- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
After months of providing misleading information on the actual number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Defense Department said Wednesday there are approximately 11,000 U.S. troops deployed on the ground, and not the 8,400 it had long claimed.
The accounting issue had long dogged the Obama administration, which established a troop cap of 8,400 in Afghanistan, as well as Trump defense officials who inherited the policy. The force levels chosen by the Obama White House which capped troop numbers at 5,200 in Iraq and 503 in Syria, were handed down with little regard for the size of individual units, who were forced to deploy in bits and pieces.
The Trump administration accepted the troop cap numbers, however, and they appear to remain in place despite Wednesday’s announcement. The new accounting practices will still only represent an approximation of how many troops are on the ground, and could be off by hundreds as some units overlap during rotations in and out of the country.
Military commanders bristled at having to break apart units to fit within the arbitrary caps, and sent thousands of troops on temporary assignments to fill holes. Those deployments pushed the deployments over their approved limit, but Pentagon leaders said since the additional troops were only there for weeks or a few months at a time, they didn’t count against the cap.
Meeting with reporters to unveil the actual number of troops in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., director of the Joint Staff, expressed that frustration. “Because of the force management caps we were under, I don’t think either commander [in Afghanistan or Iraq] was satisfied with the nature of the units that they received,” he said.
He added that the plan going forward is to “deploy whole, organic units that are obviously going to be at a maximum state of readiness to fight.”
Both McKenzie and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that there will likely be an announcement in the coming weeks of the actual number of troops in Iraq. Defense officials have long acknowledged that there are about 7,000 troops in Iraq, overshooting the 5,200 cap. LIkewise in Syria, there is likely close to 1,000 U.S. troops, and not the 503 officially acknowledged.
The decision to revise the public accounting was made by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is preparing to make his own recommendations on troop increases in Afghanistan. He is expected to send as many as 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that there were about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The troops would train and advise Afghan forces battling the Taliban and the Islamic State, but do so closer to the front lines than those currently in country. The idea is to partially replicate the way American forces accompany small Iraqi and Syrian rebel units on the ground, advising them as they battle the Islamic State and helping to call in artillery and air strikes.
As for the total number of Americans heading to Afghanistan, “the secretary still hasn’t made that decision,” McKenzie said. “No deployment orders have been made.”
Photo Credit: U.S. Army