U.S. Combat Missions May End, but Fighting Goes On
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT MAY 14, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links]; see also (1) (2).
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President Obama inherited two wars from his predecessor, George W. Bush,
and Afghanistan, but their missions have changed and there are far fewer
troops in combat than at the heights of those wars a decade ago.
Didn’t Mr. Obama declare an end to the wars in Iraq and
Yes. Mr. Obama declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq in 2010,
and the one in Afghanistan in 2014. But we still have thousands of troops in
Why are the troops still there?
Mr. Obama sent American forces back to Iraq in 2014 after the Islamic
State seized wide stretches of territory there and was threatening to take
Baghdad. In 2015, Mr. Obama, saying he continued to oppose the idea of an
“endless war,” said he would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan to
continue to target remnants of Al Qaeda and to help Afghan forces defeat the
How many troops do we have in each country?
The Pentagon will not say exactly. Military officials say there are roughly
5,000 troops in Iraq and 11,000 in Afghanistan. At the heights of those
conflicts a decade ago, the United States had more than 150,000 troops in Iraq
and 100,000 in Afghanistan.
Wait, why don’t we know exactly how many troops are in each
The Pentagon says that for “force protection” reasons it cannot say how
many service members there are in the theater. Mr. Obama has set a cap of
4,087 troops for Iraq and 9,800 in Afghanistan. The Pentagon can exceed the
caps because it uses an accounting system that exempts many groups from
being counted, including troops that commanders plan on having in the
country for less than four months.
What is the mission of those troops?
Most of them are dedicated to what is called “train, advise and assist,” in
Pentagon jargon. In layman’s terms, that means helping the Iraqis and
Afghans beat back their enemies without actually sending Americans out to do
a lot of the fighting, as the United States did a decade ago. The other mission is
a counterterrorism one in which American troops and airmen take direct
action against Islamic State and Qaeda militants.
So what does that mean our troops are doing on a daytoday
In both countries, Air Force jets conduct strikes on militants, safe houses,
ammunition depots and training camps. On the ground, commandos launch
raids to kill and capture militants; military advisers train local commanders;
and soldiers, at times, fight alongside the local forces.
Does that mean the troops are in combat?
The White House does semantic cartwheels to say neither mission is
combat. In 2014, when Mr. Obama first sent troops back into Iraq, he was
unequivocal in his description of their mission. “I want the American people to
understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan,” he said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on
foreign soil.” The White House has stuck to the notion that the troops are not
in combat. Pentagon officials roll their eyes at such denial, and senior officials
— including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have publicly called it
How has Mr. Obama changed the United States’ role in Iraq?
At the end of 2011, Mr. Obama — who had campaigned on ending the war
in Iraq — decided to pull out the 50,000 troops we still had in the country and
declared an end to our mission there. After the Islamic State took substantial
territory in Iraq in 2014, Mr. Obama sent several hundred advisers back to
Iraq to determine the strength of the Iraqi military and how the United States
could help it combat the Islamic State. By the end of that year, he had
increased the United States’ involvement, and roughly 1,550 troops were in the
country. In 2015, the number climbed to 3,000, and this year Mr. Obama
increased it to over 4,000.
When are the troops going to return home?
Military commanders say more troops are likely to be sent into Iraq in
support of Iraqi forces preparing to try to retake Mosul. The troops in
Afghanistan were initially supposed to return home by 2017. But the Taliban
have had a significant resurgence, and the troops are likely to remain there
through next spring, if not longer. According to the website icasualties.org, six
American service members have died in Iraq this year and three in
Afghanistan. In the past decade and a half, 4,501 Americans have died in Iraq
and 2,381 in Afghanistan.