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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 levels as planning tools and contributions to public dialogue.
But President Donald Trump has stepped back from this precedent, making evasiveness a focal point of his administration’s security strategy. “We no longer tell our enemies our plans,” the president bragged during his January State of the Union, recalling his campaign promise to keep his strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) a secret so that no enemies could benefit from it.
Trump’s commitment to secrecy, once a punchline among policy elites, has been widely embraced throughout the national security establishment. The secrets, moreover, are kept not only from Washington’s enemies but also from the American public. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for instance, has carefully curtailed his public communication (partly to avoid contradicting his boss) and has held very few on-camera press conferences. Both Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a point to reduce the number of journalists accompanying them on trips abroad. And the DOD has issued severe warnings to its staff about dealing with the press—in the most recent case, the Air Force ordered officials to freeze their engagement with the media until they had completed new operational security training, a justification that many analysts questioned.
But perhaps the most consequential change has been an unstated decision to offer significantly less information to the American people on where, and for what purpose, U.S. troops are in combat overseas. With Trump’s encouragement, the Pentagon has transitioned from its Obama-era policy of applying public caps on deployed forces, set by the White House, to quietly controlling its own force management levels. The DOD has welcomed this newfound autonomy, using it to ramp up operations without requesting permission from the White House. And in the absence of any public fanfare surrounding its moves, it has generally kept information on troop movements close to the vest. As a result, official U.S. troop levels are no longer a poor but still useful proxy for Washington’s strategy and commitment—and no alternative has yet filled in the void.
Troop levels in operational theaters are complex. Simple tallies of U.S. personnel in a wartime theater have never been immediately accessible, an astonishing gap to anyone who’s never worked with the Pentagon. Nevertheless, Americans have usually been able to gain an understanding of U.S. military commitments through force management levels set by the executive branch. These levels are set for a number of reasons: to accord with host nation agreements for how many U.S. troops may operate in a country; to incentivize or govern multilateral commitments (as when U.S. troops were limited to 15 percent of the overall NATO force in Kosovo); to indicate priorities (as in the Iraq and Afghanistan surges); to serve as a ceiling on U.S. commitment; or to serve as a set of milestones for withdrawal.
The Obama administration’s first major national security debates were over Afghanistan, where force management levels became a strategic shorthand. Particularly after the beginning of the surge in 2009, force management levels were used to shape the drawdown of U.S. forces, first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, setting public guideposts and making real Obama’s promise that the “tide of war is receding.” Nearly all were accompanied by a coordinated series of speeches, talking points, or fact sheets to affirm the president’s intentions and to establish a target for his critics.
But any defense nerd will tell you that such troop caps are made to be manipulated. The military despises the use of personnel limits to constrain security objectives, and force planners have become quite artful at working around these caps. Short-term deployments such as those frequently done by special forces were not counted under the Obama administration’s caps, nor was the use of contractors. Consequently, when Mattis came into office in early 2017, he inherited a system that did not track the actual level of U.S. forces in operational theaters abroad. This, combined with the new freedom from White House force management levels and presidentially encouraged secrecy, meant that for much of 2017 the Pentagon did not and, by its own accounting, could not give thorough assessments of its force levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.
Mattis, confronted regularly by the press about the DOD’s lack of transparency and inconsistent reporting, claimed that he had set out to change this, for his own purposes and for public consumption. In December 2017, the Pentagon did eventually announce that the United States had 2,000 troops in Syria. This followed months, however, in which it claimed that only 500 U.S. troops were in the country, even as the DOD’s own bureaucratic data source, the Defense Manpower Data Center (which publicly reports on all kinds of personnel data), had long indicated a far higher number.
The disconnect was baffling. And the absence of a public reckoning about the United States’ commitments in Syria was not merely a data problem. U.S. forces lacked guidance on their mission as ISIS neared defeat and geopolitical dynamics in the country became more complex; in one remarkable hour this spring, President Trump announced a likely withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria just as his senior commander for the region suggested a long-term American commitment to the mission.
Senior defense officials may enjoy their newfound autonomy, but they are exercising it at the cost of openness with the American people.
Afghanistan has a similar story. After months of rumors, last fall the public belatedly learned that official troop levels in the country had increased from around 8,500 to over 15,000, following Trump’s vague strategy announcement in August promising a stronger U.S. military presence in the country. This data, too, was part of a Pentagon attempt at more accurate accounting. Yet neither the Pentagon nor the White House has since formally explained what this new strategy would mean in terms of additional American blood and treasure, nor what Washington’s objectives are. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has referred to the administration’s Afghanistan mission as “a fundamentally different approach” from anything previous, but no official has taken the podium to lay out precisely what those differences are. And the White House seems fine with that.
Other theaters have also seen troop buildups without much strategic fanfare. In Somalia, the number of U.S. troops grew from 50 to around 500 in 2017. Indeed, estimates of U.S. deployments across Africa have also recently crept upward. In October 2017, Dunford stated that approximately 6,000 U.S. personnel were deployed to the continent. But in March, Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, put the number at 7,200. These increases were generally not publicly announced, bypassing any dialogue about adjustments in strategy, focus, or risk.
These are just a few examples. But they suggest a larger pattern: after years of purported micromanagement by the Obama White House, the DOD is now taking full advantage of its freedom to manage deployments as it sees fit without drawing attention to the process. In this, the Pentagon is supported by Trump, who has said “I defer to my generals” on more than one occasion and has been happy to delegate decisions and responsibility to top military officials.
But the president is not the only one to whom the Pentagon is accountable. Senior defense officials may enjoy their newfound autonomy, but they are exercising it at the cost of openness with the American people.
What, where, and how the U.S. military is operating overseas does tend to come out, if grudgingly. But despite Mattis himself pledging better access and to fix continued discrepancies of force levels that began in the Obama administration, such reforms have been slow, and they have been delinked from the strategic choices that such levels imperfectly represent. Under Trump, the Pentagon has at best belatedly or reactively come forward with some approximation of troop levels and mission changes in relevant theaters. And the Pentagon’s stubborn refusal to confirm regularly leaked troop increases lends an air of absurdity to the institution while diminishing the credibility of the men and women tasked with speaking for the military. Even workarounds are limited: after years of being able to generally rely on the Defense Manpower Data Center to offer a glimpse into deployment statistics when Pentagon spokespeople were tight-lipped, last month DOD stripped out Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria numbers from its quarterly reports.
Trump has also walked back transparency measures introduced under his predecessor. Data on air strikes and civilian casualties, which the Obama administration took slow and painful steps to publicize, have become harder to find for a number of theaters, despite the fact that, as former Obama administration counterterrorism officials Luke Hartig and Joshua Geltzer argue, such transparency “went a long way toward meaningfully building at least some trust with the local population and a modicum of tolerance for the operations.” Hartig and Geltzer further reveal that the Trump administration is now only releasing aggregate data on air strikes in Yemen, which have substantially increased in frequency, and has offered no public justification as to why the tempo of operations is ramping up. Similarly, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has shown that strikes in Afghanistan, once a model for operational transparency, also receive less acknowledgement and detail.
In another break from its predecessors, in 2016 the Obama White House released a report on the legal and policy frameworks guiding U.S. military operations—a practice that is now required by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Yet Trump’s first transparency report, although unclassified, was not released to the public, which learned about it only after a leaked version was reported in The New York Times.
Over a year of administration reticence to discuss its military operations overseas has sent a message to defense officials to deprioritize transparency and the dialogue that typically accompanies it. The DOD’s actions have, as a result, fallen short of the engagement necessary to inform public debate. In general, Trump administration military operations are not the subject of signature and commitment-laden national security speeches or announcements of changes in strategy as usually seen in prior administrations; rather, they trickle out after the fact via responses to query, occasional public reports, or, at worst, leaks.
Votel, Mattis, and other defense officials seem to believe that their secrecy is justified. Mattis has suggested that operational security limits his ability to publicize troop buildups and missions, saying that he would avoid doing so “if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them.”
There is a reasonable argument to be made that this lack of transparency increases military effectiveness. The less adversaries know about the U.S. force structure in a given theater, the less they can threaten U.S. troops. Moreover, public discussions of troop numbers can be misconstrued as caps, which can in turn be interpreted as a limited U.S. commitment. For the United States’ enemies in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it is not hard to test Washington’s will to fight: one need merely tune in to public discussions about the American people’s tolerance for boots on the ground. Military commanders and civilian defense leaders alike tend to believe that when it comes to details about deployments, less is more.
The problem with this approach, however, is that it assumes that domestic support for U.S. military engagements can be sustained in an information vacuum. It draws on a reservoir of public faith in the military while also limiting the public’s ability to make an informed decision. This is a losing gamble, as it will eventually wear away the public’s sense of investment in either the nation’s wars or its military, decoupling the use of force from domestic politics.
Separating government action from public preferences in this way is undemocratic. Military operations should serve domestic politics, not vice versa. Worse, in a news market saturated with excellent reporting on the one hand and inaccurate, misleading, or partisan news stories on the other, there is no such thing as a true information vacuum. If the military is not open about what it is doing, other parties will fill the void. And some of those parties will be the very adversaries U.S. secrecy is meant to undermine.
From a policy perspective, moreover, force levels are a lousy way to conduct a conversation that should be about strategy. Neither troop numbers nor missions explain much of anything. But they do start a conversation. And from the perspective of domestic politics, troop levels are indeed a litmus test for the scope and scale of the American public’s commitment to a particular conflict, and one of civilians’ best windows into the operations of their country’s military. Transparency can create some operational vulnerability. But it can also communicate what political scientists call a credible commitment—doing something less advantageous to oneself to indicate seriousness about an agreement or strategy. The political scientist Kenneth Schultz has shown that when a democracy goes through public discussions about the use of force and rallies behind a military action, it communicates its commitment especially clearly.
Whatever the Pentagon’s intent, by all appearances the United States now has a DOD that is reluctant to explain coherently, and to audiences that matter, where it is deploying U.S. troops overseas, what they are doing there, why they are doing it, and what the legal basis for their actions is. From the Pentagon’s perspective, there is little reason to change—as long as it meets its mandated reporting requirements, faces no legal challenges to its interpretation of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, and continues to receive its operational budgets, nothing stands in its way. And with a president willing to constantly defer to his generals, nothing is likely to.