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WHAT A PULLOUT WOULD LOOK LIKE
On July 17, in yet another example of how unhelpful the political conversation has become, workers laid out cots and pillows in a marble cloakroom on Capitol Hill as the Senate prepared for an all-night debate on another in a line of doomed-to-fail resolutions. Sponsored by Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed, the measure called on the Administration to begin withdrawing the bulk of U.S. troops within 120 days and leave an unstated number behind to go after terrorists and protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Many Republicans might support such a plan in private if they did not feel that the Democrats were keeping them up all night to score points at the President's expense. But even if Congress approved Levin-Reed, military logistics experts say it would take far longer than 120 days to redeploy even half of U.S. forces.
The reality is that it's difficult to get out fast. It took the Soviets nine months to pull 120,000 troops out of Afghanistan. They were simply going next door, and they still lost more than 500 men on the way out. Pulling out 10 combat brigades roughly 30,000 troops, along with their gear and support personnel would take at least 10 months, Pentagon officials say. And that's only part of the picture. There are civilians who would probably want to head for the exit when GIs started packing. They include some 50,000 U.S. contractors and tens of thousands of Iraqis who might need protection if we left the country.
Slowing things down further is the sheer volume of stuff that we would have to take with us or destroy if we couldn't. Military officials recently told Congress that 45,000 ground-combat vehicles a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees are now in Iraq. They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps. These items have to be taken back home or destroyed, lest they fall into the hands of one faction or another. Pentagon officials will try to bring back as much of the downtime gear as possible dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters. William (Gus) Pagonis, the Army logistics chief who directed the flood of supplies to Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War and their orderly withdrawal from the region, cites one more often overlooked hurdle: U.S. agricultural inspectors insist that, before it re-enters the U.S., Army equipment be free of any microscopic disease that, as Pagonis puts it, "can wipe out flocks of chickens and stuff like that."
Once the U.S. decides to pull its forces back, the security risks to troops leaving the battlefield would increase, and the faster the U.S. withdraws, the greater the dangers. Departing troops lose their focus and become easy targets, says Pagonis. Local militias usually try to prove their mettle by firing at departing columns. "It would be ugly," says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who supports a partial withdrawal. "You'd burn or blow up a lot of your equipment or hand it over to the Iraqis. You'd be subject to attack on your way down to the coast because on the way, people would say, 'We can either throw rose petals or shoot at 'em,' and they'd shoot at us." A gradual exit rather than an immediate one isn't merely the wiser course; it's the only course.
THE FATE OF THE IRAQIS
A reduction in the U.S. combat presence would probably produce one clear benefit: a lower U.S. casualty rate. But a chilling truth is that as the U.S. death toll declined, the Iraqi one would almost surely soar. Just how many Iraqis would die if the U.S. withdrew is anyone's guess, but almost everyone who has studied it believes the current rate of more than a thousand a month would spike dramatically. It might not resemble Rwanda, where more than half a million people were slaughtered in six months in 1994. But Iraq could bleed like the former Yugoslavia did from 1992 to 1995, when 250,000 perished.
There is no debate about why: in the wake of an American pullout, Baghdad would be quickly dominated by Shi'ite militias largely unbloodied by the American campaign. Already, well-armed security forces that pose as independent are riddled with militiamen who take direction from Shi'ite leaders. Death-squad killings of Sunnis would rise. Against such emboldened forces, Sunni insurgents and elements of Saddam Hussein's former regime would retaliate with their weapon of choice: car-bomb attacks against Shi'ite markets, shrines, police stations and recruiting depots.
One result of the military's "surge" strategy is that the U.S. has handed over to Sunni tribal sheiks much greater responsibility for their security and even the weapons to back it up in exchange for severing their links to al-Qaeda. That's a manageable risk while U.S. forces are nearby; if they depart, it becomes tinder in a dry forest. The danger would be not just sectarian slaughter but outright anarchy as well. "Our immediate concern," says a senior Arab diplomat, "is that sending a signal of complete withdrawal could encourage some elements in every faction in every political group that they can now impose their own agenda. It would be not only Shi'ite versus Sunni ... but [war] inside each community itself. The worst case is a Somalia-ization of Iraq."
Some experts believe Iraqis would, after a brief explosion of violence, regain control of their country. Indeed, there are those who think that is the best reason for the U.S. to set a date for a withdrawal now, to force the Iraqis to step up and take control before any kind of U.S. pullout begins to create a vacuum. But there are few indications that the Iraqi center, such as it is, can hold or that Iraq's neighbors will be much of a stabilizing influence.
The worst-case scenario is an Iraq war that becomes a regional conflict. Sunni sympathizers in the region most notably in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria would funnel arms and cash to their kinsmen in Iraq to counter the Shi'ites, just as the government of Iran is quietly helping the Shi'ites themselves. "One of the things we've seen elsewhere, whether it is Ireland or Palestine," says Jon Alterman, Middle East director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "is that when you have people outside the country that are doing the paying, you will continue to have proxies inside the country doing the killing."
It's easy to see how a reckless U.S. departure could spark a chain reaction that leads to further destabilization or even war among Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, three of the world's 15 top oil-exporting countries. Shi'ites who object to Saudi backing of the Sunnis might retaliate inside the kingdom or Sunnis might take the fight into Iran. "We will have sectarian violence on a level that would likely trigger regional war," says Michèle Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank. "At that point, you are looking at a path you don't want to go down."
Given that the current U.S. force has been unable to curb sectarian killings, it's unreasonable to expect that a reduced U.S. troop presence would stop Sunnis and Shi'ites from killing one another. But even with a significantly smaller footprint, the U.S. would retain sufficient firepower on the ground and in the skies to guard against others trying to intervene. After a majority of U.S. troops depart, a military presence of some size will still be needed not so much to referee a civil war, as U.S. forces are doing now, but to try to keep it from expanding. McCaffrey and others argue for cutting U.S. forces by no more than half for now. "If you end up with 10 combat brigades in Iraq at the end of this President's term" down from 20 today "you'd still have enough combat power" to deter outside actors from further stoking the fire.