After promises of 'transparency,' Pentagon under scrutiny for troop number blackout

After quietly scrubbing troop numbers for Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria from the Defense Manpower Data Center’s website earlier this year, the Pentagon — which has repeatedly promised to improve “transparency” regarding troop statistics— is under renewed scrutiny over its public information blackout.

NPR’s David Welna reported Tuesday that the public Pentagon website that had, for more than a decade, provided information about the number of U.S. troops in war zones was still devoid of numbers for Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

When pressed to answer why these figures were no longer being made available to the public, Pentagon spokesman told Welna that it was to “protect our forces.” 

“We have to make sure that the American people know what their forces are doing,” said Army Major Adrian Galloway. “But we have to protect our forces as well. And a part of that is making sure that we keep a handle on what information we release to the public in general.”

Galloway told Welna that the “approximate” number of troops currently in Afghanistan is 14,000 ― but said he could not provide the exact figure.

“I do know the real numbers, but unfortunately the real number is classified and I just can’t talk about it,” Galloway said.

The data blackout comes after repeated promises by the Pentagon to be more “transparent” regarding deployment numbers.

Mattis told reporters in August, for instance, that he’d changed the “accounting process” to ensure the Pentagon had more accurate troop tallies and pledged to be more transparent in reporting those numbers.

President Donald Trump appeared to undermine that position a week later, however, by saying that the government would “not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities” in Afghanistan. 

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The past 16 years at war in Afghanistan
The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan and President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. Eyewitnesses said they saw flashes and heard explosions over the Afghan capital of Kabul in the first phase of what the United States has said will be a protracted and wide-ranging war against terrorism and the states that support it. The attack had been prepared since the September 11 suicide attacks on the United States that killed around 5,600 people. A U.S. Air force B-52 bomber drops a load of M117 750-pound bombs over a bombing range in the United States in this undated file photo.B-52s, B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers are some of the aircraft that were reportedly used in the attacks on Afghanistan. REUTERS/USAF-Handout KM/HB
Two Northern Alliance soldiers watch as the dust and smoke rises after explosions in Taliban positions on Kalakata hill, near the village of Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan, November 1, 2001. The Pentagon said on Wednesday B-52s dropped heavy loads of bombs, a tactic known as carpet bombing, on Taliban troops north of Kabul as a result of improved tergeting intelligence, partly from U.S. special forces on the ground. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko VF/CRB
U.S. Marine PV2 Eileen M. Schnetzko stands on guard at Bagram airport, March 2, 2002. U.S. troops are based at Bagram, north of Kabul. There are some 4,000 U.S. troops based in Afghanistan as part of the international war against terrorism. REUTERS/Mario Laporta REUTERS ML
A U.S. special forces soldier (L) watches while Afghan militia wait in line to turn in their weapons at a military base in Kunduz, Afghanistan October 22, 2003. A long-awaited U.N.-sponsored project to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate 100,000 soldiers across Afghanistan was under way in the north, a key step to bringing eventual peace to this war-torn country. The "New Beginnings Programme," which lets soldiers exchange their weapons for jobs, began in the northern province of Kunduz this week. REUTERS/Richard Vogel/Pool RV KAJ/FA
A Chinook helicopter hovers over U.S. troops in the village of Jegdelic, about 90 km (56 miles) southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, in this picture taken on December 24, 2004. A U.S. military helicopter carrying up to 20 American troops crashed during an anti-guerrilla mission in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, U.S. officials said. The fate of those on board was not immediately known. Picture taken December 24, 2004. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood Am/mk BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
An Afghan boy looks at U.S. soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul April 20, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
A U.S. soldier works with a shovel as a vehicle is stuck in mud, some 70km south of Ghazni, southeastern Afghanistan April 23, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
British and a U.S. soldiers control the crowd during medical assistance in Kabul February 26, 2008. U.S. and British troops provided medical assistance worth of $50,000 to the Afghan locals in Kabul on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (AFGHANISTAN)
Sgt. William Olas Bee, a U.S. Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmsir in Helmand Province of Afghanistan, May 18, 2008. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (AFGHANISTAN)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan (R) listen to Afghan governors and local officials during their visit to Forward Operating Base Airborne in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009. Gates on May 11, 2009 replaced the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, less than a year after he took over the war effort there. Gates said he asked for McKiernan's resignation and recommended Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of special operations forces, to take over command of 45,000 U.S. troops and about 32,000 other troops from non-U.S. NATO countries. REUTERS/Jason Reed (AFGHANISTAN MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. soldiers of the 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade prepare to tow a broken-down improvised explosive device (IED) detecting Huskie vehicle during a patrol in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province July 30, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers kneel during a memorial ceremony for Captain Daniel Whitten and Private First Class Zachary Lovejoy from Charlie Company, 4th Brigade combat team,1-508, 82nd Parachute Infantry Regiment at the Remote Sweeney FOB in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, February 8, 2010. CPT Whitten from Grimes, Iowa, and PFC Lovejoy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, were killed by an IED on February 2. when on patrol in southern Afghanistan. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY)
Canadian soldiers play table football under flashlights at a military outpost near the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 8, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY)
U.S. Army medic Staff Sergeant Rahkeem Francis with Charlie Company, 6-101 Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, treats an Afghan boy with a broken leg onboard a medevac helicopter near the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, August 19, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY POLITICS)
An Afghan shepherd walks with a flock of sheep past a U.S. Marines armored vehicle of the Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines outside the Camp Gorgak in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan July 5, 2011. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANIMALS IMAGES OF THE DAY)
First Sergeant Mac Miller from Comanche Troop 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry lift weights as he exercises in Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, March 3, 2012. Picture taken March 3, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT)
A U.S. Army soldier and a member of the Afghan Uniform Police arm wrestle prior to a joint patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Burton (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. service member takes a "selfie" as U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, May 25, 2014. Obama, on a visit to Afghanistan, said on Sunday his administration would likely announce soon how many troops the United States will keep in the country, as it winds down its presence after nearly 13 years of war. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
Afghan children gesture at U.S. soldiers from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment as they stand guard near an Afghan police checkpoint during a mission near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)
U.S. soldiers attend to a wounded soldier at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan June 30, 2015. At least 17 people were wounded in a suicide bomb attack on NATO troops as their truck convoy passed down the main road running between Kabul's airport and the U.S. embassy, police and health ministry officials said. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A U.S. soldier keeps watch at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan January 4, 2016. A large explosion struck close to Kabul airport on Monday, causing at least 10 casualties near to the area where a suicide bomber blew himself up earlier in the day in the latest in a series of attacks in the Afghan capital over the past week. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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For more than 10 years, the Pentagon, via the Defense Manpower Data Center, had released a quarterly report of the number of troops stationed overseas. But its latest report, dated December 2017 and released in March, “just had blank spaces where Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan figures used to be,” The Military Times reported in April.

A note at the bottom of the report said: “With ongoing operations, any questions concerning DoD personnel strength numbers are deferred to OSD Public Affairs/Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

The Military Times reported that the Pentagon had also removed troop numbers for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan from the previous quarterly report, dated September 2017, and had appended the same disclaimer to it.

“Years worth of the previous quarterly reports” were also removed from the web, the outlet added.

Alarmed by the sudden dearth of data, Democratic members of the House subcommittee on national security penned a letter to Mattis in May, urging him to “immediately reverse the Trump administration’s recent decision to redact key data on U.S. personnel strength from the Defense Department’s quarterly public reports.”

“This data has been publicly available for more than a decade and provides Congress and the American people with critical information pertaining to [military missions overseas],” the letter read.

“As Secretary of Defence, you have underscored your commitment ‘to developing a more transparent accounting of our troops in the field,’” the letter added. “We believe that an immediate reversal [of this decision] ... would fulfill your commitment and greatly enhance transparency and accountability in this area.”

In his response to the Democrats, Mattis insisted the policy change was a positive one that balances “the need for transparency with the need to protect sensitive information that could advantage our enemy.”

Mattis said the Pentagon was also “publicly reporting certain previously undisclosed temporary duty personnel deployed in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.” 

NPR noted, however, that there was no evidence that those numbers are being publicly reported.

In a Foreign Affairs op-ed in May, national security experts Loren DeJonge Schulman and Alice Friend wrote about the Pentagon’s “transparency problem” and how its failure to provide accurate troop levels to the public was impacting civilian awareness and support for the American military.

“[R]ecent administrations have understood that the public relies on troop levels as an imperfect marker of American strategy, commitment, and even success,” the authors wrote.

Troop numbers don’t “explain much of anything,” they later added. “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.

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