The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Pentagon Admits Thousands More Troops in Afghanistan Than Previously Reported

Military officials had long hid the real numbers

AAAafghan

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.

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

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.

un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration

The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?