MOSUL, Iraq — On Sept. 1, the date the U.S. mission in Iraq officially changes, troops will still patrol the dusty fringes of this violent insurgent stronghold. They may raid the house of a suspected terrorist. They will continue to face the ever-present danger of roadside bombs.
What they won’t do is conduct combat operations, at least on paper.
But as Capt. Keith Benoit, who commands the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment’s Apache Troop outside of Mosul, noted, “It’s not like on [Sept. 1], we’re all going out in khakis and a T-shirt.”
President Barack Obama made a pledge to end combat operations and drastically reduce the number of troops in Iraq by the end of this month. The widely televised rollout of the “last combat brigade” in Iraq into Kuwait last week on their way home was the slightly premature demonstration that he had come through on his promise.
But the very public departure of the 4th Stryker Brigade also caused confusion and anger among soldiers still facing daily threats, especially in the disputed, violence-plagued north, and masked a stark reality: Whatever the Obama administration calls it, the military mission in Iraq still bears many hallmarks of combat operations.
Around the city of Mosul, passed over by the surge of U.S. troops in 2007, the “last combat brigade” announcement met with scoffs and sarcasm by troops on the ground.
The area is a Sunni redoubt with a combustible mix of ethnic minorities that remains one of the most volatile cities in Iraq. Al-Qaida in Iraq is still active here, carrying out a campaign of bombings and assassinations against members of the Iraqi security forces and politicians, and hitting U.S. troops with roadside bombs.
More than a few U.S. soldiers said they were offended by the implication that the danger somehow vanishes when Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation New Dawn.
“I guess that means we’re not going to get blown up anymore,” was the deadpan response from 1st Lt. Ryan McAlister, with the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, who commands a rough-hewn U.S. outpost near Mosul.
The news has been confusing for both troops and some in the U.S. awaiting their loved ones’ return from war.
“I had to tell my folks to cancel a welcome home party,” said Cpl. Felmen Spencer, 26, of Jacksonville, Ark., who is also with the Apache Troop.
His parents thought the announcement meant he would be coming home immediately.
The announcement and broadcasts of the Stryker brigade rumbling across the Kuwait border caught some commanders in Iraq off guard, prompting them to stress to their soldiers that their day-to-day duties — not to mention right to self-defense — will remain the same.
“We are still soldiers; that does not change,” Benoit said in a meeting he called with his junior squadron leaders to talk about the deadline.
Obama was careful to caution that soldiers would still be in harm’s way and that the official end of combat operations does not mean the end of U.S. sacrifices. Indeed, four days after the announcement of the last combat brigade leaving, a soldier in southern Iraq was killed by “indirect fire,” military jargon meaning either a mortar or rocket.
“We’re not foolish. The enemy doesn’t follow any of our orders or our doctrine,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in northern Iraq. “That’s why active force protection is the order of the day.”
The Sept. 1 shift is not part of any official agreement, so the U.S. is not rule-bound to alter its tactics, and apart from the emphasis on training and the drop in troop numbers, little will change.
Those who remain will continue to conduct the kind of missions that have been termed “combat patrols” throughout the war. If U.S. soldiers get intelligence about insurgents, they can conduct unilateral “counterterrorism” raids to capture them. If they see insurgents emplacing a bomb, they can kill them on the spot.
Much of these actions will fall under the banner of “force protection,” a loose term meaning measures to protect U.S. forces and installations.
U.S. troops aren’t supposed to be out looking for a fight now, but they haven’t been doing that for a long time. Some combat brigades are simply being renamed “advise and assist brigades.” Same soldiers, different title.
A major, tangible change is troop levels, which have plummeted from 170,000 at the height of the surge to less than 50,000 today. U.S. casualties, too, have fallen significantly, mirroring lessening violence in Iraq and a near absence of U.S. operations within Iraq’s major cities.