Senior American military officials said there is simply not much American gear left to pull out of the country.
On Wednesday, the impending end of America’s long Iraq war put Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a reflective state of mind about the U.S. military’s and his own 20-year involvement with Iraq. Dempsey spoke of the war on the same day that he visited the dusty bases that are the first stop for American soldiers as they leave Iraq.
Like many Army officers, he fought in the first Gulf War. He returned to the country in May 2003, leading a force of more than 30,000 troops in Baghdad in a fight against an insurgency that was gaining strength. By October 2003, he said, he began to realize that he and his Army did not fully understand the nature of the conflict that they were fighting.
“People say, ‘For God sakes, you were a two-star general. How could you say you didn’t understand?’ ” Dempsey said. “I don’t know how I can say it, but I lived it. And I mean it.”
Dempsey has spent more time in Iraq than all but a handful of American military officers. On Thursday, U.S. officials will formally shut down their top military command in Iraq, a key milestone as the war draws to an end.
For Dempsey, the end of the war is a source of satisfaction. Violence is at its lowest since 2003. Although many of the disputes that have fueled sectarian fighting in the country remain unresolved, Dempsey spoke of Iraq in largely positive terms.
“I think we have given Iraq an enormous opportunity. We have built relationships with the Iraqi military that will persist well into the future,” he said. “I am concerned, but I am also proud.”
In the remote camps along the Kuwait-Iraq border it was clear that U.S. involvement in Iraq is rapidly drawing to a close. In late November, more than 4,000 American soldiers were waiting for flights home at Camp Virginia. Today, that number has dwindled to about 1,600.
At Camp Arifjan, more than 1,700 American armored vehicles are parked in neat rows as they are readied for their return to the United States.
A few miles away, at the base’s Theater Redistribution Center, soldiers and contractors pour through boxes of equipment that have returned from Iraq in an effort to determine what needs to be salvaged and shipped home and what should be destroyed. In recent weeks, they have received four CT scanners from American field hospitals in Iraq, more than 21,000 tires and several high-tech satellite dishes.
On Wednesday morning, most of what was left behind appeared to be junk. A half-dozen cardboard boxes that recently arrived from Iraq contained old Christmas lights, used office supplies and some rubber hoses.
More than 2.2 million pieces of equipment have already left Iraq. “We are down to our last percent,” said Maj. Gen. Ken Dowd, who is leading the logistics effort from Kuwait.
The U.S. convoys hauling troops and equipment out of Iraq have been attacked an average of only one or two times a week since the massive push out began in October, said military officials. The attacks have not resulted in any serious injuries.
In all, more than $2.7 billion of American equipment has flowed through Kuwait and back into the U.S. Army’s supply system.
The American military also leaves Iraq with some valuable lessons.
“If we haven’t learned anything in the last 20 years, I hope we have reminded ourselves ... that once you enter into conflict it becomes unpredictable [and] chaotic,” Dempsey said. “And that is because it is waged among dynamic, living, thinking human beings.”