U.S. plans for 15,000 troops in Afghanistan

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Lolita C. Bal­dor

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.

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