied
military forces in redeploying their forces.
Just getting troops to an embarkation
point will be challenging. An article earlier this
year in Army Logistician noted, "During Operation
Iraqi Freedom II, thousands of vehicles traveled
over the dangerous roads of Iraq daily to
transport supplies to more than 20,000 soldiers at
28 forward operating bases (FOBs). These FOBs were
geographically dispersed over an area of 146,000
square kilometers in the 1st Infantry Division
(Mechanized) area of operations (AO)."
According to Chris Preble, director of
foreign policy studies at the Washington, DC-based
Cato Institute, "The rule of thumb is three to
four months to physically withdraw the troops.
This assumes an orderly withdrawal, no one under
fire. Maintaining an over-the-horizon presence
makes the problem only slightly less onerous, as
we have substantial bases in Kuwait, Qatar and
Another consideration for military
planners concerned with the availability of
military forces for the overall global "war on
terror" is that every unit redeployed from Iraq is
essentially off limits as US military policy calls
for standing down returning units so the troops
can reunite with their families and undergo
retraining as well as refurbishing and replacing
worn out equipment.
US military goals call
for deploying only one-third of the active combat
force at any one time, allowing units to spend two
years in garrison for every one year deployed.
The minutiae of logistical dos and don'ts
can range from the major, such as mobilizing the
required air and sea lift to the minor. For
example, all vehicles have to be washed off before
being transported. And one can't just run one's
M1A1 battle tank through the local car wash.
According to John Pike, director of
GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, "All
equipment has to be washed off first. Then it
would have to go through Kuwait, which has only a
finite amount of wash rack capacity."
thinks that "10% of force structure can be
withdrawn a month. One variable is whether
equipment is being swapped or just withdrawn."
Another consideration is what to do with
all the military bases that the US has built in
Iraq. According to GlobalSecurity's web site,
during the occupation the US has built at least
261 camps, forward operating bases and other
facilities in Iraq. While many of them have no
doubt been abandoned or destroyed as troops have
shifted their locations or redeployed, it is still
a huge number.
According to Pike, "Many US
bases are already being turned over to the Iraqi
government. Some of the ones the US is getting rid
of have community encroachment issues." This means
the surrounding community is too close from a
force protection viewpoint.
problem," says Pike "is that we have created an
Iraqi security force with too much tooth and not
enough tail. Currently, they depend on US forces
for their logistical support. The US needs to put
into place an organization that has sufficient
honesty to keep Iraqi forces from being stolen
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)
consist of four elements: the Iraqi National
Guard, the Iraqi Security Police, the Department
of Border Patrol and the Facilities Protection
Services. Most of their equipment consists of
weapons the recruits themselves furnished and
vehicles they confiscated.
several challenges to the ISF leaders. Another
article in Army Logistician noted, "First, they
had no way to determine combat power. The
commanders had difficulty determining which units
were prepared for security operations and which
were not. Because its members brought varying
amounts of equipment to the ISF, some units were
well equipped and others had very little equipment
"This created an extremely
difficult environment for commanders at all
levels. Second, the United States was in the
process of purchasing large quantities of
equipment for the ISF. Without a good
understanding of individual unit equipment levels,
it would be very difficult to field equipment to
the units that had the most pressing
Since a US withdrawal is
still based, at least in part, on the ability of
the ISF to operate on its own, any delays in
equipping them will delay US forces from leaving.
David Isenberg, a senior analyst
with the Washington-based British American
Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide
background in arms control and national security
issues. The views expressed are his own.