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How to Redeploy: Implementing a Responsible Drawdown of U.S. Forces from Iraq

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Read more about CAP’s comprehensive strategy for the Middle East in “Strategic Reset”

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It is time to redeploy our forces from Iraq. An overwhelming majority of the American people and a bipartisan majority of Congress believe that the costs and risks of continuing to pursue the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq outweigh any potential benefits that might be achieved by keeping our military mired in Iraq’s multiple civil conflicts.

Undeterred, the Bush administration believes the latest surge strategy should be maintained well into next year and has already mapped out plans to keep large numbers of troops on the ground in Iraq through 2009. This is the wrong course. As the Center for American Progress has argued previously in “Strategic Reset,” Iraq is currently engaged in multiple internal conflicts that American military power cannot resolve. President Bush’s “surge” strategy has ignored this fundamental premise, hoping against hope that increased military security would enable Iraq’s fragmented political leadership to make compromises they ultimately cannot make.

It is time to stop recklessly extending our military presence in Iraq and regain control of our national security by redeploying our forces out of Iraq in an orderly and safe manner.

Yet there remains significant disagreement and confusion concerning the time necessary to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq. The debate has gravitated back and forth between those arguing that there must be either a rapid, precipitous withdrawal or a long, drawn-out redeployment. Further clouding the issue are those who support an extended redeployment over several years simply in order to “stay the course” in Iraq, and as a result cherry-pick logistical issues to make the case for an extended U.S. presence.

Deciding between a swift or extended redeployment, however, is a false dilemma. While both options are logistically feasible, this report will demonstrate that an orderly and safe withdrawal is best achieved over a 10- to 12-month period. Written in consultation with military planners and logistics experts, this report is not intended to serve as a playbook for our military planners but rather as a guide to policymakers and the general public about what is realistically achievable. A massive, yet safe and orderly redeployment of U.S. forces, equipment, and support personnel is surely daunting—but it is well within the exceptional logistical capabilities of the U.S. military.

Those who argue for a rapid and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces have often been accused of adopting an unrealistic approach. This, we believe, is a misplaced critique. It is certainly possible to conduct a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, in perhaps as short a time as three months if the U.S. military (in the words of Iraq war veteran and military analyst Phillip Carter) were to effectively conduct an “invasion in reverse.”

If the U.S. Army was ordered to withdraw to Kuwait, they could do so quickly and relatively safely. Such an exit, however, would sacrifice a significant amount of equipment and create an instantaneous political and security vacuum similar to that created by the initial overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While this option is certainly feasible, we do not believe that it is the best course of action.

Yet we must also caution that if the United States does not set a specific timetable our military forces and our overall national security will remain hostage to events on the ground in Iraq. Worse still, a startling new development such as the assassination of the Ayatollah Sistani or a large sectarian attack leading to an all-out civil war could well compel our forces to withdraw in as little as three months. We need to start planning now for redeployment.

Those who argue that a withdrawal will have to take place over a number of years, perhaps as many as four, base their analysis on the time it takes to complete a meticulous extraction and dismantling of all U.S. equipment and facilities. As this report will demonstrate, we believe that such an extended timeline increases the danger to U.S. forces and is not cost-effective from a logistical standpoint even though such an approach would presumably result in a complete extraction of all U.S. equipment.

The essential logistical point of disagreement between these approaches centers on the value placed on the equipment that is to be withdrawn. We believe that all essential, sensitive, and costly equipment must be safely withdrawn, but taking out non-vital equipment and the meticulous dismantling of certain facilities with no military value should not be an obstacle to redeploying our troops out of harm’s way in Iraq and back into the fight against terrorism, which national security experts from across the political spectrum agree threatens the United States more than at any time since 9/11.

A phased military redeployment from Iraq over the next 10 to 12 months would begin extracting U.S. troops from Iraq’s internal conflicts immediately and would be completed by the end of 2008. During this timeframe, the military will not replace outgoing troops as they rotate home at the end of their tours and will draw down force and equipment levels gradually, at a pace similar to previous rotations conducted by our military over the past four years. According to a U.S. military official in Baghdad involved in planning, a withdrawal could take place safely in this time period.

Such troop and materiel movements are also not without precedent. As this report will detail, the Pentagon was able to organize the rotation of nearly 235,000 soldiers and their accompanying equipment in the spring of 2004 in and out of Iraq as the forces who led the invasion reached the end of their one-year deployments.

Nor would we leave the region entirely. To maintain an offensive and deterrent capability in the region, U.S. troops would temporarily station 8,000 to 10,000 troops (two brigades plus support and command elements) in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq for one year to prevent the outbreak of Turkish-Kurd violence and protect that region of the country from Iraq’s multiple civil conflicts. Marine Corps units would be tasked to provide security for personnel at the U.S. embassy. Another ground brigade and tactical air wing would be based in Kuwait.

These forces would be backed up by a carrier battle group and a Marine expeditionary force in the Persian Gulf. Logistical support will be provided by air to minimize the necessary ground footprint in northern Iraq. Our existing bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates will also be maintained to ensure security in the region and reinforce our commitment to our allies.

The obligation to begin organizing the withdrawal requires the Bush administration to begin meticulous planning for our departure from Iraq—and to do so with much more care than they did the invasion and occupation. Yet there is concern over whether the Bush administration has prevented the military from undertaking such planning. When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) formally asked the Pentagon about U.S. contingency plans for withdrawal from Iraq, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman responded with a formal letter accusing Clinton of aiding enemy propaganda.

Rather than continuing the president’s failed strategy in Iraq and criticizing those who question it, the Pentagon should immediately begin planning a strategic redeployment from Iraq. The time for half-measures and experiments is over; it is now time for a logistically sound strategic redeployment.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org