Pentagon Questioned Over Blackout On War Zone Troop Numbers The Pentagon has stopped reporting troop levels for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria following President Trump's declaration that the U.S. would not talk about troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Pentagon Questioned Over Blackout On War Zone Troop Numbers

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In the past, if you wanted to know how many U.S. troops there were in war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, you could find that information at a public Pentagon website that was updated every three months. But then, late last year, the Pentagon stopped posting those numbers for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Now that is prompting questions on Capitol Hill. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Before the Senate approved him last week to be the next commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Scott Miller got a tough question at his confirmation hearing. Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed wanted to know why the flow of information about U.S. operations in Afghanistan has recently taken a nosedive.


JACK REED: What's your view on the detail of information that should be released?

WELNA: Miller assured the Armed Services Committee's top Democrat that if confirmed, he'd be transparent with that panel.


AUSTIN MILLER: As for details that are being - on hold, I need to - we'd need to go forward and understand why we're holding back that information.

WELNA: The Trump administration has been sending conflicting messages. Last August, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis assured reporters the Pentagon would be more transparent than it had been about reporting troop levels in Afghanistan.


JIM MATTIS: Frankly, I had to change the accounting process because we couldn't figure out how many troops we had there. So believe me; I understand the problem. But once we know how many there are, hopefully, we've told you what - about what there is.

WELNA: The next week, President Trump essentially said the opposite.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.

WELNA: Trump added that America's enemies should never know its plans. But a week later, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, reiterated Mattis' promise of greater transparency.


KENNETH MCKENZIE: When I say transparent, I'm talking about accounting for force levels that include those forces that are temporarily deployed. They will now be reported.

WELNA: And the next quarterly report of the Defense Manpower Data Center did have those numbers. But the force levels not just for Afghanistan, but for Iraq and Syria, as well, have been left out of all the updates since then. Readers are asked to direct any questions about those countries to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. That's where, after two weeks of unanswered queries, I finally got this explanation for the omission of war zone troop levels from Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Galloway.

ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: We have to make sure that the American people know what their forces are doing, but we have to protect our forces, as well. And a part of that is making sure that we keep a handle on what information we release to the public in general.

WELNA: Five House Democrats wrote Secretary Mattis, demanding he rescind the new policy of excluding U.S. troop numbers in war zones from the Pentagon's quarterly reports. One of those Democrats is Vermont's Peter Welch.

PETER WELCH: In the past, there's at least been transparency. Now there isn't. And whether the number's going up or down, whether there's success or failure, it's completely unknown.

WELNA: Unknown even to members of Congress. Here's what South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham had to say about the Pentagon's suppression of troop numbers.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I'll give that with you. I didn't know that.

WELNA: Pentagon spokesman Galloway did give me a number for U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan - 14,000. But he added this caveat.

RANKINE-GALLOWAY: I can tell you that that number is approximate. It is very close to the real number. I do know the real numbers, but unfortunately, that - the real number is classified, and I just can't talk about it.

JASON DEMPSEY: I've yet to hear anybody articulate one instance where those numbers led to an operational risk.

WELNA: That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Dempsey, who did two tours in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. He is now at the Center for a New American Security and has written extensively on civilian-military relations.

DEMPSEY: When we decide we're going to be just like every other insecure, two-bit, tin-pot dictator country, and that we've got to keep everything under wraps and we can't telegraph our moves, what we're essentially saying is, we don't want an engaged public.

WELNA: Former Pentagon adviser Loren DeJonge Schulman says numbers are key to people's awareness of ongoing conflicts.

LOREN DEJONGE SCHULMAN: Numbers are kind of a bad shorthand for talking about American commitments, but they're a useful starting point for a conversation. And if we don't start those conversations, Americans will have no way of knowing we have thousands of troops at risk overseas. We don't talk about that. The president never talks about it.

WELNA: All while those numbers under Trump have actually gone up.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.


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