Mother Jones: What do we need to do and when would we need to do it to get out of Iraq by a certain date?
Gary Anderson: Well, the first thing is that that date hasn’t been set yet. If the Pentagon had its way, it would be a very staged, orderly thing. They do logistics very well. Now if for some reason the Iraqis or Congress said, “You have to get out right away,” logistics would be the least of our concerns.
MJ: What needs to be done to move, say, one brigade out of Iraq?
GA: The last experience we had that was a major withdrawal from the theater was after the Gulf War. We got a lot of stuff out of there very, very quickly. Your major concerns are, first of all, what equipment are you going to leave behind? Are you going to leave some behind for the Iraqi Armed Forces? And then you’ve got some training issues, you’ve got some logistics issues and how they’re going to take care of it. Is some of the gear even worth taking? Is it something you might want to junk and sell for scrap? A lot of the stuff is worn out and might not even be worth taking home. I think in most cases, we will take it and try to refurbish it. So first decision is what we actually leave and what stays behind as residual for the Iraqis. And then the second question is how you secure getting it out of the country, assuming there’s still a significant military. You’re going to want to organize convoys that are protected, and that’s really a no-brainer. Our logisticians do that all the time. When you start thinking about bringing it back to the States, there are some actual agricultural and just general U.S. regulations that the Department of Defense has to conform to, like washing down the vehicles, making sure that they don’t have any hazardous material aboard them, making sure of all the ammunition is properly taken away from the vehicles for storage because neither the Navy nor commercial people like live ammunition aboard ships or places that aren’t supposed to have live ammunition. There are a lot of very detailed things that have to be done to each vehicle before it’s certified as ready to get back aboard a ship or an airplane or whatever the case may be.
MJ: Do you have any idea how much time that actually takes per vehicle?
GA: It depends on how fast you want to move. We wrapped up the war in March, and I think the vast majority of our gear in 2001 was gone by mid-July. That includes the mountains of ammunition and supplies that we had dumped down the thing thinking we were going to have a bigger war than we had.
MJ: What kind of a presence do you imagine we would maintain after the primary drawdown?
GA: It’s going to be a case-by-case, division-by-division basis as the Army decides it doesn’t have to be there anymore. You’ll probably see a two-step approach. It’ll probably start where they stop operating jointly with the Iraqis, and then go out to a remote base where they can still get in quickly if they get in trouble. Take a look at how they do when they first get into an independent mode, and at some point in time, once they’re competent enough that they can control that area, then the American unit disengages and goes home.
MJ: I saw you on CNN saying that your primary concern in the post-American Iraq is not Sunni versus Shiite, but the Shiite factions battling one another.
GA: When I was a U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon, when they weren’t actually shooting at the Israelis the various Shiite factions were fighting amongst each other and then fighting with the Palestinian camps on the border. And that’s unfortunately in their nature. If they don’t have anybody else to argue with, they argue with each other, which is part of the problem, other than that they’ve never been able to really get their act together running any given country. And that’s going to cause some problems. You can see that happening already in Iraq on a small scale, but I think absent us, it’s going to become more of a problem.
MJ: How much of a problem? Is this an apocalyptic scenario?
GA: From a Shiite on Shiite standpoint, I don’t think you’re going to see genocide or a mass bloodletting and major street battles involving thousands of people. I think it’ll look very much like the Lebanese civil war, where not only did you have various ethnic and religious groups fighting with each other, but you had struggles within those groups for control. You’ve got all those dynamic tensions in the Shiite community that are playing up against each other that, absent us as being the main irritant, you’re going to see play out. So I think there will be some definite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis, but the Sunnis just don’t have the mass to really put up much of a stand-up fight. I think you’re going to see them pushed into Al Anbar, and I don’t think there’s going to be an attempt to follow them and create genocide. I think they’re just going to leave them out there and let them fend for themselves because there’s nothing out there that the Shiites or the Kurds want.
MJ: What about Al Qaeda? Do they pretty much leave the country when the Americans are gone?
GA: Oh, no. No, no. I think Al Qaeda’s game is to, having lost Afghanistan, turn Al Anbar Province into the new Afghanistan, and that’s a major issue. Now, what I think will happen is there are three neighbors out there that are very, very concerned with Al Qaeda, probably more concerned—or should be more concerned—than we are because they’re a lot closer to home and that’s Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. So I think what you’re going to see in Al Anbar is these tribal sheikhs that have aligned themselves up with us lately, the Saudis and the other nations will approach them and there’ll be an attempt to fund them to continue the attempt to get rid of the foreign fighters, and given the fact that the Americans will be gone, they only got one group of foreigners to really think about. What’s very, very likely to happen is that they’ll be feeding competing Saudi, Jordanian, and Syrian finance factions that’ll probably start bickering amongst each other and then you’ve got sort of a three-way within a Sunni community.
It would be to their advantage to the three Sunni countries to seriously consider pulling their resources and try to turn Al Anbar both economically and security-wise into something that they could live with, but just given the nature of the way these guys operate, I’m not saying whether that’ll happen.
MJ: You’re picturing these breaks within both the Shiites and Sunnis. What about the Kurds in Turkey?
GA: That’s a whole issue unto itself. I don’t see the Kurds declaring independence. It’ll be suicidal. But the Turks would put an end to it. And they’ve got the military power to overrun the place, but it would be a massive…they would end up bogged down in a guerrilla war, but it would be disastrous for the Kurds—all that prosperity they’ve built up in the last four years would be gone, and it would be a mess.
The other potential lightning rod there is the Turkoman down in Kirkuk. The Turks consider them to be clients and little brothers and so forth, and if something really bad happens ethnic-cleansing-wise, that might also cause the Turks to get involved. So no matter which way you turn going out of Baghdad, you can see potential trouble on the horizon. Minus some kind of moderating influence on our part.
MJ: What does Iraq look like in 10 to 15 years?
GA: I would say there will still be something called Iraq. What governing mechanism it has, I don’t know. Frankly, I think Kurdistan will be part of it, at least de facto—you know, by lip service—simply because it would serve their purposes, not because they love the Arabs. And the question is whether or not some kind of compromise between the Sunnis and the Shiites could occur. It doesn’t look real good right now.
There’s always a possibility that when we leave the Army may step in and establish a strong, centralized dictatorship unprecedented in that part of the world. And that assumes that the Army gets to a point where it’s actually strong enough to do that. There’s a whole bunch of scenarios you can play with, but I don’t see these three separate Iraqi nations that some people have talked about. There is a real strong feeling of nationalism among the Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds have their own reasons for trying to stay part of that, but how powerful that central government is is really a major question in my mind right now.
MJ: Another consideration of leaving is what to do with the Iraqis who have collaborated with the United States.
GA: Well, in best-of-all-possible worlds, the Army is strong enough to take care of itself and do what Iraqi governing elites have always done, which is live in walled compounds and protect themselves from the on-watch masses and so forth. Worst-of-all-possible worlds, then we really have to seriously consider making arrangements for those people who have worked for us and so forth like we did with many of the Vietnamese.
I can’t really tell you how a new Congress/the ’08 election is going to react to the whole situation. I’m a lot more confident in telling you what I think the various Iraqi factions and local regional neighbors will do than I am about what the United States is going to do.
MJ: It’s been reported that to maintain the surge level, tours would have to be extended beyond the 15-month period to as long as 18 months.
GA: I frankly think we’re going to see a drawdown. There’s going to be some kind of decision made if it appears that the Iraqis are just incapable; the reality of the surge was to try to buy them time. They appear to have herded away a lot of that, and I think if it comes to a point where it looks like good money going after bad, we will probably come up with some other plans. The Army cannot sustain this level of commitment. So I think one way or the other, you’re going to see a drawdown. I do not imagine the surge there lasting too much. I honestly don’t foresee a major flight from Iraq between now and next November. But the Army cannot sustain this level of commitment without really straining it to the breaking point.
MJ: You mentioned the Lebanese civil war as a good example from history of what we might expect. Are there any other historical examples we can turn to?
GA: Well, I think that calling it “civil war” is dignifying what would probably happen. It’s going to be a messy, confusing series of grabs for power and a series of bumps and grinds and so forth, much like the Lebanese civil war was. But this kind of apocalyptic struggle between the Shiites and Sunnis—I frankly don’t see that happening.
MJ: What about the actual withdrawal of troops? Some people have said that as the Americans leave Iraq, they’ll be taking fire. Will our withdrawal be like the Soviets leaving Afghanistan?
GA: No. Basically, it depends on how the opposition plays it. Some will probably be glad to see us go. Quite frankly, I think the people in Iraq who are going to be most sorry to see us go are Al Qaeda. We’re the only rationale for them being around. Absent us, they become foreigners.
I think we’re capable of making a much more orderly exit than that just based on what I know of our capabilities and so forth. It certainly wouldn’t look like Dunkirk. The Russians—and quite frankly, the Israelis, when they left Lebanon—did not think this through particularly well, and I think their army’s heart wasn’t in it and they didn’t want to do it, so they didn’t plan for it. But I give our planners a little bit more credit for being able to get a handle on that sort of thing.
I’m not saying there won’t be casualties. I’m just saying some group of bad guys might not really go after us. I’m just saying we don’t want to give them credit for being that much better than they are.