Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics

Lawrence Korb talks timing and logistics

Mother Jones: You’ve studied logistics, and you have some special knowledge based on your time at the defense department. What do you know about withdrawal times?

Lawrence Korb: I think some things have been lost in the debate. For example, delaying getting out for two years is actually more dangerous than getting out in a matter of months.

MJ: Why is that?

LK: Because once you start going, you reduce your capacity in the country and as you draw this thing down slowly more things can happen. Whereas if you announce that you’re getting out, you dominate the battle space just like you did going in.

MJ: Leaving quickly will require not taking some equipment back home with us. What do you imagine we will take with us and what will we leave behind?

LK: Basically, you will take your heavy equipment. You will take anything that is arms that you are giving out and stuff like that. You can turn over some of the things—trucks, Humvees, and things like that—back to the Iraqis. But we are opposed to giving them too much lethal stuff.

MJ: We seem to be arming the soon-to-be militias at this point.

LK: If you saw [the Center for American Progress’] last strategic reset point report, you’d know to stop arming those people.

MJ: A lot of the people we have talked to have suggested that literally we could get everybody out of Iraq in four to six weeks. But the more cautious people we talk to seem to say, “You can do that, but if you actually were to do it, you would see Iraq just implode immediately.”

LK: That’s a separate issue. Of course, that will depend on the reconciliation process. Then you are just talking, “Should you withdraw?” and that’s a different issue to deal with. If you had 10 years and they don’t get to reconciliation, you are going to have problems when you leave. To me, we have argued against that for quite awhile. If you want to see the Iraqis shape up, tell them you will leave in a year and then the ball is really going to be in their court.

MJ: Do you think it is actually a positive thing to announce that we are leaving?

LK: I think so. Because then the countries in the region know it’s their problem as well as ours. The Iranians are not going to work with you until they are sure you are leaving because they simply don’t trust us. And not the least of which they really went to the mat for us in Afghanistan [and then] Bush put them on the axis of evil.

MJ: What incentive do the Iranians actually have to work with us in Iraq?

LK: Basically, here is the deal. The Iranians like any other nation want to safeguard their own interests, and if they know we are leaving, and Iraq does become chaos, where are the people going to go? They are going to Iran, and [the Iranians] don’t want them there. They are sending the Afghanistan people back right now. Next thing, do they want to see [Iraq] become a haven for Al Qaeda? Al Qaeda is a Sunni Arab group. Nations eventually do what is their own interest, so once they are convinced we are leaving that is your best hope for them to work with us.

MJ: What about all these bases?

LK: The Baghdad airport is one thing. Balad is another big airbase. Obviously you are not going to tear up the runway, but you can use the air force as an expeditionary force. They know how to move in and out pretty quickly. You get the planes and you send over some cargo planes and stuff like that and you take out the communications stuff. Do you need to take out your refueling trucks or anything like that? Probably not.

MJ: The trucks on the way out—are most of these going to be driven by the military?

LK: You can contract them. You can do whatever you want. And by the way, I spoke with some of the contracting people. They know how to get out of there.

MJ: The contractors you talked to say they are prepared for this?

LK: Sure. Halliburton has their own airline. When I was over there, they were flying their own people around. In fact, when I was waiting to go into the country, we were in this line and I flew over on Royal Jordanian airlines on the way to go in and all of a sudden this whole group of people bypass the line, and I say, “Who the hell was that?” The guy says, “That was Halliburton. They run the country. ” When I was leaving I was at Baghdad airport waiting for my flight, and the Halliburton people chartered their own plane to fly.

MJ: Is their role going to be expanded during the withdrawal? What can we expect to see?

LK: A lot of it is providing food and stuff like that. It’s sort of basic. I think it will be a basic drawing down.

MJ: What about for the future? Will there be a vacuum when we leave?

LK: Right, that’s a whole other issue. How long do you stay? If you had 500,000 troops and you wanted to stay 10 years you might be able to stabilize it. But we don’t. I think Dick Lugar put it very well: The cost of staying far outweighs the benefits. Again, I don’t know what will happen, but I think it is rather interesting that the same people who say we’ll have chaos and all that are the same people that said that if we didn’t go in we’d have all these problems.

And again, this happens a lot in government, where you don’t want to argue this thing as, “Should we stay, should we go?” You say, “Well, I agree, we ought to go, but we can’t do it for two years because of the logistic problems.”

MJ: That is what [General] Peter Pace said. I have since learned from people that the two-year window, if you look at the military doctrine, is actually a good estimate. If you look, they give one brigade a month according to deployment schedule. If you figure we have fifteen brigades…

LK: We have twenty brigades there now. But here is what Pace doesn’t tell you. If you go back to late 2004, early 2005, [the military moved] over 30 brigades. So you can do it. And everybody was predicting back then, “Oh, this is going terrible. This is the biggest logistic thing since Normandy and it is going to be a danger to the troops.” Nothing happened.

Have you ever moved? You can do it in a day or you can stretch it out. I am not trying to make light of it. But my point is that you know there is a limit to how quickly you can do it based on 24 hours a day, then you throw in safety and reasonable things, but that’s why [the next Center for American Progress report is] going to say you can do it in three months or six months or a year at the latest. And all that will be involved.

MJ: Speaking of risks, have you come to a conclusion of how the withdrawal will be viewed by the Iraqis?

LK: We have dealt with that in our other reports. Look, there are no good alternatives. We agreed on that. And then the question becomes, “What are your least bad options?” And then the question becomes, “How do you maximize or minimize the danger?” We have been convinced since September 2005 that we’ve got to set a date.

MJ: If you do that as the withdrawal is taking place, do you expect that our troops are going to come under fire in the desert?

LK: Not really, because the Iraqis want us to go.

MJ: Aren’t there political points to be made internally with Sadr shooting at us as we get out?

LK: There could be. Maybe Al Qaeda might, but they are a small part of it. The Shiites, Moqtada al-Sadr, want us out. And besides, we could change our mind on the way out.

MJ: In terms of time frame, you said it couldn’t be done in as few as three months. What is your prediction of what will actually happen?

LK: Nothing until Bush leaves office.

MJ: Really, nothing at all?

LK: You can’t keep the surge up much past next spring, so you will see gradual reduction. But when Bush leaves office, you will probably still have a 100,000 people there, maybe as many as 120,000.