Editor’s note: Readers may be interested in Sam Aber, Nicole Ng, Phil Spector and Brandon Willmore, Just Security Obtains Overseas Troop Counts That the Pentagon Concealed from the Public, Just Security March 4, 2021
How many U.S. servicemembers are currently in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria? The short answer to this simple question is: We don’t really know. But why not?
Last night, 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 many years, it abruptly stopped disclosing them in late 2017.
To get a more complete picture of U.S. military operations abroad, Just Security seeks quarterly counts of U.S. military personnel assigned to these countries and the underlying documents that could shed light on why DoD began withholding the numbers from the public. In filing this request, Just Security is represented by the Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School, and is also working with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).
For over a decade, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Pentagon published the number for troops that were in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Syria—typically releasing a report every quarter (see also reports from 1953-1999). In August 2017, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed a commitment to transparency in troop numbers, while working out a better system for counting them. The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson Dana White emphasized that “Secretary Mattis is committed to developing a more transparent accounting of our troops in the field than he inherited.” However, that same month, when revealing his revamped strategy for Afghanistan, President Donald Trump said, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” The Pentagon publicly disclosed the troop levels in these three countries for the last time in its September 2017 report. But, starting in December 2017, the Pentagon began to redact them from its quarterly public reports, and it has been redacting them ever since, leaving Americans largely in the dark as to how many U.S. troops are serving in these conflict zones.
There is no justification for keeping this information from the public. Without accurate information, the American people cannot exercise the oversight necessary to hold their elected officials accountable for their promises and policy decisions about war and peace. Journalists who are working to inform the public no longer have access to basic information about U.S. military operations and are therefore at a disadvantage when trying to hold officials accountable. What’s more, potential servicemembers—and their families—have an inaccurate picture of where they could be deployed on life-and-death missions when the scale of U.S. military involvement abroad is kept from the public.
Regarding our FOIA requests, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said: “The United States Government and all its institutions represent and are accountable to the American people. That was Secretary Mattis’ point. The public and those who serve and defend this country and their families are entitled to know where we are sending our service men and women, why, and the numbers. That’s democracy. The Government works for the people.”
Leading up to the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump promised the American people that he would end America’s “endless wars.” This messaging has remained a fixture of the Trump presidency. The president reiterated this promise in his 2019 State of the Union address. But by blocking public disclosure of how many troops are serving in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the Trump administration has made it impossible for Americans to verify whether the president is keeping his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops and bring these “endless wars” to a close.
“Of all the things that DoD has done to limit public access to information, this is probably the most egregious,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Government Secrecy Project also in reference to our FOIA requests. “The idea that the scale of the U.S. military presence in a war zone should be kept secret from the public is a mistake. That’s not how democracies fight or win wars,” he added.
Other sources of information concerning the number of military and civilian personnel located abroad, such as media estimates or the occasional response from the Pentagon press office, are deeply irregular, inadequate, and incomplete. Without official information being routinely published, the public lacks the means to understand the scope of the U.S. military presence in these regions or the full scale of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and South Asia.
To help restore transparency in these matters, Just Security is seeking (1) the number of military and DoD Appropriated Fund (APF) civilian personnel assigned to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from December 2017 through the most recent quarter available; (2) information regarding the methodology used by DoD to calculate the number of military personnel by country; and (3) the underlying documents that explain why DoD began withholding the numbers in 2017.
There is no persuasive national security interest in withholding this information from public disclosure, and a strong countervailing interest in releasing it immediately. As the request explains, “Withholding this information from the American public undermines democratic accountability for the solemn decision to put troops in harm’s way and erodes public trust in government.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Pentagon has 20 business days to respond to the request.