In December of last year, there were headlines in several military publications that felt like they could have been written for The Onion. Headlines like, “The U.S. military has more than 44,000 troops across the globe that the Pentagon claims it cannot track, according to a recent report.” The problem was, these headlines were absolutely true without even a hint of satire involved.
The Pentagon’s system for accounting troop deployment numbers, maintained by the Defense Manpower Data Center under the Office of the Secretary of Defense, released a report listing up to 44,000 troops in a country location category labeled “Unknown”.
The report was brought to light after a series of Pentagon press briefings last Fall on military actions in the Middle East and Africa which left journalists confused. There was a DoD statement acknowledging that there are “about 2,000 troops in Syria” – four times the previously acknowledged figure – following after a late October Pentagon press conference during which an Army spokesman told reporters that 4,000 troops were deployed to Syria. He later had to awkwardly walked back the statement, saying “I’m sorry I mispoke there – there are approximately 500 troops in Syria”.
Army Colonel Rob Manning was quoted in Stars and Stripes as saying “We are not at a point where we can give numbers other than those officially stated.” Stars and Stripes went on to say that it appeared the incorrect accounting was due more to the Pentagon simply not knowing where it has stationed thousands of troops rather than the officially stated reasons of “secrecy” and force protection from enemies. The Army spokesman further asserted, “Our commitment is to be as transparent as we can, within the constraints of operation security,” but it’s also that case that, “The Pentagon acknowledged in a statement that it has no good way to track how many service members are stationed overseas, where they are and when they were there.”
A Pentagon statement also ambiguously acknowledged that its troop tracking methods will inevitably miscalculate the locations of its roughly 1.3 million total personnel across all branches, based on the worrisome reasoning that “there is no easy way to track all deployments.”
None of the current accounting methods address the even greater numbers of civilian contractors in global hot spots where America is present. According to fourth quarter reports from the Pentagon, the U.S. maintains 23,659 contractors in Afghanistan and 4,609 in Iraq alone.
When the White House sent Congress an accounting of U.S. military presences in these three countries on Dec. 11, the letter left out troop totals altogether — perhaps because the executive branch can’t seem to agree on how those totals should be reported.
The DoD’s inaccurate reporting and often lack of transparency feel at best unacceptable, suggesting to the American people that our foreign interventions are small projects that may be safely kept out of sight and out of mind. If Congress and our citizens are significantly misinformed about the scale of our overseas conflicts and commitments, we cannot accurately stay involved in demanding policy changes as needed.
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