Shortly after taking office, President Obama announced a plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010 – today. According to mainstream news headlines, this plan was successfully completed ahead of schedule, as the last U.S. combat brigade rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 18. Unfortunately, this is only a half-truth. While the departure of our regular combat troops does mean an end to major unilateral American operations, “combat” in Iraq is a nebulous word: 50,000 American “advisers” remain in-country, and our troops are still in harm’s way.
At roughly the beginning of the Vietnam War, the American military created special operations forces for exactly the kind of work that is currently being done in Iraq. Many of the advisers currently in Iraq belong to these same units: the Army Special Forces, or Green Berets. The SF mission is to train and lead indigenous forces in combat, and they have successfully completed missions like these around the world, from Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s to Panama in the ’80s, and now in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were referred to as advisers even then, and they are the soldiers that are training the Iraqi and Afghan military and police forces.
However, they are also the soldiers that drop from helicopters onto rooftops, engaging in direct action missions against insurgent and terrorist cells. In recent years, Army Special Forces have subtly shifted their mission from training local soldiers and police to a broader focus on unconventional warfighting. This will likely remain the case in Iraq, as Special Forces soldiers continue to hunt down terrorists in an effort to improve Iraq’s shaky security situation. In short, our soldiers will still have their boots on the ground and their fingers on the trigger. There just aren’t as many of them there to do it now.
The conflict in Iraq has been marked by three distinct stages. First came the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government, which led President Bush to declare victory in Iraq only a few months after the invasion began. This was followed by a bitter civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions with American and coalition forces caught in the middle, and then a prolonged counterinsurgency. The insurgents that American and Iraqi forces are fighting are the last holdouts of this third stage, domestic and foreign fighters that are bent on casting the Baghdad government out of power. While U.S. forces have slowly passed almost all day-to-day military affairs to the Iraqi army and police, the fact remains that the insurgency in Iraq has not been beaten. Doors still need to be kicked in, and that’s where the American “advisers” in Iraq make their appearance.
Army Special Forces are some of the most highly trained soldiers in the American military. They are truly the best of the best, the Defense Department’s equivalent to Lebron James. They will continue to fight in Iraq, along with the roughly 20,000 American soldiers assigned to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces on patrols and during training exercises. These soldiers have their work cut out for them, as terrorist and insurgent groups promise to ramp up their attacks on the budding Iraqi security infrastructure.
Keep all of this in mind as you listen to President Obama’s address today, marking the ceremonial end of combat in Iraq. For the good of the American soldiers and their families, hope that this is different from President Bush’s similar address in May 2003 and that our troops will not be hit by a renewed fury of insurgent attacks. For the good of Iraq, hope that our nation’s finest troops continue to do their jobs in Iraq. And remember that, despite Obama’s claim that combat is over; Iraqis are not yet ready to take over all of their security operations from American forces. If we cease to provide security to the Iraqi people, we will fail in our commitment to rebuild a shattered country.
Iraqis need our help for now, and we should continue to furnish the constant support that our Special Forces and other troops will provide to bolster Iraqi forces. American blood will continue to be shed in Iraq, but the work we do now, if done right, will hopefully prop up a country in desperate need of security and stability.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Tuesday.