Finally, we’re hearing concrete talk about withdrawal from Iraq. Probably this has something to do with public opinion: in a recent Gallup poll, 71 percent supported leaving Iraq in a year or less.
Most public discussions of the actual mechanics of withdrawal have emphasized how difficult it will be. Army sources, many of them, estimate that it will take time. Most reports say 12 to 20 months. They cite endless lists of equipment that must be removed—everything from tanks to silverware. Analysts say that most troops would probably be airlifted, reasoning that flying would be safer than Iraqi highways. Military experts also worry that we will face armed opposition and have to fight our way out.
Of course, military experts have said many things about Iraq over the years—and how often have they proved correct?
The first obvious objection is that it didn’t take that long to invade Iraq in the first place. We crossed the border on March 20, 2003, and smashed the Iraqi government and military in about three weeks. Baghdad was formally occupied by April 9. We managed to win easily, facing 13 infantry divisions, 10 mechanized/armored divisions, and miscellaneous paramilitary forces—a more-or-less organized force numbering approximately 400,000 men. We lost only 139 soldiers in the invasion phase, although we’ve had more than 3,000 killed in the occupation.
Modern armies, including ours, are mobile. So why would it take so much longer to leave? The short answer is that it won’t.
The long answer is that talk about an 18-month withdrawal is the product of confused priorities and poor strategic analysis. Let me suggest some principles that should guide our planning. Knowing your goals makes life simpler.
First, we should aim to get our troops out safely, with their weapons intact. Weapons are important—we win more because of superior equipment than superior training or talent. That equipment is expensive, takes a long time to replace with our existing procurement system, and we might actually need it if we found ourselves in a war of necessity.
Second, we should forget about accomplishing anything else. If we couldn’t create a compliant Iraq with 150,000 troops, we won’t manage it with 50,000 or 20,000. Many of our presidential candidates—you can recognize them by the humps on their backs—are talking about retaining smaller numbers of troops in Iraq, hoping to achieve some political end or at least disguise defeat, but that pig won’t fly. Our forces are tremendously powerful (compared to the insurgents) and never lose battles, but leaving small residual forces in a fundamentally hostile country—a solid majority of non-Kurdish Iraqis now find attacks on coalition forces acceptable—is asking for trouble. The British tried that in Basra, and they took rocket and mortar fire every day while achieving nothing.
From this point of view, decisions about moving day become straightforward. For example, what should we do about the vast amount of non-combat materiel in Iraq? We’ve accumulated dentist chairs, chapel pews, swimming-pool filtration systems, office complexes, multimillion-dollar fitness centers, air-conditioners, refrigerators, prefab latrines, Coke machines, even 50-inch plasma TVs. We have stockpiles of 50-gallon oil drums full of battery acid, contaminated oil, and industrial solvents. We’re being told that it all has to be shipped home. I have a better idea: leave it all behind. I’m sure that the Army bureaucracy thinks that we’ve got to move these refrigerators, got to move these TV’s. They’re wrong. Maybe they fear that leaving a single vending machine behind means that they will have to personally answer to the Coca-Cola Company.
The longer we stay, the more men we lose. How can anyone believe that piles of junk are worth anyone’s life? We could spend extra time in Iraq in order to ship home toxic waste, but we can do without that kind of cosmic irony. Better to gift-wrap those drums and let the Iraqis steal them. I say it again: bring out men, weapons, ammo, vital spares—leave the pews.
Leaving behind everything but war-fighting equipment makes the move manageable. We’ve shipped something like 9 million tons of stuff to Iraq, but only a small fraction—less than 10 percent—is war materiel. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that we have somewhere between 140,000 and 200,000 tons of crucial equipment and supplies in Iraq, as well as 15-20,000 vehicles and major weapons. That can’t add up to more than half a million tons total. Those vehicles can be driven out. The “crucial equipment” would have to be trucked out, which would take a week or two of normal traffic on the main road to Kuwait. We already make over 1,000 trips a day, and the trucks must be nearly empty when returning.
With this one choice, we’ve made the move almost 20 times easier. Some may object on the grounds that all those creature comforts and office supplies cost billions of dollars, but even if you put aside for the moment the extra lives lost in a long, drawn-out exit, remember that the occupation is costing us $10 billion a month. Staying even one extra week to get out the last of the porta-potties is like running into a burning building to save your sea monkeys.
Sometimes the Army answers a different question than the one the reporters asked. They wanted to know how long it would take to leave Iraq, but they were told how long it would take to get everything back to the States—which is not the same thing at all. Once our forces get into Kuwait, they’re safe, even if they’re not yet home. Of course, in some cases the professionals are being honest and crazy at the same time. They keep saying that it’s going to take amazingly long to get tanks and vehicles home, since they must be cleaned painstakingly in order to meet Agriculture Department regulations. In fact, that need not slow down our exit at all. We can wash them down in Kuwait. More fundamentally, thinking that regulations trump all other considerations in a real, albeit pointless, war is, not to put too fine a point on it, nuts. If we can violate the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter, we can probably get away with bending a few bureaucratic rules.
The same analysts, most of them anyway, have expressed concern that we will have to fight our way out of Iraq. I think there’s a fair chance that we will face some opposition, although more practical Iraqis will probably be busy looting our camps as we abandon them, just as they have looted the bases abandoned by the British in the south. But we can be sure that the opposition will be insignificant and our casualties few, since the insurgents we face in Iraq would be extremely weak in a conventional fight. Remember that we lost fewer than 150 men during the invasion, when we faced 23 divisions, organized troops armed with (according to U.S. estimates) almost 2,000 main battle tanks, 3,500 armored personnel carriers, and 2,000 artillery pieces. The insurgents today have no tanks, no APCs, no heavy artillery, and yet we’re supposed to worry about the havoc they would wreak during any withdrawal. We’ve been seeing about 100 men a month killed in action in 2007, we’d lose fewer in a rapid withdrawal than we would by staying one more month. The insurgents excel at planting IEDs and blending into the population—but that’s all they’re good at. In a conventional battle, they would do about as well as a rabbit in a lawnmower. If you’re worried that the Iraqi army we’re always training might turn on us, relax: we never gave them any heavy weapons, which shows that someone was thinking ahead.
Since the “fight our way out” risks have been wildly exaggerated, planners should reconsider their notion of withdrawing most troops by air. If the insurgents manage to shoot down even one C-130 full of troops with a surface-to-air missile, we will lose more men than we would by taking Route Tampa. Moreover, we have to get those tanks and armored vehicles out somehow, and simply driving them to Kuwait with full crews does the job while keeping the withdrawing force strong—much stronger than any potential opposition.
Politicians, for the most part, have accepted statements about withdrawal requiring anywhere from one to two years. They want to be “responsible”—that’ll be the day. Some may have calculated that slow withdrawal might better disguise defeat and thus be more politically palatable, but I don’t think many are that Machiavellian. I think instead that, with a few honorable exceptions, they’re profoundly ignorant of war and thus have to blindly accept anything the professional military says. That ignorance is, of course, one of the reasons we got into this mess in the first place. That goes double for columnists: in pundit-land, a military expert is someone who thinks that the phalanx is cutting-edge technology.
The bottom line is that we can get troops and war-fighting equipment out of Iraq rapidly and relatively safely, certainly in less than six months, probably in three. Neither the Iraqis nor the Department of Agriculture can materially interfere with withdrawal. It would be faster than that, except for complications such as evacuating contractors and completely securing or destroying advanced weaponry that we don’t want examined or copied by potential enemies. That, we need to be careful about. Fast withdrawal is safer than slow—it minimizes the slow bleed of occupation, and it avoids leaving dangerously weak forces in-country for long periods. Once we make up our mind to leave, “then ‘twere well ‘twere done quickly.”
Gregory Cochran is a physicist and evolutionary biologist.