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A Costly Exit from Iraq

Author: Greg Bruno
March 6, 2009

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Measured in blood, the price tag in Iraq is absolute: 4,238 Americans (PDF) have died during America's six-year war. For Iraqis, the toll is far greater. Icasualties.org, which tracks body counts reported by the media, notes nearly 45,000 civilians have been killed since Iraq's Shiite-led government was formed in April 2005; another website puts the tally since 2003 close to 100,000. Yet as the Pentagon prepares its exit strategy in line with President Barack Obama's announced plans to end the war by 2012, a wholly different calculus is emerging. With the end of combat rhetorically on the horizon, the cost of leaving is now measured in financial, logistical, and, above all, political terms.

Obama told marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that while the United States would leave Iraq "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant," the price of staying had become too great. "What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals," the president said. "We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars."

But if the mission has been expensive, the price of withdrawal is no zero-sum game. The United States has spent some $939 billion in combined operations since 2001, and the Obama administration has requested an additional $130 billion to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan next year (on top of the $75.5 billion the administration requested for the remainder of 2009). How much more it might need is pure guesswork. If Obama sticks to his threshold limit of fifty thousand American trainers in Iraq after combat ends--which the president says will happen by August 31, 2010--the United States could have as many as eighty thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2011. Getting them out will cost billions. According to a January 2009 assessment (PDF) by the Congressional Budget Office, a combined thirty thousand troops in the two war zones could cost $388 billion in additional expenditures through 2019. Bump that up to seventy-five thousand troops, and U.S. taxpayers could shoulder an additional $867 billion before the decade is out--on top of what has already been spent.

Getting the troops home will take time as well as money. Back in 2007, military officials told the Baltimore Sun departing could take nearly two years to complete. Janet St. Laurent, a defense expert with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers last month (PDF) that as of November 2008 there were 286 U.S. installations in Iraq that would need closing. Shuttering even the smallest of these will take upwards of two months, she said, while closing installations like Balad Air Force Base--which houses about 24,000 troops and their support staff--could take "longer than 18 months."

Obama's new Iraq timeline roughly splits the difference between the sixteen months he promised as a candidate and the twenty-three-month timeline favored by some commanders (Time). Some analysts question whether the United States can afford to leave as soon as Obama has suggested. Stephen Biddle, CFR's senior fellow for defense policy, says he would have preferred a slower drawdown to maintain the peace between Iraq's political rivals; he told lawmakers in February 2009 (PDF) that repositioning forces to Afghanistan could leave the United States vulnerable in the event of a downward spiral in Iraq. Iraqi politicians are equally concerned. Sunni leaders fear clashes with Shiite factions once U.S. troops leave (al-Hayat), and others say Arab-Kurdish violence is likely in the power vacuum.

Aware of the risks, the White House has made no firm plans beyond the August 2010 date. Some analysts suggest a substantial contingent of troops should stay at least through national elections in December, a scenario Defense Secretary Robert Gates says is plausible. On March 2, 2009, the Pentagon announced a new brigade rotation to Iraq, meaning force numbers there will stay constant in the near term. Bennett Ramberg, a foreign policy consultant, argues in a new Foreign Affairs essay that when contemplating how long to stay in Iraq, the U.S. should consider lessons of disengagement from previous conflicts like Vietnam. "Abandonment damaged Washington's credibility at first," Ramberg writes, "but it was the best way to protect U.S. interests in the long run." Yet as author and military analyst Tomas E. Ricks writes on his blog, recent moves by the White House suggest Obama understands war doesn't end with a speech, a costly lesson the Bush administration learned the hard way.

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