The United States has thousands more troops in Afghanistan than previously disclosed, the Department of Defense admitted Wednesday, saying there were roughly 11,000 troops on the ground instead of about 8,400 — the number it had previously reported.
The change in estimate is an attempt to be more transparent in the U.S.’ war effort and to reckon a complex set of military accounting procedures that frustrate commanders in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said. But it also comes a few weeks after the Trump administration announced a plan to send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which Secretary of Defense James Mattis addressed last week saying he wanted to be sure how many were actually on the ground before making that commitment.
“This is not an attempt to bring more forces in,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the staff of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters at the briefing. “But it is an attempt to actually clarify a very confusing set of reporting rules that has the unintended consequence of forcing commanders to make readiness trade-offs.”
But the change in numbers swirls into a broader cloud of confusion over the exact scope of American engagement in Afghanistan, which experts and intelligence analysts have said might not end up making a difference against the Taliban anyway.
President Trump announced his strategy for deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in early August following months of deliberations, at one time saying his instincts were to pull out all together. In his announcement, Trump offered few details on the cost and size of the new operation, and specifically said there’d be no deadline, which many see as problematic for America’s longest war.
And after a nearly 16-year effort to defeat the Taliban and transition power to the Afghans, the Afghan national government remains plagued by corruption, and controls just 57% of the country. The country has experienced a renewal of terrorist attacks from both ISIS and the Taliban since May, when a suicide bomber killed at least 150 people during morning rush hour in Kabul, one of the country’s deadliest terror attack in years.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a Senate committee in May that “the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in (the) military assistance by the United States and its partners.”
Though senior administration officials have gone back and forth on how soon the new strategy would be rolled out, on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning told reporters planning for the new Afghan strategy wasn’t complete.
“We’re just not there yet,” Manning said. “There is work to be done here within the department and answers that need to be provided.”
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said on Aug. 22 that troops could start flowing into the country in a matter of “days or weeks,” but Pentagon officials said Wednesday that “no troops have started to flow.”