Tuesday, July 28, 2009

U.S. faces logistics nightmare in Iraq

The U.S. military is grappling with a logistics nightmare as it starts to withdraw from Iraq -- how to move an incredible amount of weapons and equipment from 283 military installations across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently dubbed the withdrawal of most of the 140,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, with all their impedimenta, "one of the biggest relocations of military hardware and manpower in recent years." And as befits a logistics operation of such massive dimensions, snafus and problems abound. These include the political nail-biting of allies like Kuwait and Turkey balking at having this vast array of military might transported through their territory, or even stored there. he bulk of the hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment -- worth $16.5 billion according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office -- is likely to be taken out of Iraq overland through Turkey to the north, Jordan in the west and Kuwait in the south for onward shipping to the United States or destinations in the Middle East and Asia.

But, according to the GAO, the Americans do not have enough heavy equipment transport to ensure the smooth removal of more than 170,000 items of equipment moved into the Iraqi theater of operations since the March 2003 invasion. For starters, the GAO noted in a March 23 report, there is no central coordination unit to oversee the removal of all the equipment, which could require as many 120,000 shipping containers. "No unified structure exists to coordinate the teams and units engaged in efforts to manage and execute the return of materiel and equipment," the report said. Some of the U.S. equipment will be transferred to Iraqi forces. "If it doesn't make sense to bring it home, we're looking at opportunities to help the Iraqis stand up their units," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dowd, logistics director for the U.S. Central Command that oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Other materiel will be shipped to help equip the U.S. military buildup in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, now the main war zone against al-Qaida and the Taliban. But the Pentagon would like a lot to be transferred to military depots across the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf states of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar where massive warehousing facilities are available, as well as Jordan and possibly even Israel. This equipment would be put in storage for deployment in future military operations in the region, mirroring similar equipment pre-positioning following the 1990-91 Gulf War against Iraq to liberate Kuwait.

"It will primarily be the big gear, stuff like MRAPS (mine resistant ambush protected vehicles) and tanks," said Dowd. "So we don't have to move and lift the heavy stuff." The military is not saying what's going where, or in what quantities. But in the past, Kuwait and Qatar have each permitted the Americans to stockpile enough equipment, including M2A2 Abrams main battle tanks, artillery and other gear for one heavy brigade. However, even with the specter of conflict with Iran hovering over the horizon, the Gulf states appear to be jumpy about allowing huge amounts of stockpiled U.S. equipment -- albeit without the troops to man them -- on their territory. Kuwait, for instance, has said it wants to limit the U.S. footprint on its turf and that only equipment for the defense of the emirate could be stored there even though the emirate still exists as a sovereign state only because U.S.-led forces liberated from Saddam Hussein's clutches in 1991.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan, who opposed the 2003 invasion, said in March that he would be willing to allow the United States to pull out its troops through his country. But it remains unclear whether that will cover all their equipment as well. The GAO stressed in its report that the withdrawal would involve "a massive and expensive effort" that is likely to boost rather than reduce Iraq-related expenditure during the pullout and for years afterward. "Although reducing troops would appear to lower costs," withdrawals from earlier conflicts have shown the costs invariably rise in the near term, it said. It suggested no figures for this. But it stressed that the bill for equipment repairs and replacement, along with closing or turning over the 283 bases to Iraqi authority "will likely be significant."


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