War Stories

Exit Stage Right

A step-by-step plan for withdrawing from Iraq.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In a carefully lawyered statement this week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace told a Senate committee the Pentagon had “published no orders” detailing American plans to leave Iraq. Translated into English, this means that the Pentagon has compiled volumes of unpublished plans, PowerPoint briefings, and staff studies about how, exactly, we would withdraw from Iraq. The Iraqis, too, say they are planning for our eventual departure and the chaos that would likely ensue. Nonetheless, Bush administration officials insist America has no plans to leave Iraq, hastily or otherwise, and oppose all congressional attempts to force a withdrawal.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the current U.S. military presence in Iraq is unsustainable and that the Bush administration will not adopt a more sustainable mission, like the adviser model suggested by my colleagues Owen and Bing West. Eventually, as even Gen. David Petraeus admits, our time in Iraq will run out, either because the Iraqis force us out or because the American people run out of patience.

The time has come to plan for America’s exit from Iraq. What will that departure look like? Such a plan will resemble our 2003 invasion, but in reverse, using air and ground transportation to move people and gear out of the war-torn country. The thorniest aspects of the plan will involve decisions about what and who to leave behind, and how to deal with the consequences unleashed by a rapid withdrawal. 

Military planners always begin their work by making assumptions to guide their efforts.  Before the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon planners assumed we would be “greeted as liberators” and that the troops would be ordered home quickly, and these assumptions resulted in a deeply flawed (or nonexistent) occupation plan.  To plan the withdrawal, planners must assume certain things about the security and political situation in Iraq.  Given some kind of middle-ground scenario between a totally secure Iraq and utter chaos, which is roughly the situation today, the exit plan might unfold like this:

Road trip:  Armies in retreat are notoriously vulnerable. Napoleon learned this timeless lesson during his retreat from Russia; the Germans also learned it while retreating from Russia 150 years later; we learned it too in the frozen mountains of Korea. To mitigate these risks, American combat and support units will fight their way out of Iraq, treating it as an invasion-in-reverse. Mechanized units would likely secure the major routes leading south, scouring them for improvised explosive devices and ambushes. The units farthest to the north, such as those in Tal Afar, would roll down to Kuwait first, enabling the military to gradually shrink its footprint as the withdrawal unfolded. Once in Kuwait, troops would load their vehicles and equipment onto ships and fly home via Air Force transport planes or contracted commercial airliners.

Freedom bird: Not every soldier will drive out of Iraq. Many will fly instead, either because they lack the armored vehicles to drive out or because it makes no sense for them to do so.  Most civilians and contractors will fly out as well. U.S. Air Force transports will likely pick these people up at the massive airbases that dot Iraq. Some will fly south to Kuwait on older propeller-driven aircraft and board civilian planes there for the long flight back to the United States. A small number will fly directly to Europe or North America on long-range military planes. The hundreds of military helicopters now flying in Iraq will likely migrate south to the port at Umm Qasr, or the ports in Kuwait, for their seaborne voyage home. 

It took three weeks to fight from Kuwait up to Baghdad, but that was with terrible weather and intense fighting. The withdrawal would likely go much faster, although it would hinge on two variables. The first is the pace set by military commanders for the move, who will likely choose something on a spectrum between rapid chaotic withdrawal and a slow, phased withdrawal over several months. The second variable is the “throughput” problem: Literally, how many of the 300,000 troops, civilians, and contractors in Iraq can squeeze through the airfields and seaports of Iraq and Kuwait to come home? Even if commanders dictate a rapid pullout, it may take weeks or months to bring everyone home from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf region.

Yard sale: Over the past four years in Iraq, American occupying forces  have built, bought, accumulated, or shipped over entire cities worth of stuff—everything from aircraft-maintenance facilities to barracks to gymnasiums to Burger King stands. But, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. U.S. troops will formally transfer much of the combat gear to the Iraqi military, such as unarmored Humvees and other aging weapons systems that are not cost-effective to ship home, especially given current plans to buy new ones. Those buildings with a military use will also be transferred to the Iraqi military, as was done when the military consolidated its footprint throughout Iraq from many small bases into a few supersized ones. The remainder will simply be abandoned to the Iraqi people.

Adieu, Iraqis: One important question facing the United States during its exit will be what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who aided our occupation as interpreters, contractors, and government civilians. To date, we have turned a cold shoulder to these men and women despite clear evidence they are being hunted down and slaughtered by both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, depending on their particular sect. Despite the powerful moral arguments for helping Iraqis resettle in the Middle East or the United States, efforts to help the Iraqis have stalled for political reasons. A decision to withdraw from Iraq might force some compromise on those issues, but if the withdrawal unfolds too quickly, these refugees may be stuck.

A few good men: Even if the United States pulls out from Iraq entirely, it will likely still leave some government personnel behind to man its embassy. The current embassy staff numbers in the thousands, largely because it also manages the occupation and reconstruction effort in addition to serving a traditional diplomatic role. After the withdrawal, the embassy staff will shrink, but it will also need to become more self-sufficient, complete with all of the political, military, intelligence, and security elements it needs to do its job without the American military nearby to help. Eventually, though, the embassy, too, may become untenable, either because the United States decides to abandon Iraq entirely or because it comes under attack. At that point, we may see a replay of what happened at Southeast Asian embassies during the 1970s. Without any airbases to fly home from or ground combat units to drive out of Iraq with, embassy personnel will evacuate the country in the most inglorious and politically charged way: by helicopter from embassy rooftops and courtyards.

Compelling arguments still justify our persistence in Iraq.  I remain hopeful that Gen. David Petraeus can find a way to solve the Rubik’s Cube of conflicts engulfing the country, and am encouraged by reports that we are looking for ways to reform the corrupt and broken Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. Nonetheless, it would be negligent for us to ignore the possibility of a withdrawal. To not plan for it would be military malpractice.