Packing Up After 8 Years in Iraq

BY Larisa Epatko  November 24, 2011 at 11:12 AM EST


View a slide show of the troops’ final weeks in Iraq.

After a nearly nine-year war, all but a handful of U.S. forces will be leaving Iraq by the end of this year. As they close up shop, we checked in with Major Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, chief spokesman for the United States Forces-Iraq, to get a sense of what life is like there now.

The numbers

Currently, about 19,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, down from a peak level of 165,000 at the height of the 2008 surge. For the past year, the level was down around 45,000 to 49,000 troops, Buchanan said. Eight military bases are still open. In 2008, U.S. forces operated 505 bases. Over time, the bases were handed over to Iraqis — as will the remaining eight.

How is a base transferred?

The U.S. military has been planning and coordinating the transitions with Iraqi security forces for more than a year. As for the logistics of moving out, Buchanan said the military collects intelligence and clears the routes before vehicles move. They have attack helicopters and jets provide additional security and Medevac helicopters at the ready.

They retool the plans each night, he said. “Our assumption all along is that we will be attacked. And if we take that assumption, then we do everything we possibly can to not just prepare for it should it happen but also, maybe even more importantly, through our actions be able to prevent an attack.”

At the point of final transition, Iraqi security forces perform all the perimeter security, and the last convoys and troops will leave.

Cross-training

As operations cease, those who remain take on additional jobs to cover essential services, or make due with less. For example, for cleanup purposes the dining facilities close before the last people leave. During that time, “the soldiers go back to being more expeditionary, like we were when we first came into the country,” Buchanan said. “So back to eating Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) out of the little plastic bags instead of meals that are cooked inside a dining facility.”

Joint Base Balad, located 40 miles north of Baghdad, was once the second-busiest airport in the world — after Heathrow International Airport in London — with more than 27,000 flights per month, he said. “As we’re winding down leading to its final transition, we may have a couple of flights per day. It is very, very different than what it had been in the past.”

Security post-drawdown

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that Iraq’s security situation is likely to be “turbulent” as U.S. forces leave.

“Iraq remains a dangerous place” with threats from al-Qaida in Iraq and various Iranian-backed militant groups, Buchanan told us. “Those threats are not going to disappear just because the U.S. military forces withdraw. In fact, one could argue that in some cases, there’s potential that these elements will try to reassert themselves and try to gain strength from the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. I think the Iraqi security forces have the tools and the capability to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq, but it’s going to take consistent pressures on all parts of al-Qaida’s networks.”

Who will remain in Iraq?

Quite a few people, it turns out. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq, led by Ambassador James Jeffrey, is similar in size to those in other countries considered important to the United States, like Germany, India and China, according to Buchanan. In addition to the embassy in Baghdad, there are two consulates in Erbil and Basra, and a diplomatic presence in Kirkuk, he said.

An agreement signed in 2008 outlined a partnership between Iraq and the United States. They now are working out the practical details of the increased cooperation in education, economic development, defense and security, said Buchanan.

Helping build Iraq’s civil capacity are personnel from USAID and the departments of Commerce and Treasury. Employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the FBI will also remain in place, he said.

As for military personnel, the U.S. Embassy will have a Marine security guard contingent and a small office responsible for managing foreign military sales contracts for equipment, including tanks, patrol boats and fighters. Civilians handle the delivery and training of Iraqis to operate and maintain the equipment, and military personnel oversee them, he added.

Where does all the used equipment go?

Some military equipment, such as tanks and vehicles, are being sent to Kuwait for repair and shipped elsewhere. State Department personnel staying in Iraq will get some of the military’s MRAPs — mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles — specially designed to withstand roadside bombs, said Buchanan. They’re also getting surveillance equipment and alarm detection systems for incoming rockets and mortars to help protect their offices.

The Iraqis benefit, too. Some of the equipment on bases, such as trailer housing units, generators and air conditioners, will be inventoried and turned over to Iraqis. The savings in shipping the products back to the United States, where they would likely end up in a junk pile anyway, is about $685 million, Buchanan said.

Related Resources:

Watch a video of President Obama’s Oct. 21 speech formally announcing that the Iraq war is over and U.S. troops are leaving by year’s end.

The NewsHour reported on the problems service members face in finding jobs when they return from deployment:

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