Pentagon finally comes clean on Afghanistan troop levels – Politico
The Pentagon revealed Wednesday there are some 2,600 more American troops in Afghanistan than it previously acknowledged — approximately 11,000, not the longtime public figure of 8,400.
“The number 11,000 is an approximation. It may be slightly above that, it may be slightly below that, it will certainly vary,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Story Continued Below
That figure has been “the reality over the last six months or so,” he added.
The admission comes after mounting scrutiny of the Pentagon’s so-called Force Management Level policy, which has downplayed the full size of U.S. military contingents to stay beneath caps in Afghanistan as well as Iraq and Syria, where the full numbers remain classified.
The new Afghanistan figure does not include any of the additional troops President Donald Trump has authorized as part of the revamped strategy he announced last week.
“No troops have started to flow. No deployment orders have been issued,” McKenzie said of the reinforcements, which could reach as many as 3,900. “Should that number change significantly,” he said, “we will come back in here to tell you that.”
The gap between the public numbers and reality had been an open secret until Wednesday.
Last week, in a background briefing with reporters, a National Security Council official acknowledged that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan exceeded 10,000, and other reports have placed the number at 11,000 to 12,000.
The announcement follows a review of troop-counting procedures that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis commissioned earlier this year.
“There’s a very strange accounting procedure I inherited,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him last week, referring to the elaborate accounting system, under which troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria for less than 120 days at a time are not counted.
Mattis’ review covered all three countries but the Pentagon only announced the impact in Afghanistan, leaving greater transparency on Iraq and Syria troop levels for an unspecified later date.
“We are reviewing Iraq and Syria and the same guiding principles will govern how we roll out those numbers as well,” Pentagon press secretary Dana White told reporters. The official numbers in Iraq and Syria remain 5,200 and 500, also significantly lower than recent estimates leaked to the media.
The officials declined to provide a rationale for the delay in releasing numbers for Iraq and Syria. But American troop numbers are a politically sensitive issue in Baghdad, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under pressure to show that the U.S. military presence is not permanent.
Part of the Defense secretary’s purpose in providing more accurate numbers for Afghanistan “was to provide more transparency on how we account for troops on the ground,” White said, while still maintaining operational security.
But there were also practical considerations: Under the Force Management Level system, military units have often left hundreds of junior personnel behind to stay below the troop caps, which the Obama administration first instituted in 2011.
“We all recognize that whole units are inherently more prepared, more ready, than units that are fragmented in order to meet an arbitrary force level,” McKenzie said.
Even the numbers released on Wednesday are likely incomplete.
White noted that the numbers still exclude “sensitive units and certain temporary missions.” And brief upticks that occur as replacement units rotate in will still not be counted in the public figures.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) of the House Armed Services Committee praised the move.
“I am pleased to see that as we prepare to execute a new strategy in Afghanistan, President Trump and Secretary Mattis have chosen to put the facts on the table,” Thornberry said in a statement after the news conference. “The Obama administration did not shoot straight on how many people they sent to Afghanistan, which added cost to the mission and made it harder to succeed. It is important to be upfront about the importance of the mission and what it takes to succeed.”