The Costs of Withdrawing from Iraq

I’ve been ruminating on this subject for some time and was stirred from my normal torpor by this article by Lawrence Korb:

There is significant disagreement and confusion over how much time is needed to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq. The debate has gravitated between supporters of a rapid, precipitous withdrawal and those calling for a long, drawn-out redeployment. Further clouding the issue are those backing an extended redeployment over several years in order to “stay the course” in Iraq, who cherry-pick logistical issues to make the case for a long-term American presence.

Supporters of immediate withdrawal are often accused of adopting a wildly unrealistic approach. This is a misplaced critique. It is possible to effect a withdrawal in as short a time as three months, if the U.S. military effectively conducts—in the words of Iraq War veteran and military analyst Phillip Carter—an “invasion in reverse.”

If the Army were ordered to withdraw to Kuwait, it could do so quickly and relatively safely. Such an exit would sacrifice a significant amount of equipment and create an instantaneous political and security vacuum similar to that created by the initial overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While this option is feasible, it is not the best course of action.

What would the costs of withdrawing from Iraq be? That’s the topic I’m going to touch on in this post.

I’m a critic of the invasion of Iraq. I was a critic when Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, and Andrew Sullivan all supported the invasion although most of them seem to have forgotten their former positions now. Unlike those blogospheric heavyweights I haven’t changed my opinion. I still think invading was a bad idea but I don’t think because invading was a bad idea withdrawing is a good one. At least one of two things is true. Either their judgment was wrong then or their judgment is wrong now (maybe both). According to the rubric that seems to prevail these days among their most ardent fans since it’s clear that their judgment was faulty in the past their judgment now should be viewed skeptically.

One of the criticisms routinely made by those who favor a withdrawal from Iraq sooner rather than later is the staggering cost of maintaining our forces in Iraq. That’s a reasonable complaint but only if the cost of leaving is less than the cost of staying.

From TPM:

So, cost of John McCain’s long-term ‘presence’ in Iraq through 2085, $3 trillion. Social Security’s predicted shortfall over the same period, $4.3 trillion.

From Matthew Yglesias:

If you look at something like the economic problems in Ohio right now and consider how much better that situation would look had that kind of money been invested in productive infrastructure in the US, it’s pretty infuriating. Spent directly, that money would have meant jobs. But spent on something more useful than a fruitless occupation of Iraq, it would have laid the groundwork for continued prosperity. Now at best it’s down the drain.

There are lots of ways to measure costs. The geo-political costs of withdrawing from Iraq before the country is more stable than it is now were outlined compellingly by that notorious neo-con Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and one of the most influential leaders in Asia, back in March in the Washington Post:

There is no viable alternative to fossil fuels in the immediate future. Thus the security and stability of the Gulf and its oil supplies are vital for the United States.


The costs of leaving Iraq unstable would be high. Jihadists everywhere would be emboldened. I have met many Gulf leaders and know that their deep fear is that a precipitate U.S. withdrawal would gravely jeopardize their security.

A hurried withdrawal from Iraq would cause the leaders of many countries to conclude that the American people cannot tolerate the nearly 4,000 casualties they have suffered in Iraq and that in a protracted asymmetrical war the U.S. government will not have its people’s support to bear the pain that is necessary to prevail.


An additional concern is that a hasty U.S. withdrawal would leave Iran to become more of a power in the Gulf.

Iran is Shiite, not Sunni. Shiites are the largest group in Iraq, too. The schism between Shiites and Sunnis goes back more than a millennium to the very earliest years of Islam. The divide between Arabs and Persians is even more ancient.

Every Gulf state has a significant Shiite minority but is ruled by Sunni leaders. A dominant Iran with no regional counterweight would shift the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, changing the internal and external politics of the region. To survive, Iran’s neighbors would adjust their positions.

A few years ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were a check on Iran. The Taliban is again gathering strength, and a Taliban victory in Afghanistan or Pakistan would reverberate throughout the Muslim world. It would influence the grand debate among Muslims on the future of Islam. A severely retrograde form of Islam would be seen to have defeated modernity twice: first the Soviet Union, then the United States. There would be profound consequences, especially in the campaign against terrorism.

Geo-political considerations aside, what would the cost of withdrawing from Iraq be?

Any number of knowledgeable people have outlined plans for withdrawing our forces from Iraq. Col. Pat Lang (note: Microsoft Word document) has outlined a system for withdrawing under the difficult conditions that are pretty likely to prevail during the course of such a withdrawal:

During such a withdrawal there would be continuing combat operations designed to defend the force from enemies that are increasingly emboldened by American withdrawal and the prospect of “settling scores” with sectarian, political and ethnic adversaries. In that kind of departure, the force would have to be withdrawn in “slices” (tranches in French). The withdrawal from VN conducted by the Nixon Administration was of this kind. The phased departures of these “slices” would be designed to gradually “uncover” the regions of the country in a logical order as American forces move away from areas that are more easily abandoned. At the same time, the remaining forces in Iraq would have to retain a balanced combat capability that could continue to carry out force protection defensive actions as well as “spoiling” attacks against detected preparations for assaults against the ever weakening US military presence in the country. Infantry, armor, artillery and particularly aerial forces (both Army and Air Force) would be needed to protect the course of the withdrawal. The routes of withdrawal would have to be outposted and protected to keep them open while the withdrawal takes place. At the same time, the remaining force in Iraq would continue to be re-supplied over the same routes. There would likely be a lot of fighting in the course of the withdrawal. In VN, 20,000 US soldiers were killed during the several years of the withdrawal. This would be a “last chance” for the enemy forces to exact a price for the US presence in Iraq. They would be likely to take that opportunity. The logic of the present logistical situation would point to a withdrawal in phases (tranches) down the existing Main supply Route (MSR) to Kuwait where the forces could be received in prepared camps prior to departure by sea and air. The improved situation in Anbar Governorate might also make possible a smaller withdrawal to the west and into Jordan. A small percentage of the withdrawal would be conducted using air force heavy lift assets. The units withdrawn by air are likely to be air force.

That’s what a withdrawal without having reached some sort of political settlement would look like, at least in Col. Lang’s view.

Noah Schachtman outlines several plans for withdrawing from Iraq here.

Phil Carter, cited both in Mr. Korb’s piece and Noah Schachtman’s post, describes a withdrawal here:

The time has come to plan for America’s exit from Iraq. What will that departure look like? Such a plan will resemble our 2003 invasion, but in reverse, using air and ground transportation to move people and gear out of the war-torn country. The thorniest aspects of the plan will involve decisions about what and who to leave behind, and how to deal with the consequences unleashed by a rapid withdrawal.

He continues by laying out in detail how the withdrawal might proceed.

So, in totaling up the costs of withdrawing from Iraq and guided by Lawrence Korb’s article, let’s make the following assumptions. First, that the withdrawal will occur over a period of three or four months. Second, following Phil Carter’s lead, that the withdrawal will closely resemble the invasion, and, third, following Col. Lang’s line of thinking, that the costs would be in terms of expenses, materiel, and lives.

The direct costs of invading Iraq were roughly $102 billion:

Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. spent $102 billion through Sept. 30 on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with costs averaging $4.8 billion a month, the Pentagon comptroller’s office said today.

The Pentagon spent $3.1 billion in September, the smallest amount since the $2.7 billion spent in November 2003, according to the comptroller. Bush administration officials in February may seek as much as $70 billion in additional Iraq funding in a request separate from the fiscal 2006 defense budget.

The $102 billion covers the period starting with the initial deployment of troops in the late fall and winter of 2002. The U.S. this month raised troop levels in Iraq to 150,000 from 138,000 to provide additional security for the Jan. 30 Iraqi national election and compensate for delays in training a new Iraqi security force.

More U. S. soldiers and Iraqis would die than would otherwise be the case. Based on the assumptions above at least 200 American soldiers would die as a direct consequence of the withdrawal—at least a year’s worth of deaths based on the current casualty figures. How many Iraqis would die? If the number of Iraqi deaths goes back to its 2007 levels, nearly 10,000 Iraqis would die as a direct consequence of the withdrawal. If we take a more conservative stance and decide that only a quarter of the reduction in deaths of Iraqis over the last year is due to the actions of U. S. forces there would still be more than 1,000 Iraqis killed who otherwise would have months or years.

Many, many more American soldiers might die in the withdrawal. In Viet Nam 40% of the deaths of American soldiers occurred during the withdrawal (as noted by Col. Lang). How many Iraqis will die following a U. S. withdrawal from the country? Thousands? Tens of thousands? I have no way of estimating.

A rapid withdrawal—anything under years in duration—would not allow an orderly transfer of military assets to the Iraqi military. We’d be left with the alternatives of potentially allowing the assets to fall into the hands of those hostile either to us or the Iraqi government or both or to destroy them. If we destroy them, that would add to the costs of withdrawal both in dollars and lives—destruction can be a dangerous business.

Some of the assets abandoned or destroyed would need to be replaced. Given the highly opaque supplemental budget I have no way determining what those costs might be. Tens of billions? Hundreds?

Unfortunately, the costs don’t end there.

Both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have advocated re-deploying at least some of the troops presently in Iraq to Afghanistan. According to the Congressional Research Service publication RL33110, on average it costs us three times to maintain one soldier in Afghanistan what it does in Iraq. The reason is simple and I’ve mentioned it before: Afghanistan is a remote country, travel is difficult, and practically eveything must be brought into the country.

Consequently, if only a third of the troops in Iraq are re-deployed to Afghanistan we will continue to spend exactly the same amount as we are now. There will be no net savings.

As an aside re-deploying only 50,000 troops to Afghanistan isn’t nearly enough to pacify the country. That’s one of the many reasons that I have believed and continue to believe that there is no achieveable mission in Afghanistan.

So, let’s look at the balance sheet:

Cost of withdrawal $102 billion*
Cost to replace abandoned equipment (est.) $50 billion
Additional costs to be incurred in Afghanistan $134 billion
Savings in Iraq ($134 billion)

or, said another way, advocates for withdrawal from Iraq want to spend an additional $152 billion to achieve an objective that would be deleterious to U. S. interests and as a consequence of which a significant number of Americans and Iraqis would be killed.

I think that there are legitimate, sensible reasons for withdrawing from Iraq. Saving money isn’t one of them.

*I haven’t bothered adjusting the direct costs of the withdrawal for inflation. That would just make my argument stronger.

8 comments… add one
  • Not bad,Dave!

  • I would not want to be the presidential candidate who supported an invasion and occupation which he will argue we cannot afford ever to end. “So you’re saying, Senator McCain, that you’ve led us into a trap?”

    Unless we plan to stay in Iraq in perpetuity the dollar costs of leaving are unavoidable. Now or a decade or century from now, we’ll still be looking at paying that bill.

    And there is of course no way of assuring that current low casualty rates would continue indefinitely as it became ever clearer to the Iraqi people that we had no intention of ever relinquishing Iraq, that Iraq was to become the 51st state. Just as there is no basis for any assumption that our remaining in the area indefinitely might not strengthen as oppose to weaken Iran’s hold. Remaining in perpetuity we make it ever clearer to regional governments that they need not make the changes necessary to stabilize the region on their own. We reduce them ever further to military and psychological dependency, at the same time that we strengthen the arguments of our opponents.

    How many Americans and Iraqis die if we confirm in effect that we are not temporary occupiers but a permanent “Christian” presence in the Muslim middle east? How much sense does it make to validate Al Qaeda’s propaganda?

  • While I don’t favor a rapid withdrawal, this argument doesn’t really work. Absent a withdrawal date, the costs of staying in Iraq are a perpetuity, and need to be calculated as much. Even at the relatively low figure of $4.8 billion per month as stated in the Bloomberg article, that figure would far exceed $152 billion.

  • The key point, which I guess I haven’t made clearly enough in the body of the post, is that the recurring cost of remaining in Iraq will, by Sen. Obama himself’s account, be replaced by the recurring cost of additional troops remaining in Afghanistan. Since the costs of maintaining a force in Afghanistan are so much larger than retaining one in Iraq, even a contingent smaller than the one we have in Iraq will keep the costs high.

    The only way to reduce the combined costs of OIF and OEF substantially is to remove troops from Iraq without redeploying troops in Afghanistan to any appreciable degree. Since Sen. Obama is not running on such a policy, the reasonable conclusion is that there will be no cost savings as a consequence of removing troops from Iraq.

    If those who favor immediate withdrawal from Iraq also favor keeping the size of U. S. forces in Afghanistan at its present level or lower, that’s the policy they should be advocating.

  • Mike Devx Link

    What would the costs be of an orderly draw-down over a period of three years, under conditions that are almost entirely peaceful?

    I’ve thought for quite some time that we were going into Iraq permanently, as part of a world-wide realignment of our strategic forces. I believe that all of those extremely well-built, well-maintained bases that we’ve built in Iraq, we’ve built for our own long-term, nearly permanent use. We did not pour that vast amount of money and resources into those bases, simply to turn them over to Iraqis as a gift. I’ve thought this ever since the details of these bases began to leak out in 2004. Our government continues to maintain that we have no intention of permanent bases in Iraq. Is that the truth?

    Mind you, militarily and geopolitically it makes a great deal of sense to have permanent bases in Iraq. But I do not like being lied to by my government. If we need permanent bases there to counter geopolitical moves by Iran, China, and Russia, then let’s simply admit it.

    So I believe we intend to keep a significant force in place “forever”, much like Germany. (This also helps explain John McCain’s “100 years, as long as things are peaceful” comment, along with Kerry’s peculiar waffling position on “permanent bases” in Iraq in 2004.) If Iraq continues to stabilize, it sure looks as though we could withdraw, under peaceful conditions, 80,000 troops and all their equipment, over three years. If it is peaceful.

    But if it becomes obvious that we have no intention of ever leaving… well, that will probably create a great deal of instability, because while the Iraqis have accepted the benefits of our Surge, they are adamantly opposed to our continued occupation long-term. That would end the hope of widespread peace making it easy for our planned draw-down.

    I hope I’m wrong about our permanent bases and the force of up to 40,000 that would remain permanently to serve as geopolitical strategic opposition to designs by Iran, China, and Russia. But I believe I’m right.

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