Just Security: United States’ troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last three years

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[A note from Just Security’s Ryan Goodman and Kate Brannen: Last April, Just Security filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Defense (DoD) seeking U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Although DoD had routinely reported such numbers for over a decade, across both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Trump administration abruptly reversed the practice in December 2017, and began redacting these figures from quarterly manpower reports.

After DoD failed to respond to our requests, Just Security sued the U.S. government in October to obtain the data, as well as any information that showed why these records were kept hidden from the American public. The Project on Government Oversight also filed its own FOIA requests and complaint.

Through these efforts, we have finally obtained records that provide a fuller picture of the United States’ troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last three years. During his confirmation process, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also made a pledge to restore transparency when it comes to U.S. troop deployments.

In addition to obtaining previously undisclosed troop level data, Just Security obtained records detailing the Department of Defense’s 2017 decision to conceal precise numbers . That said, DoD heavily redacted several of its documents, claiming the information, including the reasoning behind changing its disclosure practices, remains classified. In the interest of democratic accountability, Just Security is releasing all of the records as a public resource.

II. Insights from DoD’s FOIA disclosures

DoD’s disclosures thus far reveal several insights about U.S. troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria throughout the Trump era.

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DoD’s supplementary disclosures provide the public with consistent, quarterly estimates of top-line troop levels for the three countries that have been redacted from official reports since December 2017. These estimates, while not the precise numbers, still show that the Trump administration failed to reduce troop levels in Iraq for much of Trump’s presidency or to complete a full withdrawal from Syria, despite the president’s promise that “they’re all coming back.”

Just Security’s efforts also reveal that Mattis sought to establish a force management construct that more accurately enumerated overseas troop levels within DoD, but also affirmatively restricted the public’s access to those numbers, even though they had been reported to the public for over a decade through the DMDC reports. These policy changes raise additional concerns about DoD’s commitments to public transparency.

Disclosure of Section 1267 reports reveals estimated quarterly troop counts

DoD disclosed unclassified quarterly reports to Congress on U.S. personnel deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel that are required by Section 1267 of the FY 2018 NDAA, along with redacted versions of the reports’ classified annexes. The Section 1267 reports provide the first public insight into consistent reporting, by quarter, of DoD’s own estimates of overseas troop numbers for the three countries since December 2017. Expressly excluded from the estimates are “certain military personnel deployed for sensitive missions.” While the reports describe the incorporated estimates as “publicly disclosed approximate numbers,” many of these figures have not previously been made available to the public.

Just Security: United States’ troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last three years
Just Security: United States’ troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last three years

The Section 1267 approximate troop levels for Syria are particularly noteworthy because since August 2018, DoD has rarely provided troop levels for the country. It’s worth noting that a large contingent of the troops deployed there have been U.S. Special Operations Forces. DoD has publicly expressed its hesitance to disclose U.S. troop levels for Syria (although occasionally, unnamed Pentagon officials would disclose estimates for Syria to the press). The records obtained by Just Security now provide, for the first time, an official, consistent account of DoD’s own troop number estimates over the last three years.

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Sec. 1267 Reports provide an inadequate substitute for past transparency practices

Even though the Section 1267 troop estimates are unclassified and DoD describes them as “publicly disclosed numbers,” DoD has not proactively disclosed the approximations to the public, and has not provided an explanation for why it has declined to do so. Rather, DoD has provided troop numbers at its discretion during press briefings or at the request of journalists. In some cases, DoD has even declined those requests, despite claiming that it “consistently provides approximate troop counts to members of the media upon request.”

In their letter, DoD points to its quarterly Inspector General reports to Congress regarding the status of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve and in its semi-annual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan reports as sources of publicly disclosed approximate troop levels. However, a review of these reports reveals that since December 2017, DoD has not consistently disclosed approximate troop levels for Iraq and Syria therein. In particular, before the Trump administration began publicly broadcasting its efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in the fall of 2020, the reports generally did not include troop-level approximations for Iraq. Even the most recent reports include no troop-level approximations for Syria.

DoD has also offered no criteria for its calculation of Section 1267 troop level estimates. Rather, it appears that DoD has broad discretion in calculating and reporting these numbers, raising questions about how accurately they capture troop levels.

Disclosure of precise, quarterly counts of permanent troops

The government also produced the precise numbers of military and DoD civilian personnel permanently assigned to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria by quarter from December 2017 to September 2020 (see Table 2). These numbers are now available to the public for the first time.

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The data reveal that troops on temporary or short-term assignments comprise the vast majority of American servicemembers deployed to the three countries.
Permanent US troops at United States’ troop commitments