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Old 11-10-2019, 02:11 PM
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Arrow How many troops are serving in America's legacy wars? We still don't really know.

How many troops are serving in America's legacy wars? We still don't really know.
By: Alex Liautaud - NBC News - 11-10-19

Veteran’s Day is a time to honor those who served, but the American public has been given a declining amount of information on how many U.S. troops are fighting in legacy wars and how many are actually coming home.

Every administration has wrestled with accounting for troop levels, attempting to balance national security with transparency, but since late 2017 the Trump administration hasn't publicly released any troop levels for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

There are several different ways in which troop levels are made available to the public. The Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) offers a public database that publishes quarterly data on troop levels segmented by active-duty, National Guard and Reserve troops, and Defense Department civilian employees.

As a timestamped, quarterly number, the database is not comprehensively accurate and excludes some temporary assignments, but in the past, it was often seen as an important tool for researchers, journalists, lawmakers, to better understand the military’s commitment to certain regions and whether it aligns with American foreign policy.

Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration released quarterly data on full troop numbers for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But nearly two years ago, then the Pentagon simply stopped including the numbers for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, citing the need to “protect our forces.” The cells, which would have previously included data on America’s most high profile conflicts, are blank.

Though then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis promised more transparency, President Trump not long after said, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities," while announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan. The December 2017 DMDC report, included no numbers on the three countries.

In 2018, several Democrats on the Subcommittee on National Security, under the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, penned a letter to Secretary Mattis, urging him to reverse the decision.

“This data was publicly available to Congress and the American people throughout the Bush and Obama Administrations and should continue to be so under the Trump Administration,” the five Democrats wrote. “In the interest of continued force protection, transparency, and accountability relating to our military presence in key combat zones, we respectfully request that you immediately reverse this policy.”

Mattis responded, arguing that in fact, the approximate numbers revealed through other means “appropriately balance the need for transparency with the need to protect sensitive information that could advantage our enemy.”

He added that, “Of course the Congress is provided fully detailed accounting in classified reporting that is kept current.”

Lawmakers still argue, however, that in order to make effective decisions about policy, funding, and national security, the data should be released.

“The Administration’s decision to continue to withhold details about U.S. troop levels ... harms Congress’s ability to fulfill its Constitutional duties to properly fund and provide effective oversight of ongoing conflicts,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., one of the signatories on the letter told NBC News Now in a statement.

And even if committees do receive frequent classified updates, those numbers cannot be used publicly, for example, to inform policy proposals.

“I know that they say that we could get them on classified briefings, but the thing is, classified briefings prevent us from actually sharing that information with the public,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said in a phone conversation. “If we were developing a policy we could not reference that that information we received. So the public is still sort of in the dark when it comes to the troop levels,”

A spokesman for the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee told NBC News NOW that “the committee receives frequent classified updates on troop levels.”

The Department of Defense told NBC News Now that there were approximately 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, 5,200 troops in Iraq, and roughly 3,000 in Saudi Arabia. They did not give an answer for the approximate estimate of the number of troops in Syria.

Other opportunities to receive even a vague sense of how many troops are dedicated to particular regions, and whether they match up with public rhetoric, are through the president’s biannual War Powers Letter to Congress or through the Congressional Research Service reports.

But the War Powers Letter, a means for the president to “keep Congress informed about deployments of United States Armed Forces equipped for combat,” stopped including troop estimates on sensitive regions as as far back December 2017.

And the Congressional Research Service noted in its most recent paper on troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq that they didn’t have the numbers either.

President Trump has repeatedly said he would be bringing troops home. Ultimately, the lack of information on U.S. troop levels for high-profile operations puts into question how the American public will ever be able to verify those claims.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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