America’s major wars are technically over, but there are still plenty of boots on the ground. Here’s a look at the missions guiding US engagement this year.
This Department of Defense photo shows US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin E. Dempsey as he addresses questions from US military members during a town hall meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, November 15, 2014.
Considering the fanfare it’s capable of, the US military had quite a muted exit from America’s longest war. The mission known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) — which had been running since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, in Afghanistan and several other countries — officially ended late last month.
Maybe the celebration was subdued because there was another mission right around the corner. OEF was replaced immediately by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS), otherwise known as the new US mission in Afghanistan. US forces with OFS will also work as part of the new NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, providing the bulk of that operation’s 12,000 total troops this year and thousands more in 2016.
Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve has been underway since the US began airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in early August last year. In Iraq, thousands of US forces are also on the ground training Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga troops.
So, how has US engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq actually changed since the major wars officially ended? Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s happening right now, keeping the acronyms as limited as possible.
The war in Afghanistan has cost the US more than 2,200 lives and close to $700 billion — to say nothing of the additional costs for care of wounded veterans and the other “social and economic costs” of war, as one Harvard economist put it. Just over 100,000 US troops were deployed in Afghanistan in mid-2011. This time last year, OEF forces there were down to 38,000.
The US military, as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is well known for its combat operations. But it has also been advising and training Afghan forces for years. Under OFS, the new US operation, any direct fighting will be extremely limited. Up to 10,800 US troops will support NATO’s Operation Resolute Support to “continue training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces,” outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month. (The new NATO mission replaces the prior ISAF combat mission.)
The primary US mission aside from that is counterterrorism, particularly targeting Al Qaeda. Taliban violence has also been surging recently, worrying Afghans and international forces. President Barack Obama has authorized US troops to intervene in rare cases when Afghan forces may be overwhelmed by Taliban attack.
“At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States — along with our allies and partners — will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan,” Obama said on Dec. 28.
The US-led war in Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom — renamed in 2010 as Operation New Dawn — lasted from 2003 until the end of 2011. Nearly 4,500 US personnel died in that time, a number dwarfed by the six-figure Iraqi fatalities. The effort cost the US more than $800 billion. At the peak of the war, some 170,000 military personnel were deployed in Iraq.
The US significantly re-engaged in Iraq on Aug. 8, 2014, when airstrikes began against IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve has been underway for five months (though the operation wasn’t given a name until Oct. 15), and now includes a training element: 2,100 US troops are working with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, providing strategic advice, assistance, and tactical training. That number is likely to increase to 3,400 by the end of January, to train an estimated 12 Iraqi brigades.
The US spent a billion dollars fighting IS in the first four months of Operation Inherent Resolve. The Pentagon says current operations against IS run them about $8 million dollars a day.
Much like in Afghanistan, US personnel in Iraq are not being explicitly assigned to combat roles. But their work with local militaries and targeting of extremists could mean they get caught up in fighting.
As of 2013, some 2.5 million US servicemembers had deployed one or more times to Iraq or Afghanistan. Their ranks will grow a little larger this year.