It took three weeks to fight from Kuwait up to Baghdad, but that was with terrible weather and intense fighting. The withdrawal would likely go much faster, although it would hinge on two variables. The first is the pace set by military commanders for the move, who will likely choose something on a spectrum between rapid chaotic withdrawal and a slow, phased withdrawal over several months. The second variable is the "throughput" problem: Literally, how many of the 300,000 troops, civilians, and contractors in Iraq can squeeze through the airfields and seaports of Iraq and Kuwait to come home? Even if commanders dictate a rapid pullout, it may take weeks or months to bring everyone home from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf region.
Yard sale: Over the past four years in Iraq, American occupying forces have built, bought, accumulated, or shipped over entire cities' worth of stuff—everything from aircraft-maintenance facilities to barracks to gymnasiums to Burger King stands. But, as the saying goes, you can't take it with you. U.S. troops will formally transfer much of the combat gear to the Iraqi military, such as unarmored Humvees and other aging weapons systems that are not cost-effective to ship home, especially given current plans to buy new ones. Those buildings with a military use will also be transferred to the Iraqi military, as was done when the military consolidated its footprint throughout Iraq from many small bases into a few supersized ones. The remainder will simply be abandoned to the Iraqi people.
Adieu, Iraqis: One important question facing the United States during its exit will be what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who aided our occupation as interpreters, contractors, and government civilians. To date, we have turned a cold shoulder to these men and women despite clear evidence they are being hunted down and slaughtered by both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, depending on their particular sect. Despite the powerful moral arguments for helping Iraqis resettle in the Middle East or the United States, efforts to help the Iraqis have stalled for political reasons. A decision to withdraw from Iraq might force some compromise on those issues, but if the withdrawal unfolds too quickly, these refugees may be stuck.
A few good men: Even if the United States pulls out from Iraq entirely, it will likely still leave some government personnel behind to man its embassy. The current embassy staff numbers in the thousands, largely because it also manages the occupation and reconstruction effort in addition to serving a traditional diplomatic role. After the withdrawal, the embassy staff will shrink, but it will also need to become more self-sufficient, complete with all of the political, military, intelligence, and security elements it needs to do its job without the American military nearby to help. Eventually, though, the embassy, too, may become untenable, either because the United States decides to abandon Iraq entirely or because it comes under attack. At that point, we may see a replay of what happened at Southeast Asian embassies during the 1970s. Without any airbases to fly home from or ground combat units to drive out of Iraq with, embassy personnel will evacuate the country in the most inglorious and politically charged way: by helicopter from embassy rooftops and courtyards.
Compelling arguments still justify our persistence in Iraq. I remain hopeful that Gen. David Petraeus can find a way to solve the Rubik's Cube of conflicts engulfing the country, and am encouraged by reports that we are looking for ways to reform the corrupt and broken Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. Nonetheless, it would be negligent for us to ignore the possibility of a withdrawal. To not plan for it would be military malpractice.
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