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The Pentagon’s Transparency Problem

Why Accurate Troop Levels Are So Hard to Find

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Arlington, Virginia, April 2018. Yuri Gripas / Reuters

With the war in Afghanistan now in its 17th year, the U.S. military is engaged in the longest stretch of armed conflict in its history. And yet its leaders are keeping the American public in the dark about its operations around the world, while seeking to obscure what little information is available.

Secrecy surrounding the U.S. military isn’t new: under President Barack Obama, the Department of Defense (DOD) used creative accounting strategies, such as excluding temporary deployments from official tallies, to keep reported troop levels beneath caps set by the White House. And no president has been capable of publicly confirming the total number and cost of military personnel, civilians, and contractors necessary to support U.S. operations overseas. Still, recent administrations have understood that the public relies on troop levels as an imperfect marker of American strategy, commitment, and even success, and have shared force management

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