Obama's Iraq Withdrawal Plan May Prove Difficult
U.S. Commanders in Iraq Warn of Security Dangers, See Logistical Nightmare
By MARTHA RADDATZ
July 11, 2008
Whatever nuance Barack Obama is now adding to his Iraq withdrawal strategy, the core plan on his Web site is as plain as day: Obama would "immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months."
It is a plan that, no doubt, helped Obama get his party's nomination, but one that may prove difficult if he is elected president.
Military personnel in Iraq are following the presidential race closely, especially when it comes to Iraq.
The soldiers and commanders we spoke to will not engage in political conversation or talk about any particular candidate, but they had some strong opinions about the military mission which they are trying to accomplish, and the dramatic security gains they have made in the past few months.
We spent a day with Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond in Sadr City. He is the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for Baghdad. Hammond will likely be one of the commanders who briefs Barack Obama when he visits Iraq.
"We still have a ways to go. Number one, we're working on security and it's very encouraging, that's true, but what we're really trying to achieve here is sustainable security on Iraqi terms. So, I think my first response to that would be let's look at the conditions.
"Instead of any time-based approach to any decision for withdrawal, it's got to be conditions-based, with the starting point being an intelligence analysis of what might be here today, and what might lie ahead in the future. I still think we still have work that remains to be done before I can really answer that question," Hammond said when asked how he would feel about an order to start drawing down two combat brigades a month.
Asked if he considered it dangerous to pull out if the withdrawal is not based on "conditions," Hammond said, "It's very dangerous. I'll speak for the coalition forces, men and women of character and moral courage; we have a mission, and it's not until the mission is done that I can look my leader in the eye and say, 'Sir, Ma'am, mission accomplished,' and I think it is dangerous to leave anything a little early."
That phrase, "sustainable security," is something you hear a lot in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is the operational commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, says he has seen things improve significantly here.
As for Obama's stated plan to bring home the troops within 16 months, Austin said, "I'd have to see the entire plan. I'd have to understand the strategic objectives of the leadership, and based on those strategic objectives, come up with operational objectives. It's very difficult to comment on one way or the other, whether one plan would work or one plan wouldn't work. Right now, we are helping the Iraqis achieve sustainable security, and helping them to increase the capability of the Iraqi security forces, and we are making great progress along those lines."
On the streets of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber had struck just days before, Capt. Josh West told us he wants to finish the mission, and that any further drawdown has to be based on conditions on the ground.
"If we pull out of here too early, it's going to establish a vacuum of power that violent criminal groups will be able to fill once we leave," West said.
Capt. Jeremy Ussery, a West Point graduate on his third deployment, pointed to his heavy body armor as we walked in the 120-degree heat, saying, "The same people keep coming back because we want to see Iraq succeed, that's what we want. I don't want my kids, that hopefully will join the military, my notional children, to have to come back to Iraq 30 years from now and wear this."
But Ussery added, "You can't put a timetable on it -- it's events-based."
Success on the battlefield is not the only complication with Obama's plan.
Physically removing the combat brigades within that kind of time frame would be difficult, as well.
The military has been redeploying troops for years, and Maj. Gen. Charles Anderson, who would help with the withdrawal, told us as we toured Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, "We have the capacity to do a minimum of two-and-a-half brigade combat teams a month -- can we expand that capacity? Sure. Can we accelerate? It depends. It depends on the amount of equipment that we bring back. And it's going to depend on how fast we bring them out."
It is the equipment that is the real problem.
In the kind of redeployment that Anderson is talking about, the troops head home, but much of their equipment stays behind. Two combat brigades means up to 1,200 humvees in addition to thousands of other pieces of equipment, like trucks, fuelers, tankers and helicopters.
And 90 percent of the equipment would have to be moved by ground through the Iraqi war zone, to the port in Kuwait, where it must all be cleaned and inspected and prepared for shipment. This is a place with frequent dust storms, limited port facilities and limited numbers of wash racks.
While Anderson and his troops have a positive attitude, several commanders who looked at the Obama plan told ABC News, on background, that there was "no way" it could work logistically.