Exit Stage Right
A step-by-step plan for withdrawing from Iraq.
In a carefully lawyered statement this week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace told a Senate committee the Pentagon had "published no orders" detailing American plans to leave Iraq. Translated into English, this means that the Pentagon has compiled volumes of unpublished plans, PowerPoint briefings, and staff studies about how, exactly, we would withdraw from Iraq. The Iraqis, too, say they are planning for our eventual departure and the chaos that would likely ensue. Nonetheless, Bush administration officials insist America has no plans to leave Iraq, hastily or otherwise, and oppose all congressional attempts to force a withdrawal.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that the current U.S. military presence in Iraq is unsustainable and that the Bush administration will not adopt a more sustainable mission, like the adviser model suggested by my colleagues Owen and Bing West. Eventually, as even Gen. David Petraeus admits, our time in Iraq will run out, either because the Iraqis force us out or because the American people run out of patience.
The time has come to plan for America's exit from Iraq. What will that departure look like? Such a plan will resemble our 2003 invasion, but in reverse, using air and ground transportation to move people and gear out of the war-torn country. The thorniest aspects of the plan will involve decisions about what and who to leave behind, and how to deal with the consequences unleashed by a rapid withdrawal.
Military planners always begin their work by making assumptions to guide their efforts. Before the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon planners assumed we would be "greeted as liberators" and that the troops would be ordered home quickly, and these assumptions resulted in a deeply flawed (or nonexistent) occupation plan. To plan the withdrawal, planners must assume certain things about the security and political situation in Iraq. Given some kind of middle-ground scenario between a totally secure Iraq and utter chaos, which is roughly the situation today, the exit plan might unfold like this:
Road trip: Armies in retreat are notoriously vulnerable. Napoleon learned this timeless lesson during his retreat from Russia; the Germans also learned it while retreating from Russia 150 years later; we learned it too in the frozen mountains of Korea. To mitigate these risks, American combat and support units will fight their way out of Iraq, treating it as an invasion-in-reverse. Mechanized units would likely secure the major routes leading south, scouring them for improvised explosive devices and ambushes. The units farthest to the north, such as those in Tal Afar, would roll down to Kuwait first, enabling the military to gradually shrink its footprint as the withdrawal unfolded. Once in Kuwait, troops would load their vehicles and equipment onto ships and fly home via Air Force transport planes or contracted commercial airliners.
Freedom bird: Not every soldier will drive out of Iraq. Many will fly instead, either because they lack the armored vehicles to drive out or because it makes no sense for them to do so. Most civilians and contractors will fly out as well. U.S. Air Force transports will likely pick these people up at the massive airbases that dot Iraq. Some will fly south to Kuwait on older propeller-driven aircraft and board civilian planes there for the long flight back to the United States. A small number will fly directly to Europe or North America on long-range military planes. The hundreds of military helicopters now flying in Iraq will likely migrate south to the port at Umm Qasr, or the ports in Kuwait, for their seaborne voyage home.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photograph of soldiers on the Slate home page by Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo.