“The first thing I have to do is level the bubble and account for everybody who’s on the ground there now,” Mr. Mattis told reporters last week. “The idea being that we’re not going to have different buckets that we’re accounting for them in, to tell you what the total number is.”
In announcing the new numbers, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the staff of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the move “not an attempt to bring more forces in.” Rather, he said, “it is an attempt to actually clarify a very confusing set of reporting rules that has the unintended consequence of forcing commanders to make readiness trade-offs.”
In one example, helicopters and pilots from an aviation brigade deployed to Afghanistan while its mechanics stayed behind, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top American commander in Afghanistan, told lawmakers this year.
To keep the helicopters flying, the military spent tens of millions of dollars to hire civilians contractors who were exempt from the troop cap. The result was increased cost and fewer opportunities for the unit’s mechanics to maintain their proficiency.
General McKenzie said the Pentagon’s new transparency “actually lets the American people know what their sons and daughters are doing in Afghanistan.”
But many special operations missions in Afghanistan — and Iraq and Syria — are closely held or classified.
Assuming Mr. Mattis sends all the additional troops, as expected, the American military will be able to advise select Afghan brigades in the field instead of trying to mentor them from more distant headquarters. They can step up the effort to train special operations forces and, thus, substantially increase the number of Afghan commandos.
This will allow American war commanders and service members to call in air and artillery strikes on behalf of more Afghan units.
“I am pleased to see that as we prepare to execute a new strategy in Afghanistan, President Trump and Secretary Mattis have chosen to put the facts on the table,” Representative Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It is important to be up front about the importance of the mission and what it takes to succeed.”
Defense Department officials would not disclose the numbers of American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria but said they planned to soon.
“We owe the American people as much transparency as possible while still protecting sensitive information,” Ms. White said.
The official acknowledged number for American troops in Iraq is 5,200, and 500 in Syria. But those numbers are probably an undercount as well, defense officials said.
Ms. White said the Pentagon was “reviewing Iraq and Syria, and the same guiding principles will govern how we roll out those numbers as well.”