The Pentagon on Wednesday released its newly scrubbed tally of how many troops it has serving in Iraq. It’s a number that took months to generate and a figure that the military said represents a downward trend: 5,200.
For comparison, the former official U.S. number — a figure that failed to include whole categories of troops like those on temporary duty status and special forces — was 5,262.
The Pentagon on Wednesday also released the current total number of troops in Syria: 2,000. That disclosure comes after months when military officials would only confirm that it had 503 troops there, the once-official force management level in Syria.
The numbers were provided as the Pentagon sought to downplay troop numbers for both countries that were disclosed by DoD’s Defense Manpower Data Center in its Sept. 30 quarterly report. That report found there were 1,720 active and reserve forces in Syria and 8,892 in Iraq.
Using that data set, Military Times reported that DoD had approximately 26,000 troops serving in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
“The defense manpower data center collates personnel, manpower, training, financial and other data for the Department of Defense,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning. “This data catalogs the history of personnel in the military and their family for purposes of health care retirement funding and other administrative needs and may not accurately reflect current force totals.”
But the new official Pentagon numbers are just approximates and still don’t account for all forces.
The new numbers for both Iraq and Syria still “excludes certain sensitive missions and certain types of personnel. It’s a general approximate number,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.
U.S. forces returned to Iraq in 2014 at the invitation of the Iraqi government to fight Islamic State militants. Official troop increases since then have been negotiated amid Iraqi sensitivities toward a return to a large U.S. presence there.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had pushed for a more accurate accounting of boots on the ground when he assumed office earlier this year. While the Syria number is up from the formerly recognized figure, “This is not an announcement of a troop increase,” Manning said.
Manning said the completion of most major combat operations in Iraq and Syria gave the department the opportunity to “optimize our force management practices.”
He said while the 2,000 figure for Syria is higher than the previous 503 force management level offered by the Pentagon, and the 5,200 force in Iraq is close to the original force management level, “These numbers are generally trending downward.”
Manning cited the recent departure of 400 Marines from Syria as evidence that the numbers are falling but would not say whether the new 2,000 figure reflected the number of troops on the ground prior to or after their departure.
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."