Seven nights a week at precisely 19:30 hours, U.S. Army Major General Thomas Richardson gets on the phone with U.S. commanders across Iraq and grills them about the military’s final mission there: getting out. How many bulletproof vests, helmets, and firearms are still left in the country? How many packaged spaghetti dinners are stockpiled on the remaining Army bases? Who will take possession of the stacks of worn-out keyboards, radios, fire extinguishers, batteries, computer cables, desk chairs, and toiletries in need of new homes?
As the Army’s logistics chief for the Iraq drawdown, it’s Richardson’s job to tally all the equipment and supplies the Pentagon has shipped to Iraq over eight years of war, and to make sure none is inadvertently left behind on Dec. 31, the day the U.S. officially clears out. When he took the assignment in September 2010, the Army had identified just over 2 million items at 92 bases that had to be sent back to the U.S., moved to Afghanistan, sold, given away, or destroyed. He estimated it would take about 20,000 truckloads to get all of it. “In the Army we count everything,” says Richardson, who is based at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, where the U.S. military is staging the withdrawal.
Leaving Iraq has required a mobilization of troops and equipment rivaling a military invasion, only in reverse. Throughout the fall, tens of thousands of trucks traveled from Iraq to Jordan and Kuwait. As of mid-December, all but 50,000 items on Richardson’s massive spreadsheet had been hauled away, and only two bases remained operational. Alan F. Estevez, Assistant Defense Secretary for Logistics and Materiel Readiness, likens the occupation of Iraq to renting a house and spending eight years filling every room, closet, and crawl space with your stuff. “And now you’re leaving that house,” he says. “Massive, massive logistical function.” (Civilian translation: Moving is such a drag.)
The Pentagon will reclaim a lot of the equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, body armor, and radios, which will be shipped back to Army units in the U.S. Generators will be sent to U.S. Marines stationed in Bahrain. Armored vehicles known as MRAPs—Mine Resistant Ambush Protected—that once shielded soldiers from roadside bombs will be put to new use protecting troops in Afghanistan. After years of heavy use, some gear such as outdated Internet routers will be incinerated or wind up in Kuwaiti junkyards.
Richardson’s bigger challenge is finding takers for all the things the military no longer wants. An Alabama school district happily took eight used trombones and clarinets. U.S. towns and counties can petition the Pentagon for some of the leftovers and pay only shipping costs. Cleveland County, Okla., paid $42,000 for a used Caterpillar bulldozer that is now clearing roads and public parks. A volunteer fire department in South Dakota bought advanced firefighting equipment it otherwise could not have afforded. A Louisiana sheriff’s department is using a surplus John Deere all-terrain vehicle to reach back-country meth labs. In Alabama, which has received more surplus property than any state, rural Marshall County now has a former Army generator powering a sewage plant.
Even after the remaining 5,500 troops leave Iraq this month, the U.S. will retain a significant footprint there. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq is the largest in the world; the State Dept. will employ 15,000 people, including 5,000 private security guards to protect buildings and personnel. The embassy will house a Pentagon program to promote the sale of U.S.-made weapons and military gear to the Iraqis. Iraq is buying $10 billion worth of American military equipment and training, and plans to spend $6.5 billion on F-16 jets made by Lockheed Martin.
The U.S. will also leave behind all those empty bases, which the military is quietly turning over to Iraqi security forces. Most are still equipped with professional kitchens, trailers for housing, and industrial-grade generators—“excess property” the Pentagon deemed too costly and cumbersome to remove. Other former military sites are becoming civilian outposts. Iraq’s Youth and Sport Ministry has taken over Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala province, which once housed the 4th Infantry Div. Trailers on the base will become classrooms for the Education Ministry. Richardson says donated Humvees, once covered in desert camouflage, have been repainted in the red, white, and black of the Iraqi flag.
The U.S. is giving Iraq $580 million worth of equipment, the Pentagon estimates. That bothers Scott Pepperman, executive director of the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property, which helps states purchase excess government equipment. “One fire truck can save a community from raising taxes, cutting off police forces,” says Pepperman. “Who owns the property? It’s the U.S. taxpayers. The best [thing] is to bring it back to the people who paid for it in the first place.”
The Pentagon believes helping the Iraqis is money well spent, especially if the bases and donations help the fledgling government fight off insurgent attacks and preserve goodwill between Iraq and the U.S. in a region of the world hostile to American interests. “The fair market value is the benefit for the United States’ national security,” Estevez says.
As the deadline nears, handing over U.S. bases to the Iraqis has become an Army ritual. After Richardson signs off, the outgoing base commander escorts local leaders on a walk-through of their property. “We owe it to them,” Richardson says. “It’s the right thing to do.”