Fibbing Troop Levels and the Need for Transparency

An article in Politico today reports on a persistent problem with the Pentagon providing inaccurate numbers of U.S. troops deployed in foreign countries, particularly war zones like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

The Defense Department has long been among the worst federal offenders in terms of lack of transparency in public reporting on everything from where Americans are deployed to how tax dollars are spent. Specifically, though, Pentagon officials have recently resorted to some clever accounting tricks in order to make total troop levels appear lower than they actually are.

At least a few factors are motivating this “concealment of total troops in war-zones,” as Politico puts it. First, the Obama administration set certain caps on the number of troops permitted to be deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In Afghanistan, for example, President Obama capped troop levels at 8,400. That is significantly lower than the 12,000-13,000 total troops actually present in Afghanistan, and once President Trump deploys another 4,000 or so as he outlined in his speech to the nation last week “the total will be nearly double the current public number,” Politico reports.

The reason for the undercounting is that the Pentagon has not been including troops present in the country for fewer than 120 days—including, for example, “construction engineers who are building a bridge or repairing an airfield, as well as the combat units like Marine artillery batteries that have deployed to Syria.” When military officials decide a short-term boost in troop numbers is necessary to achieve some tactical objective, they do so without counting them in the total numbers so as to avoid violating the caps imposed by the executive branch.

Another reason the Pentagon deliberately undercounts troop levels is because higher numbers of troop deployments can be a political liability for some U.S. clients, like Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is up for election next year amid widespread misgivings among Iraqis about the continued presence of U.S. troops there.

I ran into this problem while researching my recent Cato Policy Analysis on overseas basing. Official statements from the military and civilian sectors of government, as well as references to foreign troop numbers in the news media, were consistently lower than some more accurate (or inclusive) internal Defense Department estimates.

According to the Politico report, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is intent on fixing this problem. But his efforts may conflict with the preferences of President Trump, who has repeatedly indicated a desire to keep foreign governments, and the American people, ignorant of things like troop numbers or movements, the initiation of military action, strategy, and so on. Politico:

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said in his address [on Afghanistan].

Trump’s suggestion that his administration may stop releasing troop numbers is consistent with rhetoric he used on the campaign, when he lambasted the Obama administration for talking about the impending advance into the ISIS-held city of Mosul and told opponent Hillary Clinton during a debate that she was “telling the enemy everything you want to do.”

Trump’s remarks on Monday put the brakes on the plan to start disclosing more accurate numbers, at least as far as Pentagon spokesmen are concerned.

The number of troops the United States has in foreign countries, especially war zones, is unquestionably something the American people deserve to know. At the very least, it allows Americans, who are increasingly insulated from the costs of U.S. military engagements, to have a clear understanding of our efforts and commitments abroad and to make informed judgments about U.S. foreign policy. Greater transparency, and accuracy, on this issue is something to which the president and the military he commands ought to fully commit.