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.