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

The Pentagon's Transparency Problem

Why Accurate Troop Levels Are So Hard to Find

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

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