President Trump is poised to send about 4,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan — though it is unclear if this number will be publicly announced.
In a speech announcing that he was going ahead with the Pentagon’s preferred plan forward on the 16-year-old war, Trump declined to discuss troop numbers, arguing he didn’t want to telegraph his plans to the enemy.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Pence on Tuesday likewise declined to discuss specific numbers, saying there’s still work to be done before an exact figure is set.
But later on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he thinks an announcement is forthcoming.
“I think the intent is there will be visibility to troop levels once the decision has been made,” Tillerson said at a briefing.
Mattis declined to say Tuesday how many troops will be sent to Afghanistan, stating that he was awaiting a plan from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I’d prefer not to go into those numbers right now,” Mattis said while traveling in Iraq. “There is a number I am authorized to go up to. I have to look — I have directed the chairman to put the plan together now. We’ve obviously been discussing this option for some time. When he brings that to me, I’ll determine how many we need to send in.
“It may or may not be the number that’s bandied up until now,” Mattis added, appearing to refer to the 3,900 he’s been authorized to send.
Pence likewise did not discuss specific plans, though he did explicitly reference the Pentagon’s recommendation for 3,900.
“The Pentagon in June made a recommendation for an additional 3,900 troops to support exactly the kind of tactical deployment that I just described, deploying personnel at the brigade level to be able to coordinate Afghan National Army efforts and to be able to effectively deploy American assets,” he said on “Fox and Friends.” “The troop levels are significant, and we’ll listen to our military commanders about that. And the president will make that decision in the days ahead.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said later Tuesday that the first batch of new troops could arrive in Afghanistan “pretty quickly.”
“What’s most important for us now is to get some capabilities in to have an impact on the current fighting season,” Votel told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia.
If the Trump administration deploys the additional troops to Afghanistan without an announcement, it will follow a pattern.
Shortly after Trump took office, the administration quietly sent about 400 troops to Syria and about 300 to Iraq. Neither deployment was officially announced, a stark contrast with the Obama administration.
James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and member of the Trump transition team, dismissed concerns about Trump not talking about troop numbers in the speech, saying the only reason people care about the number is because they were “conditioned” to it by former President Obama.
“We got so conditioned under Obama that this is all about numbers and a deadline,” he said. “Those things don’t tell you anything.”
Based on his conversations with officials, he said he expects the numbers to fluctuate frequently based on conditions on the ground, making it hard to track and unhelpful information.
“Honestly this notion about this level of specificity and command and control from the White House is not historically how we fight wars,” he said. “It’s the exception than the rule. This notion that we’re sacrificing transparency here? Nah, not really, we’re just going back to the normal way of doing business.”
But Trump’s critics hammered his speech for failing to delve into specifics such as troops numbers. The administration, they say, needs to better explain how a few thousand troops can achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan when 100,000 in 2011 could not.
“The president needs to outline specific strategies for attaining the highly elusive goal of eliminating the threats from the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist organizations,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement. “This should include the number of troops he plans to deploy and why they will be sufficient to achieve the objectives and missions they are assigned.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he was fine with Trump not announcing a troop number since both the number and the new Afghanistan strategy have already been reported.
He interpreted Trump’s speech as saying he won’t micromanage the Pentagon’s handling of troop levels, which he said is potentially a good thing “provided that he will engage when needed” and that 10,000-plus troops aren’t deployed without discussion.
Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who said Trump’s overarching strategy is “déjà vu,” likewise said he’d expect a public announcement of troop numbers if the Trump administration planned to do a surge on the scale of 2011.
Not doing so would be “obfuscating what really you want to do under the guise of not telegraphing to the enemy.”
“I think if we’re going to have a surge, they need to announce it,” he said. “Having democratic control of the military, it’s one thing to maintain tactical secrecy, but a surge requires legislative consent. Right now, though, it’s of the same. A trickle here and a trickle there.”