WHILE THE majority of Americans and a bipartisan majority in Congress now believe it is time to withdraw US forces from Iraq, considerable differences have emerged over how long it would take to accomplish a withdrawal.
Governor Bill Richardson has argued that all US troops could be withdrawn in a matter of months, while other top military and political leaders have insisted that a withdrawal would take at least two years and possibly as long as four. What this dispute really comes down to is the value placed on getting out equipment.
There is little question that a withdrawal could be completed quickly. If the president were to order the US Army to get to Kuwait, they could get to Kuwait. US military personnel would conduct an "invasion in reverse" that could be completed in months. Many US personnel and as much equipment as possible would also be flown out, using one of our four major airbases in Iraq. However, because so much equipment has been brought into Iraq over the last four years, billions of dollars worth of critical and sensitive equipment would be left behind.
A lengthy withdrawal, on the other hand, would play it by the book. The roughly 75 forward-operating bases scattered around Iraq would be meticulously shut down. Every piece of nonessential equipment from kitchen supplies to latrines would be dealt with according to military regulation. In order not to overload Kuwaiti ports and to meet stringent requirements of the Department of Agriculture - which requires each piece of equipment to be power-washed and shrink-wrapped before being transported to the United States - at most only about one combat brigade per month, roughly 3,500 troops, would leave Iraq through "Route Tampa," the one major road connecting central Iraq to Kuwait.
While such a lengthy and meticulous drawdown is often portrayed as the most "responsible" course, this plan would end up putting US forces in danger for the sake of extracting nonessential equipment. This is not just a morally dubious proposition, but one that hardly seems cost effective. The costs of maintaining US forces in Iraq - more than $10 billion per month - and the costs entailed in shipping nonessential equipment back to the United States are considerable.
But a safe and responsible withdrawal of US forces can be completed over a period of 10-12 months if we prioritize getting our troops to Kuwait, and if we seek to extract just critical and sensitive equipment.
The first step would be to withdraw units from the outer reaches of the country with the goal of reducing our footprint and consolidating our presence before our final departure. Units scheduled to return home would not be replaced and our forces would begin closing and consolidating the numerous forward-operating bases around the country.
While significant quantities of equipment would be airlifted out, much of the heavier and expensive equipment, such as tanks and Humvees, would have to be transported out through "Route Tampa." This has led to concern that because of the single route, US forces will have to "fight their way out." While these concerns are legitimate, they are likely inflated.
Route Tampa is used continuously by the military to ferry supplies from Kuwait to central Iraq and is considered relatively secure. If the threat environment were to worsen, US forces could drive out in combat formation, as opposed to placing heavier equipment on large flatbed trucks. This maneuver operation plays to the conventional strengths of the US military. Our forces train for such missions and are adept at conducting them.
However, withdrawing US forces within one year does create a significant logistical problem. To get out within a year would require sending at least two brigade combat teams per month to Kuwait, much more than the ports and facilities in Kuwait could handle. This would create a significant backlog and traffic jam in Kuwait.
But so what? While we should try to expand the capacity of Kuwait's facilities, it is better to have our troops out of harm's way in Kuwait then have them waiting to leave in Iraq.
A withdrawal of US forces will be complex. But it can be accomplished safely within one year's time through careful planning and by focusing on getting out sensitive and critical equipment. While there may be disagreement over when and how to redeploy our forces, at least we can all agree that we must plan our exit more intelligently than how we planned our entrance.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of Defense for Manpower, Installations, and Logistics from 1981 to 1985. Max A. Bergman is a research associate at the Center for American Progress. Their report, "How to Redeploy: Implementing a Responsible Drawdown of U.S. Forces from Iraq," is available at www.americanprogress.org