Mother Jones: How do you think the logistics of withdrawal from Iraq might be handled?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I’m not a logistician, but a couple of thoughts. One would be that the assumption that we would have a withdrawal under fire is only an assumption. It may well be a valid assumption. One of our great challenges over there is that there is no enemy; there are enemies.
But to the extent that the enemy is able to put together a coherent response, it’s possible that they will view the American departure as something they want to exploit and sort of chase the Americans across the border into Kuwait to emphasize the extent to which this is indeed a military defeat or victory from their point of view. It strikes me that the adversary may also say, “Great, let them go.” In other words, rather than chase them across the border so that we can beat our chests about what a great victory, let’s let the Americans depart, because the real fight will occur after the Americans leave.
Were I a planner, I would assume the worst case and the worst case is that we’re doing it under fire. That being the case, let’s pretend that that assumption plays itself out and there continues to be fairly intense resistance to the Americans even after they’ve announced a drawdown. I think that the dilemma that commanders on the ground face and that military and civilian superiors in Washington face is how much stuff we’re determined to bring home and how much stuff we’re willing to leave behind. By leave behind I don’t mean park it by a motor pool so that the bad guys can come get it, but leave it behind, destroy it, because it’s simply not worth it to bring it.
MJ: Or give it to the Iraqis…
AB: Or give it to the Iraqis, to the extent there is any semblance of a government that conceivably may make use of it. Because to the extent that there is a lot of shooting going on, then you’re more inclined to leave it behind. I very much doubt under any circumstances that we would leave substantial quantities of major items like tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and helicopters and trucks and major installations related to communications or medical support. That stuff’s all going to come out, and most of that stuff will have continued utility and will take a tremendous bill to refurbish it. A more likely candidate would be expendables like ammunition rations, medical supplies, construction materials, maybe even to some degree spare parts that would have reliance to Iraqi equipment, and that’s a lot. Expendables are a mountain of stuff, so if you’re willing to leave the expendables, then the bucket of equipment now gets to be much, much smaller than it would be otherwise. It’s still a big bucket, but you really have simplified your task to a very great degree.
The other thing that then comes into play is we have all of these mostly environmental regulations about the preparation, the cleaning of material that comes out of a place like Iraq before it comes back to the U.S. Another issue the commanders are going to face if we’re doing this under fire is to what degree can wash be willing to ease or suspend those kinds of requirements, because if I have to wash every tank with high-power hoses for 45 minutes before I take it into Kuwait, then that just makes everything much more complicated.
MJ: Peter Pace, in the question of what to leave and what to bring, has been quoted as saying that if we leave 15 brigades, it’ll take about 12 months to get all those men and machines out of Iraq. If we take everything, it would be as much as two years. Another logistician says that’s just by the book; it could be four to six weeks if the troops and equipment stay in Kuwait and do all the cleaning there before getting onto a plane or a ship. Does that sound possible to you?
AB: I would think that the truth lies somewhere in between. I mean, General Peter Pace’s thinking that we can basically pull out a brigade a month—that’s clearly bullshit. But to say that we could have all personnel and vehicles out in four to six weeks strikes me as way too optimistic. Even simply from the point of view of traffic control, this is going to be an immensely complicated proposition. It’s not just that you put a tank on the road and drive it: You have to fuel it, things break down, troops have to be rested, when they’re resting they have to have some semblance of security. I suppose that if we were fighting on the Easter Front in 1944, you got 160,000 troops with their vehicles, they could move that far in four to six weeks, but it would be an almost entire collapse of order and discipline; it would be chaotic.
If the mission were to make an expeditious withdrawal, then my guess is that you’re looking at something more on the order of six months as a reasonable planning figure, and that’s one where we’re leaving behind the great preponderance of those expendables. But you could have everyone out in a relatively orderly way in 6 months.
MJ: Are Turkey and Jordan cut off as far as exiting U.S. troops?
AB: Why would the Turkish government want to assist the U.S. in this? They would assist the United States if they felt it was in their interests to do so and they were getting something in return. It seems that the principal sort of concern the Turks have at the moment is with the Kurds; I suppose if for some reason we said, “Okay, you can have a free hand with the Kurds if you let us through Turkey,” but we’re not gong to do that.
I think the larger part would be that yes, we want to go through Kuwait. There’s a pretty mature infrastructure in Kuwait; there are facilities that have existed to support the movement of U.S. troops into Iraq and there’re people, there’re routines, there’re stockpiles of expendables that we would need to have on hand to facilitate the withdrawal.
MJ: Are there any warning signs you look for as an observer that a drawdown has been ordered?
AB: One tip-off would be contracting for increases in strategic lift; they’re going to fly home in contract 747s, commercial airlines. And perhaps also a comparable increase in contracts for ships.
MJ: Do the contractors come out with the troops or as the withdrawal gathers steam? Do they have an increased role in protection and logistics?
AB: Well, the logistics contractors will actually become busier. And then they’ll be cut off at the knees as soon as they’re no longer needed; you know, screw the little guys from Bangladesh. The security contractors, the mercenaries, I don’t know. I mean, to some degree, I think you probably want them until the very end because from a political point of view they’re more expendable than your soldiers. To the extent that in the fighting withdrawal lots of American soldiers get killed, that will be very difficult for President Bush to explain. If in a fighting withdrawal a bunch of Blackwater security contractors get killed, frankly it’s a one-day story that people aren’t going to care much about.
MJ: KBR basically set us up in Iraq down to the latrines. Coming out, will most of that be handled by KBR, or does the American government take care of it?
AB: KBR hires the people who cook the food, they hire the people who clean out the shitters and burn the human waste and pick up the garbage and dispose the garbage. The military can actually do all those functions for themselves—they don’t like to, they don’t want to, it’s a distraction and it’s a burden, but at some point in the withdrawal process you’re going to have to start preparing your own rations because we’re going to shoo those kinds of contractors away. And either we’re going to have to start burning our own human waste or frankly, we’re just going to leave it in great big barrels and let someone else worry about it when we’re gone.
MJ: What do we do with the major bases—give them over to the Iraqis or disassemble them and take them back with us?
AB: I would imagine they’ll turn them over to the Iraqis. It wouldn’t be worth it—you could take the stuff from the inside, but I doubt the bases themselves are worth dismantling.
MJ: What about prisoners in the jails?
AB: I think again it’s a question of your timeline. If this is done in a very deliberate and drawn-out way, then you might be able to survey the prison population and decide that there are some people who are so valuable that you want to keep them and you move them out of the country, probably through the secret rendition program. If you’re doing this thing immediately and quickly, then you turn them over to the Iraqi government. Then some of them probably end up getting tortured and killed and other ones probably get a get-out-of-jail-free pass.
MJ: Along those lines, what about the collaborators, the translators, and fixers—will we take them with us?
AB: I hate to say it, but I think a lot of them will get screwed. There will be a human cry here; probably most people on the left who are going to say—and I agree with this statement—that we have a moral obligation to these people. But given the anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, given the anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, politically it seems unlikely given the fact that President Bush has no chips to spend in these matters. It’s unlikely politically that there would be a very generous program of allowing Iraqis who assisted us to leave Iraq and come to the United States where they would be safe. I think it’s going to be one of those very telling moments in our history where after all the talk about freedom and liberty and loyalty and how much we care about them, most of the Iraqis that assisted us are going to be upended.
There will be large numbers of Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan, as there already are. There’ll be more of them. They’ll be living in these crummy camps, and there’s going to be another human disaster. I’m just very skeptical that we’ll do the right thing.
MJ: So we have the refugee crisis. What else do you anticipate happening?
AB: Nobody knows. You have all these people who predict genocide and chaos, and that’s a possibility. It’s also a possibility—and other people have said that—that nation states in the region will recognize that they have an interest in avoiding chaos, and that therefore there will be some effort made by Iran and Turkey and Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Kuwait to try to minimize the adverse consequences of this catastrophe. They’ll try to contain the disorder and if they would all attempt to do that then the disorder probably could be contained. Meaning, Iraq is going to be a mess, but maybe the region won’t be a mess. I think we have a very limited ability to affect that. It is the actors in the region who decide which of those options is going to happen. It won’t be the world superpower that makes the decision. We’re going to be the spectator.
MJ: What other historical precedent we should we be looking at as we think about doing this?
AB: The case where we have forces of order against insurgency, the forces of order lose. The forces of order withdraw absent a peace settlement or armistice.