U.S. plans for 15,000 troops in Afghanistan
Pentagon admits to using tricks to account for forces deployed in the country to skirt Obama-era limits.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is poised to have roughly 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the coming months as defense officials Wednesday finally acknowledged the actual number of American forces in the country after long camouflaging the total in misleading accounting measures and red tape.
Senior Defense officials for the first time said there are about 11,000 U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan — thousands more than the 8,400 that were allowed under the previous administration’s troop cap. Military officials have long quietly acknowledged there were far more forces in the country than the cap allowed, but commanders shuffled troops in and out, labeled many “temporary,” and used other personnel accounting tactics to artificially keep the public count low.
The officials, however, refused to provide similar details for Iraq and Syria, where there also are thousands more than the Pentagon publicly admits.
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that while the same “principles of transparency” will apply in Iraq and Syria, those countries have their own interests. There have long been political sensitivities within the Iraq government about the number of American troops on the ground, and those concerns raise questions about whether the Pentagon will be less candid about force numbers there to avoid conflicts.
Based on troop caps instituted by the Obama administration, the number of U.S. forces in Iraq has consistently been reported as 5,262, but officials say there are actually more than 7,000. And there are at least 1,500 U.S. troops in Syria — three times the 503 that the Pentagon acknowledges.
White said details on troop numbers in Iraq and Syria would be announced in the future.
The troop numbers announcement comes as the Pentagon is preparing to deploy several thousand more Americans to Afghanistan, in order to expand the training and advising of Afghan forces and beef up counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida-linked groups in the country.
Officials have said the U.S. will send as many as 3,900 more troops to the war — which would bring the number of publicly recognized troops there to about 15,000.
White and Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, said there have been no final decisions about future deployments to Afghanistan, but that those should be coming soon. Others have said that some small numbers of troops have moved into the country from nearby within the region, but there have not been any new deployment orders for forces based further away, such as the U.S.
Officials said that once Defense Secretary Jim Mattis makes his decision, a few hundred troops could be ready to deploy quickly — within days, while others could take several weeks to get into Afghanistan.
The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan nearly 16 years ago. The number of American troops initially grew in spurts, as U.S. leaders wavered about how much focus to put on the war. President Obama came into office saying he would give the war there the attention it required, and the number of American troops on the ground spiraled to 100,00 by mid-2010 and fell to fewer than 10,000 in 2016.
Over time, as the public grew weary with the wars, Obama began to steadily withdraw troops. By March 2015, there were fewer than 10,000 there and Obama announced plans to drop the number to 5,500 by the end of 2016.
He later agreed to a compromise that set the cap of 8,400 through the end of his presidency.