Several news outlets reported Wednesday that the Defense Department was considering a request from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the CENTCOM commander, to strengthen his defenses against potential Iranian threats by sending additional U.S. forces.
“I got up this morning and read that we were sending 10,000 troops to the Middle East and then I read about, more recently, there’s 5,000,” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told the press pool Thursday.
“There is no 10,000 and there is no 5,000," he added. “Numbers get floated out there and you’ve got lots of good sources of information. What I’m telling you is: Those sources right now aren’t feeding you right information. As soon as anything changes, I’ll let you know. I really will.”
Shanahan said he is in regular contact with McKenzie and the discussions so far have focused on qualitative changes, such as “do we have the right assets in the region," but not exact numbers, though he said any changes “may involve sending additional troops.”
Shanahan also said he will be speaking with the chairman of the joint chiefs on the issue soon and will give the president an update on the security situation regarding Iran. If additional troops were sent, the joint chiefs would have to help determine where they would be pulled from, Shanahan added.
U.S. allies involved in operations in the Middle East appear uninterested in the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the White House and Pentagon regarding Iran.
“We’ll have a discussion with him. If things change, then my plan will be to update Congress because they’ve certainly been very clear to keep us current,” Shanahan said.
The conversations that have taken place so far are part of the “normal back-and-forth that we have with CENTCOM,” Shanahan said. “We’re at a high elevated level given all of the dynamics that are in the Middle East.”
The Pentagon said earlier this month that their intelligence indicates an increased threat to U.S. troops in the region from the Iranian military and its proxy forces, though officials have declined to comment on-the-record regarding the nature of those alleged threats.
Reuters reported the 5,000 number, noting that the troop request was made by CENTCOM, and it was not clear whether the Pentagon would approve it.
U.S. Central Command announced it raised the threat level in Iraq and Syria, rebuking comments made by a top British general with the coalition fighting the Islamic State.
The Associated Press reported that military officials were planning to present plans to the White House to send up to 10,000 troops to the region, but said it was unknown whether the White House would approve the increase.
CENTCOM and other U.S. combatant commands regularly request, and are sometimes denied, troop increases, Reuters noted.
“So that is not the number. What we’re focused on right now is: Do we have the right force protection in the Middle East,” Shanahan said.
Many Democrat lawmakers in Congress have voiced concern that the increased military presence, including an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bomber task force, are unnecessarily provoking Iran and could escalate tensions.
“We want to avoid the risk of Iranian miscalculation. So, I think those are fair comments,” Shanahan said of lawmaker concerns. “Our job is deterrence. This is not about war. We have a mission there in the Middle East: Freedom of navigation; counterterrorism in Syria and Iraq; defeating al Qaida in Yemen; and the security of Israel and Jordan.”