The Democratic takeover of Congress has predictably led to a rise in calls for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The authors of these calls, like Carl Levin and Joe Biden, frequently maintain that their proposals are not for "withdrawal" but for "redeployment." U.S. forces would remain poised on bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kuwait, or elsewhere in the region to support the Iraqis with "rapid reaction forces." The United States would thereby both "incentivize" the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security and give them an over-the-horizon safety net. The trouble is that this "safety net" is illusory. It serves only to mask out-and-out withdrawal and defeat.
We'll ignore some of the sillier suggestions, such as basing "over the horizon" forces in Guam (thousands of miles away from Iraq) or Pakistan (hundreds of miles away and a place where we can't even get permission to send Special Forces teams to hunt Osama bin Laden). Let's consider instead the more realistic sounding plans of basing "quick reaction forces" (QRFs, as the military calls them) in Iraqi Kurdistan or Kuwait.
The scenario for using such forces would go something like this. After our departure, Iraqi Army forces would battle insurgents as necessary to clear and hold contested areas. They would occasionally be overmatched tactically and need assistance. They would call U.S. commanders in Kuwait or Kurdistan for help. American forces, kept on alert for just such a contingency, would rush to the rescue, restore the situation, and again leave, allowing the Iraqis to proceed with pacifying their own country. At this level of abstraction, it sounds reasonable. When any of the practical difficulties are considered, it is revealed as utter nonsense.
U.S. forces now operate in Iraq from forward operating bases, or FOBs. FOBs provide housing and food for soldiers, ammunition and fuel storage, depots for vehicles, command and control centers, and medical care, among other things. They require a constant stream of supplies to keep them going. Most of these supplies travel by sea to Kuwait's ports and then by road to the FOBs dotted around Iraq. The idea of maintaining some sort of super-FOB in Kurdistan while abandoning all of Iraq to the south is logistical madness. Everything would have to be flown in, requiring a massive airlift effort-unless one imagines that the Turks would allow us to supply it from their territory. Even with their permission, that would be a daunting undertaking, as supplies and reinforcements would have to travel hundreds of miles by rail from Turkey's Mediterranean ports just to get to Kurdistan. The cost would be astronomical and the entire set-up at the mercy of Ankara.
Let us suppose, then, that the quick-reaction force is based in Kuwait, where we already have a significant and stable logistics infrastructure. We would keep several battalions there at least, possibly several brigades. How will they get to where the Iraqis need them? It's about 600 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad-several days' drive for a military convoy. If we have pulled all of our troops out of Iraq, moreover, we will be driving through unsecured roads. The distance will give insurgents plenty of time to place IEDs and establish ambushes. We will have no U.S. local commanders to get intelligence of such activities or clear the roads before the QRF comes through. We will lose vehicles and soldiers, the convoys will be delayed, possibly halted. At best, they will have to fight their way through half the country to get where they're needed. They will surely not arrive in time or in shape to help.
Most advocates of this proposal probably imagine that our troops would instead fly from their super-FOB to where they are needed. That is in principle feasible. U.S. troops could theoretically mount helicopters and fly them from Kuwait into the Sunni Triangle, then land near the fighting and charge in. But 600 miles is a long way. Our soldiers do not fly out on such missions, engage briefly in combat, and then get back in their birds and fly home at night. They would have to land somewhere at a distance from the fight, set up a secure base, and then move out. Given the distance, in fact, they would probably need to make a stop to set up an interim support base before proceeding to the final objective. The helicopters would have to be refueled, of course, and the soldiers would need supplies of ammunition, food, water, etc. Such materials cannot be transported in large quantities by helicopter. So our soldiers will have to secure an airfield. If the insurgents conveniently choose to fight near an airfield, then the base can be quickly established relatively close to the fight. Of course, if the insurgents are actually within range of the airfield, then the airfield must be seized by helicopter assault-a complex and dangerous operation in itself. Most likely, though, the airfield will not be that close to the fighting, so the QRF will have to land, form its base, and then advance through unsecured territory to the fight, facing IEDs and ambushes all the way.
It is certainly possible to proceed in this fashion from a military standpoint. But how quick will such a quick reaction force actually be? To begin with, it will take time to launch the operation. Some troops at the super-FOB would be on alert, trained, and ready to go quickly. Soldiers in alert status will not be sitting in their helicopters or vehicles all the time, however. When the Iraqi request for support comes in, it will take hours to gather the soldiers and load them onto their means of transportation. Flying 600 or more miles in helicopters takes a few hours. Establishing a new base near the fighting takes more hours. Securing an airfield nearby still more. All of that would have to be done before the QRF joined the Iraqis in any numbers. The whole process would surely take a day or two even in the most optimistic scenarios.
That may not sound too long, but it is eternity in any combat situation. Unless the Iraqis are going to be calling us in all the time, the Iraqi commander will have to wait until he's in real trouble-about to be overrun, say, or unable to drive insurgents from some key location in a vital operation. In any sort of tactical emergency, the day or two delay in the arrival of the QRF is almost certain to spell disaster. The insurgents will either finish off the beleaguered unit before we arrive, or abandon that fight to set up ambushes for our troops, or simply leave the area before we get there, setting up a base somewhere else and waiting for us to leave before resuming their attacks. A QRF based in Kuwait will almost never be relevant for tactical emergencies in Iraq.
It might, in theory, be relevant for higher-level operational emergencies. If the Iraqi Army were trying to take a key city or town and became dangerously bogged down, American forces arriving within a few days might be able to make a difference. One could imagine our soldiers entering the fight at the right moment to take some key position to allow the Iraqis to achieve their aims. This image, too, does not bear up well under closer scrutiny. In operations of this scale, the few hundred soldiers that we could reasonably expect to move rapidly by helicopter are unlikely to be decisive. It is not possible to move vehicles by helicopter, for one thing, so we would be confined to sending in light infantry-something of which the Iraqis have plenty. Moving tanks, Bradleys, or Strykers by air would take considerably more time and make us, once more, dependent on having an airfield nearby. Once again, it is hard to imagine moving a force of the requisite size and composition to help accomplish a major clearing operation fast enough to make a difference.
If we could get to the trouble spot in a timely fashion, however, we would still face a terrible dilemma. How do we know whom to shoot? We would, presumably, be responding to a call for help from a local Iraqi commander. Without any of our own soldiers on the ground to start, we would have limited intelligence. Is the commander who called on us a good guy, or engaged in sectarian cleansing and atrocities? Are the people he's telling us to kill really radical anti-regime elements, or are they moderates he wishes to eliminate for his own political purposes. The recent news reports from Baquba are distressing in this regard-the local Iraqi division commander (a Shia) asked his American partners to arrest a long list of Sunni Arab leaders, whom he regarded as leaders of the insurgency. It turned out that almost all of those leaders were men we had been negotiating with and saw as the key to restoring order to the city. The U.S. commander refused to put his troops at the disposal of someone trying to increase rather than reduce sectarian strife. He could do so only because he had been in the area long enough to know that the Sunni Arabs he was being told to arrest were really the good guys-and that he should not trust the Shi'ite commander he was partnered with. An over-the-horizon QRF will be at the mercy of whatever Iraqi commander calls on it, and will be far more likely to be drawn into sectarian strife in a damaging way, rather than a helpful one.
Over-the-horizon quick-reaction forces are simply a fantasy. We will not end up using them for all of the reasons given above and for one more: They will put our soldiers at far greater risk than they now face. QRFs moving around an unsecured country about which they have little meaningful intelligence will take high casualties. Flying helicopters over insurgent areas means losing some of them, with their soldiers. Light infantry moving through unknown land will inevitably be ambushed, sometimes with heavy losses. The lack of readily available armor support will expose our troops to losses, including the possibility of mini-Mogadishus in the urban areas. Tanks have played an unheralded but vital role even in the urban portions of this conflict, providing moving armor protection and instant firepower that the insurgents can't match or defend against. The bottom line is that the QRFs will have virtually none of the advantages our troops now enjoy, while facing far greater risks. Those who claim to care about our troops cannot possibly support such a proposal.
We face a stark choice now. We can either maintain bases and large forces in Iraq, or we can withdraw. If we withdraw, the Iraqi Army will collapse, and we will not be able to help it except by re-entering the country in large numbers and in a much worse situation. Attempts to mask this reality with militarily nonsensical solutions are dangerous. They will lead to higher U.S. casualties or to defeat-and quite possibly to both.
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