The number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan was higher than what Americans were being told. This was caused by a tweak in how troop levels were counted, which omitted U.S. forces on temporary missions.
Defense Secretary James Mattis revised and simplified this system, and on Aug. 30 the Department of Defense (DOD) revealed this shift.
In November 2016, the Obama administration set troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,448, and the DOD has typically described troop levels at close to 8,400—with some complex exceptions, explained Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie during the briefing, according to a DOD transcript.
The new methodology, however, reveals the number of troops in Afghanistan is closer to 11,000.
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White said that while the previous method “supported operational security” it also impacted U.S. operations and was not transparent to the public.
“Often, commanders were compelled to reduce the sizes of deploying units in order to meet theater force management levels and limit the time that units could remain in operational theaters,” White said.
“This way of doing business is over,” White said, noting, however, that the DOD will “still protect sensitive units and certain temporary missions.” The DOD will also continue to “fully report all forces to Congress in closed settings.”
“With this change, we will balance informing the American people, maintaining operational security and denying the enemy any advantage,” White said.
White noted that the DOD is reviewing similar force management practices in Iraq and Syria—suggesting that U.S. operations in both countries may also reveal different troop levels than what has been previously revealed.
The new method for estimating troop levels in Afghanistan includes the often uncounted forces on temporary missions with the number of troops at the force management level.
This change could mean that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan could maintain the same troop levels, but possibly use fewer temporary forces. It is still unclear, however, whether this will affect how troops are deployed.
McKenzie noted that the 11,000 just reflects the actual number of U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan, and “does not include any potential future adjustments the Secretary of Defense may make in order to accomplish the president’s new strategy for South Asia.”
McKenzie clarified that the 11,000 number is “an approximation,” and that it “may be slightly above that, it may be slightly below that. It will certainly vary.”
He also clarified that, “this is not an announcement of a troop increase. We are simply being more transparent about the way we communicate America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, while still protecting sensitive information.”
The announcement follows a recent overview by President Donald Trump of the U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which he described during an Aug. 21 speech at Fort Myer in Virginia.
Trump said that the longest war in American history—now at 17 years—must “seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”
He said that while “my original instinct was to pull out,” after speaking with U.S. military leaders, they determined that Afghanistan could not be allowed to fall into the hands of terrorist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS. In addition, “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory.”
Trump noted that he doesn’t want to repeat the Obama administration’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which created a power vacuum that led to parts of the country being seized by ISIS.