Despite Transparency Pledge, Pentagon Still Won't Get Specific on Combat Troop Numbers

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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby holds a press briefing, at the Pentagon
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby holds a press briefing, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., May 24, 2021. (Brittany A. Chase/DoD photo)

The Pentagon is not planning on soon reversing a Trump-era move that blocked the release of deployed U.S. troop numbers in combat zones including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Until 2017, the Defense Manpower Data Center's quarterly reporting on military and civilian personnel and the states and foreign countries to which they are assigned included detailed data on deployments to combat zones.

The information released by DMDC includes specific numbers of active-duty, Guard and Reserve troops and civilians assigned to individual locations, broken out by their service branches.

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But beginning in December 2017, near the end of the first year of the Trump administration, the military began excluding troops deployed in support of contingency operations from those charts. Officials also began to omit statistics for those three nations entirely, citing ongoing operations. The quarterly charts included language directing inquiries about personnel strength numbers to the Pentagon.

In a Tuesday press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby indicated that was unlikely to change immediately, and cited the ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan as one reason why.

But Kirby prefaced his remarks, when asked about the possibility of releasing more detailed troop numbers in the future, by saying, "We're working through specific policy decisions on that right now."

Kirby also noted that the Pentagon has talked in "broad brushes" about troop deployments to combat zones since President Joe Biden took office in January. He said there are now roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq, and fewer than 1,000 troops in Syria.

The U.S. had anywhere from an estimated 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan in April, when the Biden administration announced plans to withdraw all remaining troops by September.

Since then, the military has released only broad statistics about the progress of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and no specifics on troop numbers remaining. On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command estimated it had completed between 16% and 25% of the withdrawal process, including flying about 160 C-17 loads of material out of the country, turning over more than 10,000 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency for disposition and handing over five facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

Kirby said that the administration will no longer discuss specific numbers involving Afghanistan to preserve operational security.

The Pentagon wants to "make sure that the withdrawal can continue to occur on pace, and that we're not divulging more information than what is necessary, and we want to make sure that everybody gets out safely," Kirby said. "And so we have definitely curtailed the delivery of some data with respect to Afghanistan for those reasons, but I think you all understand that."

Kirby and other Pentagon leaders made a commitment to transparency with the public a priority when the new administration began. Kirby regularly briefs reporters several times a week, often on a near-daily basis.

And Kirby has pointed to the importance of the U.S. and allies' transparency to set an example around the world.

"I'm going to continually talk about what we're doing," Kirby said May 3 while discussing a readiness exercise in Europe involving 26 NATO allies and partners. "It's called transparency -- it's a wonderful thing. And we're not getting that out of Moscow and we haven't. So that's a big difference right there."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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