WASHINGTON — The Pentagon knows precisely how many troops are deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria on a daily basis and could provide that information to the public if needed, U.S. and military officials told Military Times.
Yet for the last year, the Pentagon, under the Trump administration, has publicly reported only the “force management level” — the official cap for troops authorized for each country — even as the real numbers far exceeded those caps.
Recent reports suggest that the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan may be about 20,000, far more than the official tally of about 14,000.
For Iraq the official cap is 5,262; for Afghanistan it is 8,448 and for Syria 503, officials said.
But the actual numbers on the ground are often much higher than that because several categories of forces don’t count against the official cap, including units assigned for 120 days or less, some special forces troops and units that have rotated in to relieve other units.
Those more accurate numbers are recorded daily. Units are required update their personnel status report, or PERSTAT for short, officials told Military Times.
Each day, the internal PERSTAT reports track how many military personnel are assigned to a unit, how many are actually on the ground in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, and how many are on leave, wounded or otherwise not on active status. The reports also count the number of civilians and contractors each unit has.
“It’s a daily report exact down to the nose,” said a military official who recently served in Iraq. “You could go into the chiefs’ office and watch them have a fit over who was there or not.”
Those reports are not made available to the public due to the sensitivities or vulnerabilities they could possibly expose for a unit, particularly if there’s only a small number of forces at any given location.
In Iraq, the real number of boots on the ground is closer to 7,000 and in Syria, at least 900, according to some defense officials. On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal and NBC News reported there may be as many as 12,000 forces in Afghanistan instead of the approximately 8,400 the Pentagon officially reports.
The military could provide more clarity and should, the official said.
“Maybe not the exact number, but you could round,” the official said.
Two U.S. officials who are also familiar with the reports said the daily data is a “point in time so it can vary significantly from week to week depending on rotations of personnel.”
But the whole point of the reporting system is to provide “personnel accountability, so the command knows who is physically present in the [area of responsibility,]” the officials said.
But even the daily PERSTAT reports can miss some personnel if they are not assigned to any specific unit responsible for reporting them, the officials said.
Troop levels in Afghanistan are in the spotlight this week after President Trump on Monday announced a new strategy for Afghanistan but declined to say how many additional troops the military will send.
On Tuesday in Iraq Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was working on providing an accurate count of the number of forces in Afghanistan before he determines how many additional forces the Pentagon will deploy.
In June, the White House provided Mattis the authorization to set troop levels as he saw necessary, but it also capped the total additional number Mattis could send at 3,900.
Mattis said he would provide the total number of forces on the ground in Afghanistan once accounted for. However, that commitment to transparency may be at odds with the White House, which has said no troop numbers will be provided.
“The first thing I have to do is ‘level the bubble,’ and account for everybody that is on the ground there now, the idea being that we’re not going to have different pockets that we are accounting for,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. “I’ll tell you what the total number is, and there is a number that I am authorized to go up to,” Mattis said Tuesday.
But just the night before, President Donald Trump said the opposite.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said during his speech at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia Monday announcing the Afghanistan strategy.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."