While ending the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan was a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, it became increasingly difficult during his presidency for the public to get numbers of troops on the ground in those countries, as well as Syria. That was part of a concerted policy effort, according to documents obtained by the online forum Just Security.
A Freedom of Information Act request-turned-lawsuit, the results of which went online Thursday, gives some insight into Middle East troop levels during the last four years, though the Pentagon is still considering its “temporary forces” ― thousands on rotational deployments to fight ISIS or train local partners ― classified.
“DoD’s new assertion that these numbers are classified reflects what many have described as a culture of secrecy that has descended upon today’s national security bureaucracy,” according to the authors of Just Security’s report.
Previously, statistics on presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria had been shared publicly in quarterly manpower reports. A change to the way those levels were counted, in 2017 under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, ended those reports in late 2017.
Documents obtained through a 2020 FOIA request, which were denied until Just Security sued the Defense Department in October, show that troop levels stood at about 12,000 in Afghanistan, 7,600 in Iraq and 1,200 in Syria in June 2017, increasing across the board into 2018 before beginning to come down in mid-2019.
Those 2017 numbers were consistent with what DoD provided in response to individual requests, despite discontinuing its quarterly online reports.
At the time the Pentagon reluctantly offered 14,000 as the number in Afghanistan, after a small surge early on in the Trump presidency, and rounded up the Syria numbers from 1,700 to 2,000, where special operations and support personnel waged a battle against ISIS, alongside local Kurdish partners.
Lawsuit documents show the number held at 1,700 from late 2017 until a reduction to approximately 1,000 in mid-2019. An abrupt Trump threat with withdrawal all of those troops, in late 2018 prompted Mattis to tender his resignation.
Because the numbers provided piecemeal to reporters were more or less the same as those the Pentagon kept internally, it begs the question of why DoD discontinued the online reports at all, especially after laws were put in place to require public reporting.
The lack of transparency caught Congress’s eye, inspiring a section of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a report to lawmakers on troop levels, with which DoD complied.
The following year, the NDAA attempted to reinstate the public, quarterly reports, but as Just Security noted, did not include an enforcement mechanism ― and so the Pentagon flouted it, continuing to call those troop levels classified.
Documents explaining that reasoning do exist, and were provided to Just Security, though they are redacted to the point that the explanations are obscured.
Technically, the Pentagon argued during the FOIA process, its reports to Congress contain classified information, and thus are exempt from public disclosure. But the NDAA-required quarterly reports are not meant for Congress specifically, Just Security argues, and so should not be exempt.
After Mattis’s resignation, that policy continued as is still in place, per a February letter in response to the lawsuit, despite the new administration putting an emphasis on open communication with the public.
“I believe that public transparency regarding military operations and the civilian leadership’s decision making on defense matters is critical to ensuring our defense policies are accountable to the American people,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers during his January confirmation hearing.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT