"We have come a long way since the coalition answered the call for help," Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., the commander of the anti-Islamic State task force in Iraq, said in a statement on Dec. 9. "In this new phase, our transformative partnership with Iraq symbolizes the need for constant vigilance."

What is this "new phase" the general is talking about?
Is the counter-ISIS mission finally over? Are U.S. troops, having wiped out ISIS’s territorial caliphate, finally packing up their gear and withdrawing from Iraq. Withdrawing, that is, more than six years after the first airstrikes against the terrorist group?

Hardly. The "new phase" looks a lot like the old phase.

In fact, it’s essentially identical. What the U.S. and Iraqi governments are trumpeting as progression toward the finish line is instead the military equivalent of running in place, where the allure of success is dangled in front of our eyes but just out of reach.

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq has ended, replaced by a train, advise, and assist mission in support of Iraqi security forces. At first glance, it all sounds pretty good: U.S. troops are now offloading more responsibility onto the backs of their Iraqi counterparts.

There’s only a small problem: The U.S. military has been performing train, advise, and assist tasks even before ISIS lost its last stretch of territory in Iraq in December 2017. There is no "new mission," as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claimed during a press briefing. It’s the same mission, with the same number of U.S. forces (approximately 2,500) performing the same jobs, likely on the same military bases. What Washington and Baghdad are actually engaging in a nifty public relations exercise.

This isn’t a matter of semantics. Declaring the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq suggests U.S. troops who are stationed in the country are tucked away in large bases, protected from the elements of war on the outside. Yet U.S. forces, regardless of their official status (combat or noncombat), remain very much in the middle of a combat situation. The big threat posed to the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq isn’t ISIS, which according to the Defense Department’s special inspector general is suffering from a laundry list of ailments. Rather, it’s the Iran-supported Shiite militias that get a paycheck from the Iraqi government and nominally support the official Iraqi security forces. By one U.S. government count, these militias have launched more than 300 attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq between late 2019 and April 2021, some resulting in death and serious injury to Americans.

If Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, is right in his assessment, militia rocket and drone attacks against U.S. targets could see an uptick as the calendar gets closer to the new year. The Shiite militias are looking for a real U.S. troop withdrawal, and to the extent they believe more attacks will push Washington in that direction, U.S. policymakers will have to prepare for the possibility of a higher threat environment.

The alternative, of course, is actually ending the counter-ISIS mission instead of talking about it.

This wouldn’t be some favor to Shia militias or their sponsors in Iran, a common talking point opponents of a full U.S. troop withdrawal often burnish at their disposal. To the contrary, it would be a recognition of reality: While thousands of ISIS foot soldiers are still on Iraqi soil, the organization itself is unable to do much more than fire at highly exposed Iraqi military targets, take advantage of schisms between Baghdad and the Kurdish government (schisms that have been long-lasting), and attempt to frighten the Iraqi people into distancing themselves from the Iraqi authorities.

The U.S. had a clear goal in Iraq: help Baghdad eliminate the "state" in "Islamic State." Can anyone seriously claim this objective hasn’t been achieved? And if the answer is no, then why do U.S. troops remain in Iraq?

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.