April 12, 2018

IntelBrief: Hiding the Costs of War 

U.S. Marines  (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini) .
  • The Pentagon has been hiding the number of troops serving in combat zones.
  • The issue goes beyond refusing to release updated troop numbers in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan; the Pentagon is removing previously released numbers.
  • In August 2017, President Trump announced his administration would no longer talk about troop levels as it increased those numbers in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
  • This matter fits into a larger pattern of little oversight and even less public debate over the country’s involvement in a growing number of conflicts.


The United States government is going to great lengths to hide accurate accounting of personnel and the costs of its military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Public transparency has always been an issue with the Pentagon. There is a persistent belief that ‘operational security’ supersedes accountability to the public. Beyond refusing to release updated troop numbers, the current administration is deleting previously provided public data.

An April 10 article in the Military Times shows how far the Pentagon is going to hide previously available data. The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) released its quarterly report on troop numbers but did not include any data on the number of troops deployed in combat. The article notes that the December 2017 report ‘just had blank spaces where Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan figures used to be.’ It also noted that the September 2017 report was similarly redacted after the fact. Now the reports say that any troop level questions about ‘ongoing operations’ are to be directed to the ‘OSD Public Affairs/Joint Chiefs of Staff.’

U.S. troop levels in Syria are particularly difficult to assess, with the Pentagon going through greater-than-normal semantic contortions to define terms such as ‘deployed’ or ‘combat.’ The U.S. government has done this for years in Afghanistan. War funding is often split into emergency funding and regular budgets, meaning that it is hard to directly determine how much money is being spent and on what exactly. The result of such opaque accounting is a country with little grasp of the costs, both financial and non-financial, of the various conflicts in which the U.S. is embroiled. A clearer picture of the costs of war might force debate and proper oversight over the more recent U.S. military operations—in Yemen, for example—instead of relying on the over-extended Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

While the Obama administration capped U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan at 8400, the current number is above 12,000, though the exact number is unknown; the Pentagon refuses to provide those figures. Those same Obama-mandated caps limited U.S. troops in Syria to 503 ‘officially deployed’ and 5,262 troops in Iraq. There are far more U.S. troops in both countries now. The trend seems to be far less transparency, even as the U.S. increases its military operations around the globe.


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