Washington (AFP) Nov 23, 2008
Dismantling the sprawling US military presence in Iraq will be a huge and complex undertaking, US military officials say, even in the three years allowed for the withdrawal of all US forces.
Tens of thousands of pieces of equipment -- from tanks to tents to ammo carriers -- will have to be packed up and shipped somewhere by December 31, 2011 under a landmark status of forces agreement now before the Iraqi parliament.
How fast they come out, how much will be left behind, and where it will all go are among the decisions that soon will be facing US military leaders and their logisticians if the agreement is ratified.
"I look at it as an orchestra. It's got to be in tune. It's got to be synchronized. That's what we do," said Major General Charles Anderson, the deputy commander of US Army forces in the Central Command region.
Anderson will be a key player on the ground in managing the movement of US army forces out of Iraq, but he would be the first to tell you that other commands and military services have major roles, too.
There is a lot of stuff in Iraq, Anderson acknowledges.
"You got to consider we've been there since 2003. And being there since 2003 you do accumulate a lot," he said in an interview with AFP.
The army alone has more than 19,500 "ground systems" in Iraq, including trucks, Humvees, Mine Resistant Armored Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, an army official said. It also has 470 helicopters, he said.
But after more than five years in Iraq, the US military has put in place an efficient system that can move a 3,500-strong brigade a month into Iraq and another out of it, almost at the same time.
Troops fly out of the country by air, and equipment is mostly sent overland to Kuwait, where it is sorted out, washed, inspected, packed into containers and loaded onto ships.
Where it used to take six months for equipment to get back to maintenance depots at the United States, it now takes two months, according to the US Army's Materiel Command
At the depots, war damaged or worn out equipment is repaired or stripped down and rebuilt like new.
"Anytime you move a 55,000 pound Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP), or you move a 70-tonne tank, it's hard," Anderson said.
"Anytime you move thousands of Mine Resistant Amored Protected Vehicles and hundreds of tanks, hey, it's even harder," he said.
"But we've got pretty good at it. We've got the capability, where we can expand the capability to meet the demand that the operational commander gives to us," he said.
Although the status of forces agreement sets a 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to bring US forces out in 16 months.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that withdrawing the 150,000-strong US force by the end of 2011 "is doable."
"To remove the entire force would be, you know, two to three years, as opposed to something we could do in a very short period of time, as we've looked at it thus far," he told reporters.
"And, again, it depends on what direction we're given with respect to, you know, how quickly we could do it and what the conditions are in which we would do it," he added.
But Mullen demurred on a 16 month timeline, saying it would depend on conditions on the ground.
"We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that's there," he said. "And, clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely."
Even though violence in Iraq has fallen to all-time lows, US military officials do not discount the possibility it will flare back up as US forces thin out.
"The situation is more stable. But it is still unpredictable. We have to be cautious," said a military official, who asked not to be identifed. "So a withdrawal would take time depending on the security conditions."
How the drawdown will unfold will depend as well on other factors that are still unknown, some of which must await the decisions of a new administration.
One is how much equipment to leave behind. Some might be turned over to the Iraqis, but that will depend in part on what they need, which in turn will depend on the security situation, officials said.
Another question is how much of it will be shifted to Afghanistan. Obama has promised to shift resources there but it is unclear how large the military buildup there will be.
"The key decisions that will have to be made are the tempo; another key decision is how much; and the decision we always make no matter when the time is, is where does it go?" said Anderson.
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