Why Is the Pentagon Hiding the Number of Troops in Iraq and Syria?

Lambert here: I like numbers. Aren’t troop levels the sort of numbers we should have? Especially in an election year?

By Sarah Lazare, a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Originally published at Alternet.

It has been more than two years and 14,000 coalition bombings since President Barack Obama launched his open-ended war against ISIL under the dubious authority of a 15-year-old law authorizing military attacks. As the mission creeps to Libya, where military officials say there is “no end point” in sight, the Pentagon is refusing to disclose how many U.S. troops are currently deployed to Iraq and Syria.

The military does reveal the “force management level,” or full-time troops deployed to Iraq and Syria. According to a June 2016 statement from the White House, “The Force Management Level for U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq currently is 4,087. The Force Management Level for U.S. Armed Forces in Syria is 300.”

Yet, journalist Kristina Wong reported Thursday for the Hill that a Central Command spokesman acknowledged “that some troops that temporarily deploy aren’t counted”—and this number could be far higher.

According to Wong’s reporting, defense officials are making the conscious choice not to reveal the final tally of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. “There’s been a decision made not to release that number,” spokesperson Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in March. “The number that we release is our force management level… I don’t have a reason for not releasing this number other than it’s the orders that I’m under.”

Since Warren made that statement, the Hill’s repeated requests for exact numbers have been rejected.

Any final tally of U.S. forces would have to include the droves of U.S. contractors in Iraq and Syria, exact number unknown. The Pentagon revealed in late July that Six3 Intelligence Solutions—which is now owned by CACI International—won a windfall $10 million no-bid contract from the Army for “intelligence services” in Syria. As Kate Brannen noted in the Daily Beast, “details are scant,” with the military refusing to disclose the most basic information about how many contractors will be deployed and what they will do.

CACI International faced global condemnation for its role in torturing and dehumanizing people held captive at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

According to Wong’s calculations, “the total amount of troops and Defense Department personnel involved in the [ISIL] fight could be anywhere from to 8,252 to 10,152.” This is well above the “FML” estimates officially provided by military officials.

The Obama administration is refusing to disclose other key information about the military campaign, including the numbers of civilians who are dying at the hands of U.S.-led forces. The Pentagon’s public estimates of civilians killed and wounded in its attacks fall well below the calculations of witnesses and journalists. According to the journalistic organization Air Wars, which monitors international bombings, a minimum of 1,568 civilians have been killed by the U.S.-led coalition’s war on ISIL.

Raed Jarrar, government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee, told AlterNet that “rather than attempting to obfuscate the number of U.S. troops in the Middle East, the Obama administration should deliver on its promises and withdraw all troops from Iraq and Syria. Having U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria is not something we should be proud of.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Africa, Middle East on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Russell

    What Our goal is is the most important question. One of my guiding lights is the Einstein quote: “You can’t go wrong if your goal is correct.”
    Then the number of troops we are supporting in another nation can be judged as enough,or not enough to accomplish the goal.
    Military secrecy serves an important function since the people who are opposed to our being there can make similar judgements.
    Possibility the best We can hope for is a perfectly good reason to be doing what we are doing where we are doing it.
    It is unfortunate that our empire has throughout our lifetimes consistently been at war or conducted covert operations for dishonorable and counterproductive reasons.

    1. Procopius

      Possibility the best We can hope for is a perfectly good reason to be doing what we are doing where we are doing it.

      Well, we haven’t had that since 2002. When I was learning how to make a lesson plan, the priority was to define the learning objective first, because without it you couldn’t know what to do. You then had to decide on ways to decide if the objective had been achieved or not. We don’t seem to have been doing that since MacArthur hijacked the forces in Korea to provoke a land war with China, against the political strategy of his nominal superiors.

    1. Lord Koos

      Correct. Keep conflicts out of the news as much as possible, and spin the hell out of any stories that do get through.

  2. EndOfTheWorld

    I honestly don’t understand why the US military ever needed to be in the Muddle East. Who cares which tribe or dictator is in control? No matter who is in control of the various “countries”, many of which were arbitrarily bordered off by Western nations, rest assured the oil will be pumped and sold. As Gore Vidal said, “What else are they going to do with it—drink it?”

    So the only reason for the US to kill millions of people and screw up countless countries over there is to “defend Israel”. Well, founding Israel was a big big mistake. What should have been done in the aftermath of WW2 is: lop off a big portion of Germany and give it to the Jews as their homeland. This would have driven home to the Germans just how screwed up Hitler’s Final Solution was. But, no, the Jews were awarded their “ancestral homeland.” By this logic the Manhattan Indians, if any still exist, should be awarded Manhattan Island, New York.

    However, TPTB don’t call me up and ask which policies to pursue.

    1. pretzelattack

      well some of the popularly elected leaders, and some of the dictators, preferred to sell their oil in ways or to people which didn’t benefit us companies as much. so they were disposed of one way or another.

    2. fresno dan

      August 13, 2016 at 5:25 am

      Perfect logic for the 99%….but not for the 1%, which is of course why it doesn’t happen.


      In the meantime, anyone who opposes U.S. Empire is shit-out-of-luck when it comes to presidential elections and the two major parties. Here, we should commend Gary Johnson and Jill Stein for remaining principled in their views surrounding foreign policy, militarism, torture and surveillance. They’re the last of a dying breed.


      My transition from obedient Marine to antiwar veteran was swift. In 2004, while deployed to Iraq, I enthusiastically cast an absentee ballot for John Kerry. Four years later, I was protesting Obama and the Democrats at the DNC in Denver. It didn’t take long to figure out that the Democratic Party was a party of Empire and Capitalism.

      So you have 2 choices:
      A – Red team, rah, rah, rah – Go USA and bomb, bomb, bomb!
      B – Blue team rah, rah, rah – Go USA and it is with a heavy heart, and much, much consternation and a gnashing of teeth, that we are forced, to protect widows and orphans, puppies, and kittens, to ….bomb, bomb, bomb.

      1. EndOfTheWorld

        Fresno Dan, I voted for Obama the first time because he said he would get the US out of Iraq. Never happened. By now I have figured out that what the dems say while campaigning is in no way related to what they do if elected. I’d like to see the democratic party crash and burn, and a new phoenix (maybe the Greens) rise from the ashes.

        1. fajensen

          Of course it didn’t happen: The Democrats, being (self-declared) enlightened, rational and intellectual people will just take over whatever stupidity or evil the Republicans started, analyze it carefully, improve on it and then use the efficiency gains to expand it in scope and volume!

          Perfect mid-level management, they are. No ideas about “why”, plenty on “how”.

        2. Carolinian

          Devoutly to be wished (end of the Dems). Rethugs too of course. Unfortunately this is too big a project for anything but Events to accomplish. Meanwhile we can vote for the candidate who is least likely to go around the world killing people. That should be the real issue in the election.

        3. fresno dan

          August 13, 2016 at 6:55 am

          I thought I would never see a black man as president in my lifetime – so I thought it was at least salutatory in that respect. But our “constitutional expert” has done more to solidify the Bush ravishment of the constitution, and even extend it, than probably any repub could have done.
          Well, I guess it does prove people in the 1% care only about the color green – and that they will hire a lackey regardless of race, sex, creed, or religion….funny, the diversity doesn’t make the screwing any better…

        4. Procopius

          Actually, Obama reluctantly got us out of Iraq in 2011, when he was forced to obey the agreement signed by George W. Bush in December, 2008. He tried to renegotiate the agreement, but the Iraqis refused to budge (which was why W signed it in the first place.) Of course the Deep State forced him to send troops back in after ISIS, which was created by J. Paul Bremer, made significant conquests in the West of Iraq in 2014.

      2. Ignim Brites

        Two things. If polled say you will vote for Stein or Johnson. If their poll numbers are high enough they will get into the debates, which will be a major victory. Second, if you vote in a solidly red or blue state vote for Stein or Johnson (or anyone but Trump or Clinton). Holding the total vote of the winner to under 40% will possibly dissuade the winner from continuing or initiating dubious foreign adventures.

        1. fresno dan

          Ignim Brites
          August 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm

          I agree 1000% – if we don’t get at LEAST one 3rd party candidate, the alternative of NOT being at war isn’t even broached! And that is outrageous that there is no choice at all.

    3. Harry


      Actually I have recently started to understand the nature of the problem facing v the US.

      Imagine you run a superpower where the power is based on oil. The oil (roughly) comes from one backward country in the ME where the population believes it is a sin to let foreigners in the country. The population hates the royal family and hates pretty much everyone else. It won’t take much for the local population to murder the 40k royals and just dismantle the system of oil extraction. You can’t eradicate the population and you can’t occupy the oil field. You need Simone to run the place but unless you help them they will lose control of it.

      This is why the US is trapped in KSA. I’m sure every US President would love to pivot to Iran but they can’t. Israel complicates matters slightly but its a not so surprising they are allies. They both have a great interest in the status quo of a backwards and helpless Arab population.

      1. Tully

        Ray McGovern uses the acronym “OIL” – oil, Israel, and logistics (by which I think he means the military industrial economy, the military adventures and bases, etc.).

        I think all of you are not quite understanding the significance of oil.

        Yes, we need to supply oil to our empire (Europe, for example) – that includes the transmission lines (thus problems with Russia and Iran, the strategic significance of places like Syria, Iran, Turkey, etc).

        But there is another way to think about why we want to controll the oil market: when Nixon took the Dollar off gold, he pegged it to oil. This arrangement with OPEC – especially Saudi Arabia – created the “petro dollar” – all oil has to be traded in dollars (and the Saudi’s – and others – invest those Dollars in the US stock/bond market). This is akin to the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency post WWII. Dollar Supremacy gives us all kinds of advantages, including being able to finance our military adventurism cheaply. I believe most of what we do in the world is really about protecting Dollar Supremacy, including the Petro Dollar.

        Think about who has tried or threatened to sell oil in something other than the Dollar: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Iran before the deal they signed with Obama, etc …

    4. fajensen

      As Gore Vidal said, “What else are they going to do with it—drink it?”

      Yes, what else could they do? Same as us, probably!

      The Big Fear is that “they” might develop an industrialized society and instead of selling oil, “they” will then use their own resources to produce chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals locally … thus keeping the increase in value from the mere crude oil to useful feedstock for industry to themselves.

      A factor 100 – 1000 or even more value increase for many petrochemical products.

      *Every* Middle Eastern Nationalist or emerging Democratic government has been removed or assassinated with help from “The West”; Only dictators and regimes functioning barely around the age of Gutenberg are permitted to exist.

      The old Smash & Grab. So, all of that nice profit stays in Antwerp, Duisburg and the other civilized places and is not unduly wasted on brown people and their ideas.

      “We” want “our” Arabs to be cruel, backwards and stupid; “we” put a lot of time, money and effort into it too. Truly a stunning suck-cess – as the nsw joke goes.

    5. NotTimothyGeithner

      Because we can. Thugs pick on people they can bully. The rest is inconsequential. If we could drop the occasional bomb in the Kremlin or accidentally blow up the Forbidden Palace, we would.

      Madeline Albright asked why we have a military if we weren’t going to use it. The argument Dempsey supposedly used on Kerry for not bombing Syria wasn’t whether it was in in our national interests but that that it would invite retaliation. If a couple of ships sank or a predator base was wiped out, there would be a major reaction to America’s role in the world domestically. It’s fine while we imagine the soldiers are invincible and are mindlessly applauded at football games, but if one of the symbols of our invincibility is hit we will cower.

      1. Carolinian

        Not an idle threat either. What’s the last war the US won? Our MIC is really just a big grift that allows some people to make a lot of money. Very dangerous for the MIC when people start talking about actually using it. Better to keep operations on the qt.

    6. John Wright

      I remember an unnamed reluctant Japanese official quoted about Saddam’s Kuwait invasion during Bush I’s assembling of the “Coalition of the Willing”.

      “We don’t care who owns the oil, just so long as they sell it to us.”

      It was also embarrassing for Bush II as his Iraq campaign was initially known as “Operation Iraqi Liberation” for a short time until they were made aware of the “OIL” abbreviation.

      Here is a link to the Ari Fleischer press briefing. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030324-4.html

      This begins with “MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President’s day. The President this morning has spoken with three foreign leaders. He began with Prime Minister Blair, where the two discussed the ongoing aspects of Operation Iraqi liberation. ”

      Then it became “Operation Iraqi Freedom”

  3. Roger Smith

    Ahhhh you smell that? That is a new era in government transparency brought to you by the Ivy League, constitutional law lawyer, whose skin in an darker tone–so you should be proud of the country!

  4. DJG

    I was just checking something, and I found one more reminder of why the U S of A has screwed up so badly: Madeleine Albright KoolAid:
    “It is the threat of the use of force [against Iraq] and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

    Stated on NBC’s Today Show (February 19, 1998)

    Wowsers. The profundity of her shallowness is bracing. These are the people who want boots on the ground (an expression as vulgar as “I don’t have a dog in that fight”) so long as it is someone else’s boots being blown to smithereens.

  5. Kokuanani

    Additional number(s) I’d like to see — beyond the “number of troops” — are those that tell us the COST of this aggression and misadventure.

    I was a Congressional staffer during Vietnam, and Andy Jacobs, a DEM Congressman from Indiana, used to harp incessantly on the cost — and particularly the cost overruns — of the C5-A, another boondoggle war plane. But what made his harping effective was that he’d focus on what the cost of one C5-A could buy domestically, in terms of health care, education, housing, etc.

    Particularly now, when the US is in such terrible shape and there are so many domestic needs that could be met by those military dollars, it’s easy to see why Obama et al. keep the numbers hidden. Denies effective argumentative material to the opposition.

    1. Carolinian

      Ah yes the era of Golden Fleece awards and outrage over high priced toilet seats. Such talk would have you labeled an agent of Putin these days. It turns out imaginary threats are far more useful for the MIC than real ones since they can never be defeated.

      But you make a good point. Given the elites’ other obsession–austerity–focus on the dollar cost of our wars could put them in a tricky position.

    1. LifelongLib

      I. F. Stone said something about how you could always find the truth in an American newspaper, but often it was buried in a paragraph on page 16.

      I suppose nowadays the truth is on page 537 of a government report nobody’s read, or in a hidden link on some dark website…

  6. VietnamVet

    The US Army is bitching that their Apache helicopter maintenance crews are being sidelined not learning skills they need since contractors were hired to do their jobs to lower the number of troops in Iraq. This tells what the true priorities are in the forever wars; 1) hiding it, 2) skimming money and 3) dumping shell shocked mercenaries back home without any support or government benefits. It sure is not winning the wars, securing the peace or returning the refugees home.

  7. Fiver

    How many different public and private armies do you suppose will be enough to ensure a catastrophic train wreck?

  8. Dave in Austin

    This “temporary duty” (TDY) thing has been going on for decades. A TDY is, I think, by law limited to 90 days (you’d better check me on that). Back in the 1990s young Army officers fresh out of college and intel school were being assigned inside the U.S. to what were called “fusion centers” where intel was passed back-and-forth between the military and Police- 89 days on duty, one day off. At the time I was running the Foreign Service Review and had students involved.

    The system is old; in the 1960s it was used to limit disclosure about Special Forces in Latin America and U.S. soldiers in the old Belgian Congo , In defense of the system, it is next-to-impossible to account for people temporarily coming-and-going. But it has become the black hole of force deployment.

    I’ve decided to begin posting here regularly under the name “Dave in Austin” because this is one of the few serious site about international affairs and economics

  9. washunate

    The headline strikes me as a little bit clickbait-ish. Not sure if that’s original or something picked here? The Pentagon per se isn’t hiding anything. They’re following orders from the White House.

    That a lot of leftist leaning people don’t want to come to grips with the uncomfortable reality that the bulk of national Democrats are warmongering authoritarians is certainly understandable, but that doesn’t make the subtle attempts to point blame elsewhere true. The problem isn’t the military (or the Republicans, or corporate America, or the Federal Reserve, or the Russians, or the Chinese…). Those all certainly have problems, but the proximate cause, the critical mass, to Pax Americana comes from Team Blue. Secrecy is simply a necessary byproduct of totalitarianism. Nothing new or uniquely American about that.

Comments are closed.