April 1, 2008  

The long haul

Leaving Iraq will be a logistical nightmare

The recent push by the White House to negotiate a pact with the government of Iraq concerning the long-term presence of U.S. service members in the country surprised many Americans but served as coda for Army logisticians. The fact is, the military continues to build and stockpile thousands of containers full of equipment in Iraq, despite the unresolved political infighting in Washington concerning whether U.S. troops will leave.

The decision to depart Iraq today would require the military to withdraw vast amounts of equipment that have accumulated over the course of numerous deployments in and out of the country. The giant bases in Iraq are the nodes through which American soldiers are resourced and sustained. The vast majority of media representatives spend their time at Baghdad International Airport or with the generals and ambassadors in the International Zone. However, these two sites are simply the lungs and brains of the war effort. The heart of operations is Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. LSA Anaconda is the epicenter of all supply transactions in Iraq. Upon entering LSA Anaconda, you cannot be faulted for forgetting that you are in a war zone. Sidewalks line the base, roads are well-networked, traffic is continuous and American shops are plentiful.

U.S. equipment dominates the landscape of Iraq. The T-barriers that cut through Baghdad serve as the most obvious imprint of American presence. Parts from broken-down vehicles, used fuel cans and donated generators are all evidence of the American war effort. Today, deployed units in Iraq not only bring the equipment organic to them but also inherit Theater Property Equipment — equipment procured for a previously deployed unit and passed on to an incoming unit as the first unit returns home.

Often, the problem for logisticians in Iraq is not whether the equipment exists in country but, rather, finding where the equipment resides. In this resource-rich environment, many logisticians find it hard to believe that the military will be leaving Iraq in the near future because of the preponderance of American equipment interspersed around the country. Military analysts often quote Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Nonetheless, it seems political decisions are reflecting the ground truth of the war, which is that American materiel at bases such as LSA Anaconda will be difficult to deconstruct, and it will require a Herculean effort to return this equipment stateside.

Military bases in Iraq are not being downsized but, rather, improved and developed. The roads within the U.S. base at the Baghdad International Airport are being paved and expanded. Tents are being replaced with trailers and buildings. In some cases, the bases in Iraq are more resource-rich than U.S. military bases in Germany or stateside. Units preparing to deploy often find it difficult to procure equipment during their preparations because of the emphasis on funding units already in Iraq. Similarly, units redeployed from Iraq find that little funding is available to refurbish, reset and service equipment that has survived a year or more of combat operations. The vast majority of the billions of dollars a month the military spends is devoted solely to units in Iraq, at the expense of units that are not deployed. As a result, training for these units suffers and maintenance after a deployment is reduced.

American commanders and policymakers have also framed the drawdown of American troops on the premise that the Iraqi military is postured to assume security within the region. This assumption is flawed because Iraqi units are poorly equipped and continue to rely heavily on the U.S. for their logistical needs. Presently, the Iraqi military is unable to organize, maintain and sustain its forces for a prolonged period without the assistance of the U.S. military. U.S. Military Transition Teams embedded with Iraqi units often request support from U.S. units operating in the same region because they need supplies for the Iraqi units.

The political debate in Washington will continue concerning the future of American forces in Iraq. Nonetheless, the ground truth is that the military is logistically postured and positioned for a long, sustained war in Iraq. Any debate concerning the possible withdrawal of American forces should be realistic and focus on the arduous task of coordinating and moving all the equipment in Iraq.

Although Clausewitz’s dictum remains true, policymakers should not forget that policy decisions reflect and are affected by reality. The reality is that the accumulation of American equipment in Iraq will take months, if not years, to undo.