Kuwait keeps US withdrawal on schedule

The drive to scale down combat operations in Iraq involves one of the largest movements of equipment and troops since World War II.

CAMP ARIFJAN // In the southern Kuwaiti desert, a vast military camp is central to US President Barack Obama's pledge to wind down the war in Iraq by the end of this month.

"Kuwait is that centre logistical hub to making sure that Iraq is on track," Brig Gen John O'Connor, the US Third Army's director of logistics, told The National during an exclusive tour of Camp Arifjan on Saturday. "We are the melting pot." "The difference in this operation is we have a presidential mandate," he said. Mr Obama has said that by the end of August, US forces in Iraq will be down to 50,000 and up to 98,000 in Afghanistan.

The final push to meet the president's goals began in June and as the deadline approaches, the 9,000 servicemen based at Camp Arifjan have been increasingly busy. The troop carriers, tanks and heavy artillery carried from Iraq on convoys of up to 45 huge trucks fill the camp's vast parking lots waiting to be cleaned, repaired and shipped to their next destination. Some equipment will be sent to America or Afghanistan. The US is also trying to bolster its allies with equipment transfers.

"I've got a thousand trucks going and coming every day," Brig Gen O'Connor said. "After every major campaign, every major war, one of the biggest challenges was always the last phase of the operation: what are we going to do with this stuff," he said. "We've shipped around 10,000 pieces home last year, our plan is to hit about the 18 to 20 thousand mark this year." The Iraqi withdrawal is one of the largest movements of equipment and troops since the build-up for World War II. The plan includes the shipping of millions of pieces of equipment such as weapons, computers and 41,000 tracked and wheeled vehicles and trailers.

Brig Gen O'Connor estimates that 90 per cent of the equipment makes its way through US military installations to Kuwaiti ports. Much of the rest will be shipped out through Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Despite the enormity of the withdrawal, it is only a part of the Third Army's mandate. "Last year, at this time, we were actually deploying 20,000 troops to Afghanistan and approximately 3,000 pieces of equipment," he said. "Now, we're deploying 30,000 troops and approximately 5,000 pieces of equipment."

Drawing down forces in Iraq and building them up in Afghanistan has tested US diplomacy and the Third Army's logistical skill. "A couple of thousand" trucks are delivering equipment to the land-locked country every day country from Pakistan on the south and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the north. "There are more types of aircraft being managed out of a single airfield in Afghanistan than anywhere in the world - more than Heathrow, more than O'Hare in Chicago", he said.

The eruption of the Iceland volcano earlier this year provided the brigadier general with special challenges, as did political unrest in Kyrgyzstan. Another threat arose closer to home when the Kuwaiti security services foiled a plot by an al Qa'eda team to attack Camp Arifjan. More recently, Iraq's failure to elect a government forced the military to adjust its plans. "If the government doesn't seat, the forces that I had providing security or integration or partnering are now going to have to do this a little bit longer," he said.

Brig Gen O'Connor said the president's deadline focused the troops. "It gives you a line that you can strive for in your plans. With some regards that's made it very easy. On the other hand it also forced us to stay on a very deliberate executing timeline," he said. In January, there were 112,000 US troops in Iraq; by May, 88,000 remained. Brig Gen O'Connor estimates that 15,000 to 18,000 more troops have to leave the country this month to meet the presidential directive.

The remaining troops will train and advise Iraqi security forces, conduct counter-terrorism operations and protect US interests. All US troops are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2011. @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae