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As Troops Leave Iraq, What Happens to Military Bases, Equipment?

December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama hailed the end of the war in Iraq on Wednesday, with all U.S. troops due to return home before month's end. Judy Woodruff discusses what will happen to the military equipment and bases left behind with retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis and Elizabeth Dwoskin of Bloomberg Businessweek.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president today welcomed the end of the war in Iraq, with all U.S. troops due to leave before the month is out. He also acknowledged the costs of the long conflict.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words — and I know your families agree. Welcome home.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Welcome home.  

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a homecoming complete with the commander in chief for the latest detachments of troops arriving back at Fort Bragg, N.C.

President Obama praised the efforts of 1.5 million Americans who’ve served in Iraq since 2003.

BARACK OBAMA: We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement nearly nine years in the making. And, today, we remember everything that you did to make it possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That effort came at a high price in blood and treasure. The president said the United States spent more than $1 trillion on the war, although many war critics contend the real figure is far higher.

And there is the human cost of years of fighting, with nearly 4,500 American dead and, the president said, the toll on thousands of military families.

BARACK OBAMA: So there have been missed birthday parties and graduations. There are bills to pay and jobs that have to be juggled while picking up the kids. For every soldier that goes on patrol, there are the husbands and the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters praying that they come back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as the Iraq conflict finally comes to a close, the fighting goes on in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was there today, telling troops near the Pakistan border that they have made important gains.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: I really think that, for all the sacrifice that you’re doing, the reality is that it’s paying off and that we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. forces have already begun withdrawing from Afghanistan, but there, too, the costs continue to climb, with more than 1,800 Americans killed since 2001.

As combat forces leave Iraq, one major challenge remains: what to do with all the equipment, military vehicles and bases left behind.

We look at what’s involved with that lesser-known aspect of the war operations with retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis. He was in charge of bringing home U.S. troops and gear after the first Gulf War. He’s now vice chairman of GENCO ATC, a logistics and supply chain company with operations in the region. And Elizabeth Dwoskin, she co-wrote an article about all this for the new issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Elizabeth Dwoskin, I will start with you.

How much material did the U.S. have in Iraq to be brought home?

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN, Bloomberg Businessweek: Well, millions and millions of pieces of equipment, probably over four or five million.

But when they started the drawdown and ended the combat mission, the major general in charge started with a list of two — just over two million pieces of equipment that he was in charge of finding new homes for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And at a huge value, cost.

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: We don’t know the total cost of the equipment, but we can imagine it is, from some of the breakdowns that we have seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gen. Pagonis, just from your perspective of having been through something like this, give us a sense of a magnitude of an operation like this.

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS, (RET.) U.S. Army: Well, everything has to be brought back. And we have been there almost over nine years. All the equipment, that’s easy to bring back, but you have to also bring back all the clothing. You don’t want Army uniforms getting into the hands of terrorists or parties that could use it against us in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

But there will be computers, desks. It’s just like — it’s been built up for nine years. And, plus, it has to be cleaned and processed. It will probably go through Kuwait, where a triage is done. Some of the stuff will be sent to Afghanistan for the war effort there. Other things will be washed and sent back to the United States. And other items will be thrown away as salvage because, remember, they have been used for nine years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Elizabeth, in your reporting, most of it coming back to the United States?

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Yes, it looks like the bulk of the equipment is going to go back through the United States and go through the Army again, being used on bases.

As he said, it will cleaned there. It gets a huge scrub-down in Kuwait. It’s being trucked there on thousands of truckloads. It gets a scrub-down. U.S. customs has to look through it. And then much of it comes to the states, but some will also go to Afghanistan as well and to other places, like Bahrain, where there are Marines, so lots of places around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gen. Pagonis, you touched on this, but why is it so important that this material be gotten out?

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS: Well, first of all, you don’t want to leave it in the hands of any kind of force that can be used against you.

Uniforms, for example, don’t seem like a big deal, but if the enemy were to get a hold of them, they could wear them and pose as American soldiers. In addition to that, all kind of other material, satellite equipment, computers, all needs to be brought back.

The budgets are very thin, as you know, and so this stuff will be refurbished and reused by the armed forces as much as possible. Some will be staged in Kuwait. We at GENCO ATC are actually running a facility in Kuwait where we’re storing items that will be reissued.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elizabeth — and, again, on your reporting — are there — is this just a smooth operation? They just get a bunch of trucks and ships and they bring it back? How complicated is it, do they tell you?

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Through the interviews we did, it seems, as a layperson, enormously complicated. It seems like a feat of logistics.

Every night, Maj. Gen. Richardson, who we interviewed, who is the chief of logistics there in Iraq, he has a conference call with the generals that are still on the bases, the commanders that are still on the bases, and he kind of asks them to check in. OK, how many soldiers turned in what today? How many pieces do you have, how many latrines, how many ready-made spaghetti meals? They have everything down to the most minute level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do they say about what — we heard what Gen. Pagonis said about what shouldn’t be left behind. But what do they say about what it’s all right to leave behind there?

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Well, we’re leaving over 500 military bases to the Iraqis, both to Iraqi security forces and also to the government.

So, in my story with Gopal Ratnam, we did — we have an example of a base that’s going to be used by the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports. So you can imagine children, Iraqi children using that base for gym class, or the Ministry of Education could use those — use the base for classrooms.

So those — we will leave our physical footprint in Iraq for a long time to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gen. Pagonis, we know some of the material that was mentioned is going to Afghanistan, but only a limited portion, it sounds like.

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS: Well, only those items you need. You don’t want to keep building up the force and all the supplies, and when we leave Afghanistan, you have to bring that stuff back. So they will try to send what absolutely is needed now to save the shipment from the United States. It will just be shipped out of Kuwait.

But it’s a very difficult process, as she mentioned. In the first Gulf War, they sent me 6,000 troops, and we were given two years to bring everything back. We got it done in nine months because the motto was, as soon as this stuff is out of here, you get to go home. And so it’s a very difficult process. Everything has to be accounted for.

And, remember, the same people have not been there for nine years. So you have had a different crew, a different set of leaders, a different set of individuals working through the process. So, all that has to be coordinated. But there’s great some young logisticians in the United States Army, Air Force and Navy to pull this off and do a great job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General, what about the question of waste? Inevitably, there has to be some waste, things that were sent over that either weren’t fully used or certainly a lot of things were destroyed.

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS: Well, most civilian corporations would write anything off after three of four years. In the armed forces, they are going to have to recoup it and go through the auditing.

And there will be some things that will be salvaged that just aren’t worth it to bring back. But the big thing is to account for everything. And that’s what they have been doing. By the way, this just didn’t start yesterday. Once the president announced the withdrawal was going to take place, the logisticians started putting an operational plan together and they started executing as much as possible to be able to meet the deadline, because once the troops leave, your labor force is gone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned that in — just a minute ago.

Elizabeth, you also write in this story about mayors, cities — rather, cities, towns, local officials in the United States who are interested in getting their hands on some of this material at a reduced cost. How much of that is going on?

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Sure.

Well, as the general said, sometimes, it’s too cumbersome to bring a lot of this equipment back to the U.S., so a lot of it is left on bases. But that has been frustrating for some American states and towns that have petitioned the Pentagon for this equipment.

So there’s an association called the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Properties. And they petitioned the Army for this equipment. So we have a town in Alabama that received band equipment which they will use in school districts that came from a base in Iraq. There’s a county in Oklahoma which received a Caterpillar earth-mover, and they’re going to use that to clear public parks.

So they have been receiving equipment all year. All told, it only comes out to about $10 million to $11 million worth of equipment, so about a fraction of what’s going to the Iraqis and clearly what’s staying.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gen. Pagonis, as you — as we wrap this up, as you look at what — at how the operation seems to be going in Iraq and remembering what happened after the first Gulf War, how should Americans feel about this?

I mean, clearly most of the emotion, connection is with lives, the many, many men and women who went over there. Some didn’t come back. What should Americans know about war fighting at a time like this?

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS: Well, first of all, the American public has supported the armed forces throughout this nine-year conflict, which is terrific.

It wasn’t like the Vietnam conflict, where the American public were not behind the forces when they returned. These are great young men and women, drug-free, mobile, well-educated that need to be assimilated back into the work force.

And there’s going to be various programs to do this. But many National Guard and reservists were called up, and people forget that. It was more than just the active force. It was a total integration of the three activities. So it will be a big thing. And I think it’s great we’re going to have them home by the end of — many will get home before Christmas. Some will get right after Christmas.

But it’s good to bring this part of our history to a closure, and now we need to concentrate on Afghanistan and get it wrapped up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I think it’s good for all of us to be reminded of what a complicated operation this is right to the last day that the United States is there.

Gen. Gus Pagonis and Elizabeth Dwoskin, thank you both.

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Thank you.

LT. GEN. GUS PAGONIS: You’re welcome.