Most everyone agrees that a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous. Fewer people realize it may be impossible. In the past four years, the U.S. military has shipped to the region more than 9 million tons of equipment—from tanks and bulldozers to toilets and silverware. If you were to load all that gear on tractor-trailers and line them up end to end, the convoy would extend from San Francisco to Miami.
"It's mind-boggling, the size of all this," says Maj. Gen. Charles W. Fletcher Jr., who is director of operations at the U.S. Transportation Command and was in charge of logistics at the start of the war. Fletcher knows something about pullouts. After the 1991 war in Iraq, he commanded a battalion in Saudi Arabia that "cleared out the theater" of all remaining U.S. matériel. "We let all the soldiers fly home minus myself and a couple of thousand others," he says. "It took us about eight months to get all the equipment back."
And that was under optimal conditions. The war had ended by the time Fletcher began packing. His team worked in the relative safety of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A future U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will almost certainly be accompanied by violence, complicating logistics and ruling out the idea of sending troops home first. "You'll need to keep soldiers there to guard the equipment, and more importantly, the ammunition," says Col. Nicholas J. Anderson, of the Army Transportation Corps, who serves as a professor of logistics at the Army War College.
A more suitable approach might be to extract a few units at a time—troops, tanks and all. How would attacks on retreating convoys affect the timetable? "If it's a benign environment," Anderson says simply, "that's not as difficult as if folks are trying to kill you." He says that in the best-case scenario, a pullout would last six months. The estimated cost, according to Fletcher: about $800 million.
When the time comes to plot out a withdrawal, the U.S. military will enlist computer programs with acronyms like JOPES (Joint Operations Planning and Execution Systems) and DRMO (Defense Realization and Marketing Office). JOPES takes raw data for gear and spits out a suggested route and schedule for the trip home. DRMO tallies the cost of a piece of equipment, minus damage and wear and tear, to determine whether it's financially worthwhile to move it at all.
Some equipment will be shipped back no matter the cost. "We would bring back anything that has on it protection [like the high-tech panels that help insulate tanks] that we don't want people to gain insights into," says Fletcher. Up to 40 percent of the gear shipped to Iraq over the years would be left behind for the Iraqis, including some construction materials, scrap metal and smaller items like medical and hygiene supplies, he says.
Once the withdrawal order is handed down, says Fletcher, the military would begin negotiating shipping deals with commercial companies and port agreements with the countries that border Iraq. Gear would probably flow out through all of Iraq's neighbors but Iran and Syria. "The toughest part is anticipating the political decisions," like how many troops would stay behind to support the Iraqi Army, says Anderson. The rest is just a 9 million-ton Rubik's Cube.