World and Nation

For U.S., Leaving Iraq Is a Feat That Requires an Army

There is no more visible sign that America is putting the Iraq war behind it than the colossal operation to get its stuff out: 20,000 soldiers, nearly a sixth of the force here, assigned to a logistical effort aimed at dismantling some 300 bases and shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment, from tanks to coffee makers.

It is the largest movement of soldiers and materiel in more than four decades, the military said.

By itself, such a withdrawal would be daunting, but it is further complicated by attacks from an insurgency that remains active; the sensitivities of the Iraqi government about a visible U.S. presence; disagreements with the Iraqis about what will be left for them; and consideration for what equipment is urgently needed in Afghanistan.

All the while, the Army must sustain its current force of about 124,000 troops across the country, trucking in fuel, food and other essential supplies while determining what to leave behind for the 50,000 troops who will remain in a mostly advisory role until 2011.

“It’s a real Rubik’s Cube,” Brig. Gen. Paul L. Wentz, the commander of the Army’s logistical soldiers, said in an interview at this vast military complex north of Baghdad, which will serve as the command center for the withdrawal effort.

But just as the buildup in the Kuwaiti desert before the 2003 invasion made it plain that the United States was almost certain to go to war, the preparations for withdrawal just as clearly point to the end of the U.S. military role here. Reversing the process, even if the relative stability in Iraq deteriorates into violence, becomes harder every day.

The scale of the withdrawal is staggering. Consider a comparison with the first Persian Gulf War, in 1991: it lasted 1,012 hours, or about six weeks, and when it was over, Lt. Gen. William G. Pagonis, in charge of the Army’s logistical operations at the time, wrote a book, “Moving Mountains”’ (Harvard Business Press Books, 1992) about the challenges of moving soldiers and equipment in and out of the theater.

He called the undertaking the equivalent of moving the entire population of Alaska, along with their belongings, to the other side of the world “in short order.”

The current war in Iraq has lasted more than 57,000 hours, or more than six and a half years. And now Pagonis’ son, Col. Gust Pagonis, is one of the leading logisticians assigned to the task of figuring out how to extricate America from the desert.

“When I told my dad what my assignment was, he just laughed and said good luck,” Pagonis said.

A substantial reduction in troops is not scheduled to begin until after the January national elections. But preparations for that withdrawal can be seen on the roads across Iraq every night, with an average of 3,500 trucks traversing the nation daily on sustainment and redeployment missions.

The military has largely identified which materials are no longer essential and has begun to move them out of the country, in some cases to Afghanistan.