What We Leave Behind

After nearly nine years of war in Iraq, moving out is a bigger job than you might think.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

U.S. Marines lowered the American flag at Baghdad airport today, bringing the Iraq war to an official end. The conflict, which claimed 4,484 American lives and those of at least 100,000 Iraqis, may have ended with an understated ceremony — but the process of leaving Mesopotamia was anything but quiet.

The U.S. exit in Iraq was made possible by one of the largest, most sophisticated logistical campaigns in world history. Shutting down hundreds of bases, packing up millions of pieces of equipment, and turning around the cargo ships, transport planes, and truck convoys represented a "monumental task," according to Army Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, who oversaw the final months of the drawdown.

To understand the scope of the U.S. drawdown over the past two and a half years, it helps to look back at the enormous footprint that the United States built over more than eight years of war. In the four months of build-up that preceded the March 2003 invasion, U.S. Transportation Command — the Pentagon’s in-house logistics and shipping service — delivered just over 1 million tons of cargo and 258,000 passengers, using 3,900 round-trips by airplanes and 150 by ships. Counting pilots, ship’s crews, cargo handlers, bookkeepers, warehouse workers, and other professionals, the pre-war supply push employed 150,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilian contractors.

By contrast, United Parcel Service (UPS), the world’s largest express shipping company with roughly 425,000 employees, in a typical four-month period delivers around 5 million tons of cargo to the entire world. In other words, Transportation Command hauled to just one country roughly a fifth of what UPS delivers to more than 220 countries, combined.

This massive U.S. presence only grew during the war’s peak in 2007 and 2008, when the armed services maintained some 505 bases in Iraq, housing 165,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of weapons and vehicles. The occupation force was fed, fueled, and supplied by tens of thousands of military and contract logisticians in a round-the-clock effort that cost, on average, $307 billion a year.

This effort was not only expensive, it was dangerous. As the invasion transformed into an occupation, U.S. Army truckers assumed the major burden of hauling supplies between ports in Kuwait and the front-line bases in Iraq. It was dull and dirty work, as Iraqi insurgents quickly learned to target U.S. forces where they were most vulnerable: their supply lines.

In January 2005, I rode along with troopers from the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 1052nd Transportation Company as they convoyed back and forth across north-central Iraq in tan-painted big rigs. On nearly every mission, they came across roadside bombs as they passed near insurgent strongholds such as Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and the Shiite bastion of Najaf. If they spotted the bombs in time, Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams would swoop in to disable them. But the guardsmen weren’t always so lucky: On Oct. 27, 2004, the 1052nd’s Sgt. Jerome Lemon was decapitated by a suicide bomber riding a motorcycle. Lemon was just one of hundreds of military logisticians to die in eight years of war.

The truck drivers’ efforts helped establish sprawling bases such as Logistics Support Area Anaconda, just outside the city of Balad. Anaconda’s perimeter stretched 12 miles. At its peak, the base was home to more than 36,000 troops and contractors.

Becker’s team was essentially charged with reversing this massive and expensive buildup. The dismantling of the U.S. occupation was, fortunately, far less deadly than the build-up. A combined 114 Americans died in Iraqi in 2010 and 2011, compared to an average of 703 per year between 2003 and 2009.

One by one, the United States emptied out its 505 bases and turned them over to the Iraqi government. In late November, Becker reported that just 317,000 pieces of equipment remained — enough for 1,700 truckloads. Some equipment was transferred to the Iraqi military, including hundreds of armored vehicles the Army had bought specifically for the Iraq war. The rest backtracked along the same routes that had brought it to Iraq in the first place: First by road to an airbase for a flight back to the United States, or to Kuwait to be shipped by sea.

Iraq’s army could make use of many of the vacated facilities, but it’s equally possible many of them will simply fall apart. U.S. soldiers have said that Iraqi troops routinely pillage former U.S. bases as soon as they’re handed over, stripping them of copper wiring and other valuable materials.

The Dec. 1 shutdown of the Air Force’s Sather Air Base in Baghdad marked the transfer of the final U.S. base although this one is going to the State Department rather than the Iraqi government. Airmen packed up everything, including the shelving and packing material that had once held incoming supplies. "There are literally going to be guys who are working to secure the airfield right up until the moment they run to the plane and take off," said Air Force Col. Michael Gaal, second in command at the base.

And then, of course, there’s the departure of the soldiers themselves. U.S. troop levels in Iraq have been steadily decreasing since President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal plan in February 2009, from 146,000 to the 4,000 remaining soldiers today. All but a handful of those are scheduled to depart the country by Dec. 31.

Sather Air Base is one of the few facilities that will remain in American hands, albeit those of the U.S. State Department. For while the U.S. military is departing Iraq, the diplomats are staying. Sixteen thousand people, including 5,000 contract security guards, staff the U.S. embassy in Baghdad plus several smaller diplomatic facilities. The State Department plans to spend more than $6 billion in Iraq in Iraq next year — much less than the Pentagon’s $50 billion expenditure this year, but not peanuts either. The embassy in Baghdad is one of the largest, most lavish, and most heavily defended in the world.

The State Department’s staff will include 150 military advisors, who are tasked with overseeing arms sales to Baghdad. Further proof that even after all the equipment and bases are gone, America’s wars never truly end.

David Axe is a freelance reporter based in Columbia, South Carolina. Since 2005, he has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Chad, Congo and other conflict zones for Wired, the BBC, Salon, Esquire, and others. He is the author of, most recently, The Accidental Candidate. Twitter: @daxe