Combat Operations Aren't Really Over in Iraq

iraq-troop-withdrawl-wide-artlede
U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Thompson, left, and Lt. Col. Nate Flegler, right, wave to one of the last Stryker armored vehicles to leave Iraq as it crosses the border into Kuwait. Maya Alleruzzo / AP

By now, you’ve probably heard that the last “combat” unit is leaving Iraq. TV footage and print stories have focused on troops from the 4/2 Stryker Brigade as they make their way down through the barren desert terrain of southern Iraq—potentially hostile territory—to the Kuwaiti border. High fives and celebrations break out once troops cross the line.

But this is hardly the end of the war. What about the 50,000 troops who are staying behind? They didn’t exactly send their M-16s and sidearms out with that Stryker brigade. And they’re not going to transform themselves into the Peace Corps overnight. In truth, the last combat unit leaving Iraq is really a nonevent. One senior Iraqi official, asked about the withdrawal deadline, shrugged his shoulders and said, “This is about America’s midterm elections.” A cynical view, perhaps, but there is some truth to it. The reduction of the troop levels at the end of this month is more of a political benchmark than a radical shift in what the military will be doing. And the departure of the last combat brigade certainly doesn’t signify the end of combat operations.

In fact, chances are high that the remaining troops will be drawn into many fights before the real withdrawal deadline at the end of 2011. In an interview last week, General Stephen Lanza, the U.S. military spokesman, explained that the remaining troops would focus on three missions: counterterrorism, working with provincial reconstruction teams (commonly called PRTs), and training Iraqi security forces. The first mission—counterterrorism—is a clear indication that American troops haven’t laid down their guns. And while the troops mostly keep a low profile in the big cities these days, there will still be a relatively heavy footprint: the U.S. military will keep 94 bases in the country after this August deadline.

To be fair, the military has managed a pretty impressive feat of logistics during the drawdown in the past few months: 802,000 pieces of equipment (water tanks, generators, and barrier material) valued at $98.6 million dollars have been handed off to more than a dozen Iraqi government ministries and agencies, according to a U.S. military fact sheet. In that disbursement, the Ministry of Defense received approximately 210,000 items worth $59.6 million dollars, while the Ministry of Interior received approximately 490,000 items worth $21 million dollars. It remains to be seen just how much use the Iraqi security forces, which number some 660,000, will get out of it.

Iraqi and American officials generally seem to have much more confidence in the abilities of the Iraqi Army than the police, who were, in some parts of Iraq, active participants in the sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007. The police have improved: some militia elements have been pushed out, and new recruits get a more-thorough screening than in previous years. But they still remain the shakiest piece in the Iraqi security forces. And it’s hard to say if they will improve dramatically in the short term. The State department has already taken over parts of the Iraqi police training and will take over the program completely by the fall of 2011. In order to carry out that mission, they’re going to rely on—who else?—security contractors. These security contractors will also be ramping up their presence to protect State department facilities and employees. In fact, that’s the one point worth noting about the deadline at the end of this month—not the end of the “combat” mission but the beginning of the contractor surge. And, given the history of security contractors in Iraq, that can be fraught with all kinds of problems.