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Analysis: Why Won’t Trump Discuss Troop Numbers?

President Donald Trump has delegated much of the troop deployment details on Afghanistan to Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Pentagon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump has delegated much of the troop deployment details on Afghanistan to Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Pentagon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a speech to the nation on Aug. 21, President Donald Trump issued a clarion call on Afghanistan, effectively asking Americans to indefinitely extend their longest war at untold additional cost in lives and money. But he declined to say how many of America’s sons and daughters he plans to deploy there.

Trump did not quantify the military deployment even though it has been widely reported that he has already authorized the Pentagon to augment its nearly 8,500 strong force in Afghanistan with almost 4,000 additional service members. The first of the extra troops could arrive within days or weeks, and those numbers could grow depending on conditions in Afghanistan, officials have said.

The practically hallucinogenic effect of the speech was of a president not wanting to talk about a central element of his case for war: how many people will fight it. If the lack of transparency becomes mirrored at lower levels, it would become a problem for the country’s ability to have an honest debate about the war.

“Such a policy of secrecy with regard to timelines and troop levels also deprives the American people of the information they need to determine whether another escalation is taking place and the ability to hold their elected officials accountable for the results,” said Adam B. Schiff of California, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement Tuesday.

Numbers As Shackles

Most observers think the country will still get access to troop figures, even if the president’s lips are sealed on the subject, because Cabinet officials, generals and lawmakers will still talk about them.

And there may even be a benefit to the president not talking about troop numbers, some say. When the commander in chief sets a number, it takes on a fixed quality that can limit commanders’ flexibility to wage war effectively.

Make no mistake: Trump’s silence on this crucial question is unusual. But he may have good reason to break with recent precedent.

That’s because declining troop levels have been seen, correctly or not, as a “metric for whether we’re winning or not,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor of political science and public policy.

As such, the figures have become “politically fraught,” he said, and that in turn has led to White House micromanagement of decisions in the field, particularly under President Barack Obama.

An example from the administration of George W. Bush also illustrates the point, said Feaver.

When Bush announced a surge of troops in Iraq in 2007, he omitted supporting forces from the total. A bruising internal battle in his administration ensued over getting those additional troops, and when the upward revision became public, it proved embarrassing for Bush, according to Feaver, who served on Bush’s National Security Council.

Trump has forsworn any caps on troop levels in the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Even so, some say, if he were to utter a troop number for Afghanistan, it would be perceived as an effective ceiling. At a minimum, it might be viewed as a constraint that could require White House involvement in even small adjustments in troop levels, a pattern in Obama’s White House that drew blistering GOP criticism in recent years.

The military contorted itself under Obama to avoid deploying more troops than the president wanted by various means — by finagling the numbers, using contractors, breaking up units that should have remained whole and more — even though the generals in Afghanistan thought more troops were needed.

“It’s sensible to try to break that pattern,” Feaver said.

Another plausible explanation is that, since Trump has delegated decisions on relatively minor adjustments in troop levels to Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump may simply also want to delegate the job of talking about those numbers, some experts say.

“What they are trying to do is get that level of detail out of the president’s orbit,” said Andrew Hunter, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who used to oversee troop levels as a House Armed Services aide.

To some in Congress, Trump is ceding to the Pentagon too much control over deciding force levels and over how to talk about them.

Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations, said in a statement Tuesday that he is “very concerned that President Trump has devolved significant authority in Afghanistan to the Secretary of Defense. The leadership of the Department of Defense should certainly inform the process, but the president is the commander in chief and should take full responsibility for any decision to deploy our brave service members.”

Secrecy Argument

Trump has another explanation for avoiding talk of troop numbers. He seemed to suggest in his speech that disclosing the troop numbers would put the military’s operational security at risk in Afghanistan. That is not correct, according to numerous experts.

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said. “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

In framing the issue this way, Trump conflated three things that are distinctly different: disclosing military plans; announcing deadlines for withdrawal, and informing Americans how many of their family members will be sent into harm’s way.

If disclosing the overall number of American service personnel who are sent to a war jeopardizes operational security, then that would be news to previous presidents who disclosed at the public podium how many Americans were fighting the country’s wars.

To be sure, certain details about troop movements and tactics are justifiably classified or otherwise restricted from public view.

But the overall number of U.S. troops deployed in a foreign war zone has, at least since Vietnam, not been withheld from citizens, according to Andrew Bacevich, a military historian at Boston University.

Trump is unlikely to actually classify the troop numbers. And perhaps he will allow his underlings to cite them, maybe only “on background” — i.e., without attribution to them by name. That has been the mode in the first eight months of Trump’s presidency.

Then again, maybe Trump will allow officials in his administration to say the numbers on the record, despite saying in his speech, “we” won’t talk about it.

Vice President Mike Pence and Mattis both declined to use a figure for troop levels in Afghanistan in conversations with reporters Tuesday. Mattis said he needs to get an execution plan from the Joint Chiefs of Staff before quantifying troop levels, though he did not promise to ever give those numbers.

“I’d rather not say a number and then have to change it later on,” Mattis said.

Asked a series of questions Tuesday about the Pentagon’s public affairs policy on disclosing troop numbers, a Defense Department spokesman merely said he had nothing to add to Mattis’s statements.

Uncommitted, Uncertain President

There may be other reasons why Trump declines to talk troop numbers.

He may want to avoid the sound bite of him pushing for more troops, given that only 20 percent of Americans support it, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this month.

Another possible explanation is that Trump does not want to be associated with a troop deployment that he does not really back.

Bacevich believes Trump may not be sure that 4,000 is the correct number and does not want to be locked in to it. Bacevich suggested that Trump probably does not know if the number is too low or too high.

“The administration doesn’t know where this war is headed and the president himself is manifestly uncomfortable with the decision he has made,” Bacevich said. “Hence a strategy that is long on rhetorical exhortation and short on specifics.”

Besides leaving out the troop numbers, Trump’s speech omitted other details that will prove critical in the years ahead. These include: how he would ensure that the U.S. war is not “endless,” as he put it; how he would implement a successful counterinsurgency without the “nation-building” that military experts say is key to any hope of succeeding at that; how he would make Pakistan stop harboring insurgents and precisely how he would “immediately” stop paying Pakistan billions of dollars in aid; and, indeed, what “victory” in Afghanistan would look like.

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