The U.S. Military Finally Left Iraq in December 2013—Two Years After Official Departure
Expect similar delays in Afghanistan
In December, the Army’s 574th Quartermaster Company returned to its base in Germany after spending seven months helping Central Command wind down U.S. government operations.
You would be forgiven for assuming we’re talking about Afghanistan. But we’re not. The 574th was in Iraq.
The company deployed to Kuwait in the first half of 2013, presumably with its full strength of around 200 soldiers. The unit then sent teams into Iraq to help the State Department close out two separate facilities.
But wait—didn’t the U.S. pull out of Iraq in 2011?
An official Pentagon release about the unit’s deployment originally said it was the “last organized U.S. military unit to conduct missions under Operation New Dawn.” New Dawn, launched in September 2010, trained Iraqi forces to handle their own security so the Americans could leave.
Public affairs officers at the Pentagon and in Germany assured War is Boring that New Dawn ended in December 2011. After our conversations, someone quietly altered that official news story to omit the New Dawn reference.
Yes, this is confusing. And the same confusion could very well apply to Afghanistan in coming years, as the Pentagon continues the imprecise business of ending a 13-year occupation.
U.S. officials and media pundits are unsure what the Afghanistan withdrawal will look like in the end, even if Pres. Barack Obama decides on the so-called “zero option,” which supposedly leaves no American forces behind.
The U.S. took the zero option in Iraq, too. Only the number of troops wasn’t really zero until two years after the official end of the occupation. Packing everything up and going home, a process the U.S. military calls “retrograding,” takes a long time.
Worse, an occupation is only partly a military affair, so it’s not just the troops who need to pack up. Other U.S. government agencies were also heavily involved in Iraq. They had to close their facilities, too—often with help from military units like the 574th.
During its deployment last year, the 574th gathered up equipment ranging from forklifts to office supplies. Anything the State Department didn’t want, the quartermasters turned over to the Iraqis.
Mark Blackington, a Central Command public affairs officer, told War is Boring that the State Department is now done retrograding in Iraq, having turned over “last remaining U.S. sites to the government of Iraq.”
This does not meant that State is entirely gone from Iraq, however—just that State’s part of the occupation has finally come to an end. The diplomatic agency still has a significant and likely permanent presence in Iraq, even operating its own small air force.
State also runs the Office of Security Cooperation, staffed in part by U.S. troops, which helps provide military aid to Baghdad.
Hoping for a less messy retrograde in Afghanistan, the military studied its own halting withdrawal from Iraq and tried to learn a few lessons. Instead of shipping home vehicle it thinks it doesn’t need anymore, like it did in Iraq, the Army in Afghanistan is chopping up excess vehicles for scrap.
Still, our departure from Afghanistan is going very, very slowly.
In 2011, when the retrograde began in Afghanistan, the military had $48 billion worth of stuff there. At the beginning of this year, there was still $23 billion in equipment left to sift through.
As in Iraq, this is just the military side of things. Other agencies have their own material to dispose of or mail home. And if, like in Iraq, it takes another two years or so to close out these facilities, then the U.S. military could still be in Afghanistan in 2016.