Pentagon has been underreporting the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by thousands

Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis isn't sure of the total number.

Credit - AP, File
Credit - AP, File

The Pentagon has admitted the average number of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan at any given time is much higher than initially thought.

Officially, there are 8,400 American troops in the country as part of Operation Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. But the Defense Department says the actual number may be as high as 12,000.

That’s nearly a 50 percent increase, and doesn’t take into account the 4,000 extra troops Donald Trump is reportedly planning to deploy. According to the Pentagon, the increased numbers are due to units transitioning in and out of deployment, as well as soldiers on temporary duty shorter than 120 days, who weren’t previously counted.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that even he wasn’t sure what the total number of troops serving in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan was.

“We had to change how they were accounting for them, because there were so many different pockets,” Mattis said. “We in this building couldn’t figure it out. I had to change the accounting process because we couldn’t figure out how many troops we had there.”

Asked on August 14th why he hadn’t provided more accurate numbers to the public, Mattis said he would direct his staff to do so – but has yet to respond.

Mattis said the Pentagon 'couldn't figure out' how many troops were in Afghanistan (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Mattis said the Pentagon 'couldn't figure out' how many troops were in Afghanistan (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In addition to the troops in Afghanistan there are also some 6,000 soldiers in Iraq, 500 special operations forces in Syria and approximately 5,500 sailors on the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf helping to launch air strikes against the Islamic State.

Trump gave Mattis control over Afghanistan troop levels in June — a month after giving him direct oversight of operations in Syria and Iraq. The decision to allow for less direct civilian control of the military was met with praise by some, who claim that it will allow commanders on the ground to be more flexible.

But former defense officials said that, even if Trump delegates his military decisions, he is ultimately responsible for American success or failure in Afghanistan.

“It is deciding we’re going to push the clock further, we are going to stay involved longer, we are going to engage the American people and the Afghan people,” retired General Stanley McChrystal told CNN. “That’s a presidential level decision that he has to own.”

Trump has long had a special degree of reverence for generals. Thomas J. Barrack Jr., chairman of his presidential inauguration, told the Washington Post he, “views generals with a special respect and admiration that allows him to defer to and consider their judgement and expertise in a different light than with his business or political peers who may be Cabinet members or other trusted advisers.”