Logistics of Iraq Withdrawal

Davis Cloud and Thom Shanker have an interesting piece in today’s NYT on the daunting logistical problems associated with substantial reduction of American troop levels in Iraq.

[T]hose pushing for significant withdrawals will run into an undeniable law of military operations: the American combat troops who remain in Iraq, and the growing number of Iraqi security forces, will still require substantial numbers of supporting American forces to remain, too, to supply food, fuel and ammunition and otherwise support combat operations. As the Bush administration considers how and when to draw down the nearly 133,000 American troops still in Iraq, those logistical factors, among many other pressures and counterpressures, will weigh heavily toward keeping a sizable force there, delivering supplies, gathering and analyzing intelligence and providing air support to Iraqi security forces.


The 15 combat brigades now in Iraq total roughly 60,000 combat troops. The rest of the American soldiers there deliver supplies, gather intelligence, staff headquarters, fly helicopters and other jobs. Thousands also assist in training and supplying Iraqi units, though all can find themselves in combat because of the unconventional nature of the conflict. It takes anywhere from three to five soldiers to support every combat soldier, and some of the support mission for American troops in Iraq is based elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region. But a senior Army planner at the Pentagon said that in Iraq, even a sharp initial reduction in combat units would not immediately bring a corresponding reduction in support troops. Soldiers who remain will still require all the services that the larger force did, and Iraqi troops will rely on Americans for many tasks for the foreseeable future, like air support. “Even though the brigade combat teams may roll back in number, the obligation to support U.S. and Iraqi forces remains, and that’s a bill that most people don’t really focus on,” the senior Army planner said.

As Fred Kaplan argues persuasively in the current Atlantic,

[T]he U.S. military has taken steps that suggest a total pullout is unlikely for years to come. The most tangible sign of these measures is the far-flung network of Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. There are more than seventy FOBs scattered across Iraq, many of them elaborate renovations of Saddam Hussein’s former network of military bases and presidential palaces.

I suspect will keep the FOBs running for years to come. If amateurs study tactics while professionals focus on logistics, that makes sense. Back to the NYT story:

One of the most detailed assessments available in the public domain came in a report filed by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired Army commander, who teaches international affairs at West Point and spent a week in the region last month interviewing senior American and Iraqi officers. “We need at least two to five more years of U.S. partnership and combat backup to get the Iraqi Army ready to stand on its own,” General McCaffrey wrote in a seven-page memorandum that circulated widely within the military after his return. “The Iraqi Army is real, growing, and willing to fight,” he said. But he cautioned that “they are very badly equipped, with only a few light vehicles, small arms, most with body armor and one or two uniforms. They have almost no mortars, heavy machine guns, decent communications equipment, artillery, armor” or any air cargo transport, helicopter troop carriers or strike aircraft in their own inventory. As for the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide indigenous combat support or service support, he wrote, “Their logistics capability is only now beginning to appear.”

Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner II, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, is the senior American commander for security across the northern part of the country, an area where Iraqi security forces have made steady gains. In assessing the ability of the Iraqi military to take over the security mission, he said, “The major inhibitor to independent operations is lack of equipment, manpower, their inability to sustain themselves and a lack of systems or policies in place to manage the organization.”

The United States military is the best equipped logistics force on the planet. If we shift the combat burden to the Iraqi government forces but provide most of the more expensive and complicated logistical “tail,” we relieve much of the political pressure both domestically and in Iraq while still giving the mission a real chance at success. It makes sense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    If the Iraq army is really no more then a lightly equip ed police force with no armor, air power, etc., how can they “stand up” so we can stand down.

    It does not compute.

  2. Jon Hendry says:

    The support troops far outnumber the combat troops. So taking out our combat troops and leaving in the large number of support troops, will essentially leave thousands of non-combat support troops and contractors (think: Jessica Lynches) with their security depending on the good faith of the deeply compromised Iraqi military and security forces.