Some in Congress and an increasing number of Americans want the Bush administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, but even if the decision came tomorrow to remove all 160,000 troops now there, it could take as long as 18 months to do it, say former military officials who've managed troop exits before.
Sooner or later, American forces will leave Iraq. But that political decision cannot be made in isolation, but must take into account the logistics of departure, which will be neither simple nor speedy, say former military officers.
Unlike other withdrawals from, say, Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, insurgents, terrorists, and other bad actors are expected to contest US forces as they leave.
"There is no way they're going to pull out of that theater as fast as everyone thinks," says retired Army Lt. Gen. William "Gus" Pagonis, who oversaw the withdrawal of nearly half a million US troops and hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment from Saudi Arabia in 1991 over a seven-month period.
Mr. Pagonis says the US should start withdrawing its forces soon – but without a published timetable – and expects it will take as long as 18 months to get the bulk of them out.
Withdrawal means different things to different people. Depending on how the war goes over the next few months, the Bush administration could push for more time and then begin a gradual withdrawal next year. Democrats in Congress, so far unable to halt implementation of the administration's "surge" strategy in Iraq, may yet be able to force a faster removal of troops.
Most agree that a "residual force" of untold size is likely to remain in Iraq for some time.
Whether a withdrawal is full or partial, it is clearly on the collective mind of Congress. On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee members received a private briefing from Pentagon officials about the Defense Department's withdrawal plan, after a public tit-for-tat between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York and the Pentagon on the matter.
Senator Clinton, a presidential candidate who is leading in polls among Democrats, would not comment on what she learned from the briefing. "We did not have a smart plan to go in," she said, characterizing the deployment as a "combination of arrogance and incompetence." "But we will do everything in our power to be sure we have a smart plan to get out."
A smart plan will take time to execute, warn former military officials. When hostilities ended after the first Gulf War, more than 5,000 troops were flown out each day, and equipment was scrubbed clean to comply with US agricultural regulations. About 400 ship loads were needed to get all the equipment out.
The US has only about one-third as much equipment and personnel in the region now as it did in 1990, Pagonis says. Still, he adds, this departure will be far more complicated.
US forces this time are likely to have to fight their way out as they hand the country over to the Iraqi government, a scenario that is reminiscent more of the Vietnam War than Gulf War I.
"It's possible, even likely, that Iran among others would try to humiliate us on the way out, so you'd have to plan for a fighting withdrawal," says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general and adviser to the Defense Department. If the Bush administration were to opt to leave most of the military's equipment and facilities in Iraq, forces could be removed in a little more than three months, he says. But it's more advisable for US forces to exit gradually over more than a year when the time comes, says Mr. McCaffrey, who does not support an American withdrawal now.
Fast or slow, a departure poses challenges for planners. One option is to remove most forces the way they entered, through Kuwait, which minimizes the number of forces needed for guard duty for a contested departure. But amassing troops in one area would leave US forces particularly vulnerable, say former commanders. It also creates logjams.
One veteran of the first Gulf War, a captain at the time, remembers enduring six weeks in Saudi Arabia waiting to go home. They ran low on food. There was nothing to do. They had to move to different camps, only to wait longer.
"Everybody knew this was going to take a little bit of time to get everybody home because there were so many of us," says the veteran, who now works on Capitol Hill and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job. "But somewhere along the line, it became unglued."
Others say it would be more advisable to use Turkey and Jordan, as well as Kuwait, as exit points. Although that would require more forces for guard duty, it would allow a more orderly and "coherent" way out, some say.
A number of US forces will probably have to stay in Iraq, but how many will depend on the security situation there and how much equipment will be left behind.
"We will not draw down from 160,000 to zero. We will draw down from 160,000 to a force that would be able to continue the development of the Iraqi security forces and ... that would provide for [US] security," says retired Army Major Gen. Paul Eaton, whose last job was training the new Iraqi Army. He continues to call for withdrawal to begin soon, as a way to "exert some discipline" on what he says is the "underperforming" Iraqi government.
Ultimately, the American departure from Iraq will be difficult, complex, and painstaking, says the former Gulf War veteran now working in Congress.
"It's so much more than just a political statement of 'we're leaving,' " he says.