FP Explainer

What’s the Difference Between Combat and Noncombat Troops?

Not much.

Warrick Page/Getty Images
Warrick Page/Getty Images

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States is on schedule to end combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31. However, a residual force of at least 50,000 "noncombat" troops will remain in Iraq for the next year. So what exactly are noncombat troops?

Whatever you want them to be. The distinction is more political than military. The White House says the remaining troops will "train and advise Iraqi Security Forces; conduct partnered and targeted counter-terrorism operations; and protect ongoing U.S. civilian and military efforts." All of this has the potential to involve quite a bit of combat.

When asked about the distinction, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year that thought the units in Iraq will still have combat capability, "the notion of being engaged in combat in the way we have been up until now will be completely different."

It’s true that the majority of U.S. troops left in Iraq will rarely leave base, but that’s already the case. However, the units involved are certainly prepared for combat should the need arise. For instance, the first division deployed in support of the new noncombat mission — which the Obama administration decided in February to rechristen Operation New Dawn — is the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Division, and armored cavalry unit. 

The remaining U.S. troops will participate in combat patrols with Iraqi forces. (This isn’t new. According to the U.S. military, independent operations have not been carried out for several months, and the Iraqi government’s approval of any combat mission has been required since the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement.) U.S. special operations troops will continue, in partnership with Iraqi forces, to conduct counterterrorism raids against insurgent groups. Additionally, Iraqi forces are still largely dependent on the United States for air support, artillery and medical assistance.

And of course, as Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, recently pointed out, "as we moved away from combat operations, the enemy has not." Even if the U.S. combat role has been reduced, U.S. facilities and patrols will still come under attack and need to be defended. The threat of insurgent attack certainly distinguishes the "noncombat" garrisons in Iraq from those in South Korea and Germany. (Thankfully, U.S. troop fatalities are now down to below 10 per month from a high of nearly 70 in 2007.)

So while the next stage of the Iraq war may be, as Obama described it, a transformation from "a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats," the actual mission of the remaining troops will stay largely the same: building the capabilities of the Iraqi military and rooting out the extremists.

The scope of that mission will certainly change as troop levels continue to decline, though of course this isn’t the first time a president has declared an end to "combat" in Iraq.

Thanks to Mike Few, Iraq combat veteran and assistant editor at Small Wars Journal, and the U.S. Army public affairs office.

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