Hunkering Down

A guide to the U.S. military’s future in Iraq

Late in February, U.S. Army generals in Iraq started asking military historians and archivists to dig up official records from the 1970s involving the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. The generals were especially interested in the nitty-gritty of pulling out—procedures for disposing and transferring military property, for example, and the precise sequence of demobilization. The message was explicit: we’re going to be staging another withdrawal soon, from Iraq; once it begins, it could spin easily out of control; so we need a plan for an orderly exit now.

And yet, in three years of occupation, the 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. Some FOBs consist of just a handful of barracks, but more than a dozen of them are vast complexes reminiscent of the West German garrisons from Cold War days.

The larger bases are fortified chunks of Middle America, surreally plunked down in the desert, replete with Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, Internet cafés, first-run movie theaters, gyms, and swimming pools. Camp Anaconda, built around two 11,000-foot runways and spread out over fifteen square miles, is home and workplace to 20,000 U.S. troops and 2,500 private contractors. Camp Cooke, which boasts 29,000 square feet of retail shopping, is so huge that a shuttle bus runs back and forth from one end to the other. At Camp Falcon, Army engineers had to bring in 100,000 tons of gravel just to build the reinforced roads.

There’s nothing provisional about these places. They’re often referred to as “enduring bases,” and there are plans to keep them operating, in American hands, even if all our combat regiments go home. The Pentagon is requesting $348 million in emergency funds this year for further base construction, beyond the billions already spent.

And so we are operating in an odd state of limbo. It’s clear that we’re getting out of Iraq, and soon, yet it’s equally clear that we’re staying, in a fairly big way. We are simultaneously engaged yet disengaging, hunkered down yet packing up.

Here’s the little secret that explains the contradiction, understood by all involved: whatever factions end up running the Iraqi government, they’ll need—and want—the U.S. military to stick around for many years. This is true no matter what the political mood is stateside.

Over the past year or so—ever since competent American officers were finally put in charge of training local soldiers—the Iraqi army has been growing and improving. Yet the Pentagon estimates that while nearly half of the Iraqi units are able to lead a combat operation, not one can fight by itself. The reasons are plain: the Iraqi military has no air force, no centralized intelligence corps, scant logistics apparatus, and only one armored battalion. As a result, it is—and, for the foreseeable future, will be—unable to coordinate a battle plan, defend the country’s borders, provide air support, or protect supply lines. To perform any of these basic tasks, it will need an outside power with professional armed forces. And unless some other country gets involved soon, that outside power will have to be the United States.

Strategy is an art, logistics a science; and the U.S. military has always been extremely adept at science. To supply an army with bullets, bombs, bandages, spare parts, repair kits, fuel, food, water—and to keep all these things moving through the system so nobody runs short—requires extensive planning. For each American soldier capable of going out on patrol or fighting insurgents, there are five support troops supplying his needs, according to an Army spokesman. In other words, of the roughly 130,000 American troops in Iraq today, only about 25,000 are combat troops. Categories overlap, of course; a truck driver in a convoy can find himself in a firefight or be hit by a roadside bomb. Still, when the generals plan how many troops they need, this is the combat-to-support—or “tooth-to-tail”—ratio that shapes their calculations.

Once the Iraqi army stands up and our combat troops stand down—as President Bush puts it—U.S. military planners estimate that the Iraqis will still need 20,000 to 30,000 Americans for logistics, air support, intelligence, and so forth.

But then there’s the nightmare scenario: What if there is no Iraqi government to defend? What if the political stalemate between Shiite and Sunni Muslims persists and the “low-grade civil war”—which has been rumbling since Saddam Hussein left Baghdad—erupts into anarchy, an unbridled sectarian war of all against all? If America’s mission is to hold Iraq together, what happens if the country falls apart? What do the American troops there do?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked this question at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March. His answer was a parody of obfuscation. “The plan,” he replied, “is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to.” No senator asked the logical follow-up question: To what extent are they able to? Nor did anyone pose a more worrisome question: Even if the Iraqis could deal with a civil war themselves, would they want to? If Sunnis and Shiites can’t form a national government, if they devolve into implacable sectarian foes, what’s to keep the nascent Iraqi army from devolving into sectarian militias?

This is already happening, to a disturbing degree. Southern Iraq is pretty much controlled by Shia militias, northern Iraq by the Kurdish peshmerga. In the turbulent middle territories, nearly all the Iraqi battalions consist entirely of either Sunnis or Shiites, and most of them are more loyal to their religious faction or tribe than to an Iraqi nation.

If Iraq shatters, the Bush administration will be faced with four choices: (1) Try to stop the civil war. (That would involve sending a lot more troops, which seems politically out of the question.) (2) Pick one side and fight alongside it. (Several senior U.S. officers, including two generals, told me they can’t imagine a president going this route.) (3) Get out quickly. (4) Hunker down, and stay neutral, till the smoke clears.

Unlike the first two choices, options three and four are at least feasible, because of the FOBs. Almost all these bases are, among other things, air bases. If we decided to get out, personnel could be flown out by helicopters and cargo planes. Missiles, munitions, and ammo stockpiles would probably be blown up on the spot. The heavy equipment would pose a problem. The U.S. Army has about 450 M-1 tanks, 700 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 300 Stryker vehicles, and 700 M-113 armored personnel carriers in Iraq, all of which could be moved by air, but not quickly. (The C-5, the largest U.S. military cargo plane, can carry just two M-1s; the next largest, the C-17, can carry only one.) Most of these vehicles would probably leave in much the same manner as they had entered—a thunder run south to Kuwait (or north through Kurdistan to Turkey), perhaps while protecting convoys carrying supplies that weren’t airlifted out. Insurgents could attack the convoys and do some damage, though they’d also be answered by lots of firepower. (Then again, maybe the insurgents wouldn’t want to impede our exit, or maybe they’d be too busy killing rival Iraqis.) Another option would be to leave behind the heavy armor. Building replacement models would cost more than $5 billion, which is hardly trivial, but not much more than the monthly cost of continuing to fight the war.

The easier option, though, would be to hunker down—especially since we’re doing that already. Thousands of troops still go out on dangerous combat patrols or take part in raids and offensives, but the number and scope of these operations have gone down dramatically in the past year. “Most troops are engaged in support functions,” one U.S. officer in Iraq told me. “They stay on the big FOBs and never leave.” (The combat soldiers have a name for these support troops: “fobbits.”)

As the U.S. presence on the ground has diminished, strikes from the air have intensified; they’ve gone up 50 percent since a year ago, and the number of Iraqi cities hit by these strikes has doubled, from eleven to twenty-two. But when they’re on the ground, the pilots and crews—as well as their target planners and traffic controllers—rarely, if ever, step foot off the FOBs.

The FOBs are quite secure. Most of them are situated several miles outside cities—far enough to be invisible to most Iraqis, and close enough so U.S. troops can intervene on short notice. They’re surrounded by fortified defense perimeters extending well beyond the base buildings. In this sense, Iraq is not Vietnam or Somalia or Lebanon. By the time the helicopters fled from the Saigon embassy rooftop, all the U.S. troops had been out of Vietnam for more than a year. The eighteen soldiers gunned down in the streets of Mogadishu had inadequate armor and air support. The 241 military personnel killed in Lebanon when a truck bomb crashed through their gate were on a base that was barely defended. Iraq’s insurgents have never been able to mount a sustained assault on an American position. In a full lockdown, the operational trick would be to keep the supply routes open and safe. (Two-thirds of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq, and three-quarters of injuries, have been caused by roadside bombs—a testament both to the vulnerability of convoys and to the security of the FOBs.)

But if things fall apart, the political trick will be to make a case that the mission still makes sense. It would be hard to justify a massive force that just sits there, but an argument could be made for a stripped-down core of 30,000 troops. If all-out civil war erupts, Iraq’s neighbors may feel compelled to step in, for reasons of security or aggrandizement—Iran on the side of Shiites, Saudi Arabia backing Sunnis, Turkey quashing the Kurds. The United States would be foolish to get militarily involved in an ethno-regional conflict, but it could help deter or mediate one—and having some troops on the ground, and planes in the air, creates diplomatic leverage. But if this becomes a new rationale for military presence, it can work only as one piece of a larger diplomatic initiative. And it would be best to make contact and establish routines with all the bordering nations now, while we are still merely concerned about the dangers and not yet ravaged in the storm.