The Slatest

What Does Elizabeth Warren Mean By “Combat Troops”?

Elizabeth Warren, wearing a purple jacket, gestures as she speaks.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday Robyn Beck/Getty Images

During Tuesday night’s debate in Iowa, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeated her call to “get our combat troops out” of the Middle East:

You know, we have to stop this mindset that we can do everything with combat troops. Our military is the finest military on Earth and they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take. But we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily. Our keeping combat troops there is not helping. We need to work with our allies. We need to use our economic tools. We need to use our diplomatic tools.

Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, consistently used the phrase “combat troops,” in her response—a common distinction, but in this case a significant one. During the Oct. 16 debate, Warren raised some eyebrows by saying “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East,” but her campaign quickly clarified that she “was referencing combat troops, not those stationed in the Middle East in non-combat roles.”

There are roughly 200,000 U.S. troops deployed abroad, and the overwhelming majority of them don’t fire their weapons on a daily basis. But that’s not to say they’re not in harm’s way or that their presence isn’t seen as a display of U.S. military might.

After 18 years of continuous war, it’s reasonable to wonder what exactly Warren means by “combat troops.” The “combat” qualifier is used to doing a lot of rhetorical work. George W. Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” in his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003. Barack Obama declared an end to “combat operations” in Afghanistan in 2014. During the U.S. operation against ISIS, which began in 2014, the Pentagon continued to maintain that the U.S. was “not in an active combat mission” even as U.S. Special Forces launched raids against the group and took casualties.

The difference between combat and non-combat troops is more political than military. As Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq once put it, “as we moved away from combat operations, the enemy has not.” Even troops who are primarily engaged in training and assisting local forces can be targets for enemy fire—like those at two bases in Iraq did earlier this month.

The Obama administration also did appear not consider special operations raids in Afghanistan to be “combat operations.” Does Warren? Does the Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, count as combat troops? What about drone operators? What about the troops recently deployed to the region by the Trump administration as a show of force against Iran? They’re not actively engaged in combat, but they’re certainly prepared for it.

Warren did not respond to Slate’s requests for clarification. But she was pressed for details during her recent interview with the New York Times editorial board:

Did you mean nowhere in the Middle East? Do you think — for example, who should control the Persian Gulf, freedom of navigation, should we close down the air base in Qatar?

I think we need to get our combat troops out. I don’t think that combat is advancing the interests of the United States in the Middle East, and it’s time to end combat operations.

Of course, we’ll have a continuing presence in the Middle East. We have interests in the Middle East with our allies. We have interests in the Middle East and keeping shipping lanes open, and we will continue to have a presence there, but I don’t think combat troops are how we best advance that.

It’s still not clear, however, which troops are considered “combat” in Warren’s formulation, or how many troops could still be kept in “non-combat” roles, even in active combat areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fairness to Warren, she wasn’t the only one on the stage using this distinction. The candidate supposedly arguing against her was doing the same thing. When asked “Is Sen. Warren right?” by Wolf Blitzer, former Vice President Joe Biden replied, “There’s a difference between combat troops and leaving special forces in a position,” arguing that military operations would have to continue to defeat ISIS. Pete Buttigieg has also pledged to remove “ground troops” from Afghanistan, which could leave him flexibility to maintain some level of U.S. military presence there.

Warren’s commitment to reducing U.S. troop levels overseas is seen as far more dramatic than these candidates—and that seems reasonable given how she discusses the issue. She, But the “combat” distinction allows her to get across her overall message that the U.S. relies too heavily on military force rather than diplomacy, while leaving some wiggle room on the specifics.