As this issue goes to press, it is t-minus-11 days before the polls open in an unusually contentious presidential contest. By the time you read this (assuming the voting process is free of ballot glitches and recount challenges), the election will be over and the transition under way, as the new president and his advisers ponder the challenges ahead. Although their immediate focus may be on repairing the broken financial system, they'll also be grappling with another politically charged issue: an exit strategy for the war in Iraq.
At first blush, that doesn't look like the kind of challenge that would test the presidential mettle. It looks more like an opportunity to score some quick points with those Americans who are fast losing patience with U.S. military efforts in Iraq.
But whether Americans are running out of patience or not may well be irrelevant. And so may be the next president's desire to begin a rapid withdrawal. The task ahead is much bigger than most people imagine. Along with arranging to move out all the people, we need to clean up bases before we abandon them, and pack up and retrieve our equipment, armaments, and munitions. The reality is that the timetable cannot be dictated by political desires; it must be driven in large part (if not primarily) by logistics.
In an address at the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) Forum in September, Brig. Gen. Kevin Leonard offered some insight into the size of the logistics challenge. Currently, the United States has 47 brigades in Iraq, he said. That translates to 145,000 uniformed personnel (excluding privatesector Defense Department contractors). Then add to that 60,000 combat aircraft and combat vehicles; 120,000 freight containers; 34,000 tons of ammunition; and 22,000 "white," or non-combat, vehicles, like unarmored SUVs and pickup trucks used inside the bases. To put it in logistics terms, that's about 106,000 truckloads.
As it begins to move everything out, the military will be working under considerable capacity restraints. A look at a map of the region shows why.With serious doubts that Turkey would offer itself up as a gateway for the withdrawal, there are only two ways out: run convoys to Aqaba in Jordan and then ship out through the Red Sea, or drive to Kuwait and use the port there. (In theory, U.S. forces could use Umm Qasr in Iraq, but the port is not currently equipped for this type of operation.)
All in all, the military folks believe they can safely move out 3,000 truckloads per month. That means that once the withdrawal order is given, we are looking at three years, minimum, for a safe and orderly exit.
That's likely to be a tough sell to the American people. We can only hope that the new commander in chief will recognize that the right thing to do is often the unpopular thing to do, and have the political courage to follow through.
To understand what's at stake here, think back to the U.S. forces' retreat from Vietnam in 1975, with acre upon acre of bases, equipment, and munitions left behind to fall into opposing hands. As the old photos of helicopters being pushed off the sides of U.S. aircraft carriers during the fall of Saigon make clear, there's a world of difference between an orderly exit and a circus act under the guise of a military operation.
It's no surprise that military personnel are becoming increasingly frustrated with all the loose talk about a swift "pullout."And who can blame them? The devil is in the details, and, despite all the factfinding missions to Iraq in recent months, the campaigns have been light on specifics.
The U.S. military does what it's told, and so far, nobody has told it what to do. Somebody has to give these guys direction. And someone needs to enlighten the next commander in chief that hope is not a strategy and that when it comes to a pullout, logistics is a reality.