These drawdowns are occurring right before the presidential election. And like Trump’s unrealistic vaccine promise and his missing health-care plan, it requires scrutiny from the news media and the American public to understand whether Trump is actually delivering, and whether these troop movements are responsive to what’s happening on the ground or are politically motivated to help Trump secure a second term.
But the Trump administration stopped releasing data on troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria starting in December 2017, which makes it extremely difficult to see whether they’re really withdrawing troops as the president said they would. Before then, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Defense Department made publicly available the number of U.S. civilian and military personnel serving in these countries in quarterly manpower reports.
To restart the release of this information, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in April, but the Pentagon failed to respond. So we sued the U.S. government Wednesday to release this data, as well as information that shows why these records were kept hidden from the American public. The Project on Government Oversight will be filing a complaint as well in the coming days.
As our lawsuit states, “This data served as a critical source of specific and consistent official information about the U.S. military presence in key combat zones. Transparency on troop levels has been essential for public oversight and accountability concerning the progress of military operations in the Middle East and South Asia.”
To understand what’s going on in these war zones, Americans need access to this vital information. Is Trump keeping his pledge? As U.S. military personnel are drawn down, are the number of U.S. contractors going up? What correlations exist between the number of U.S. troops and violence in these places? These are the types of questions that journalists and policy experts will be investigating, but to do that, they need access to basic data about how many U.S. troops have been deployed over the past few years and how many remain deployed today.
What’s more, the quarterly Defense Department reports provided predictability and reliability instead of allowing officials to choose whether, when and how to make the information available. The announcements for reduced U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan came with just eight weeks left until the election. Without the regular data to compare, these declarations simply can’t be trusted. In the meantime, U.S. forces in Syria appear to be zigzagging out and then back into the country. Who can tell what’s happening there? Americans deserve to know.
The Pentagon may argue that there is a usefulness to this secrecy, especially in places such as Afghanistan, where the United States was negotiating with the Taliban on a “peace deal.” But that deal was signed in February, initiating a countdown clock for a complete U.S. withdrawal from the country within 14 months. Diplomatic secrecy is no longer a plausible reason for failing to share this information with the public, if it ever was. The administration has not turned the information spigot off completely, either, but it’s recently turned instead to potentially highly misleading releases of information. The Pentagon now says it will sometimes tell the public only how many troops are “permanently assigned for duty at these locations” — a newfangled accounting practice that neither allows for true comparisons with past troop commitments nor insight into where American troops are being put in harm’s way. It also gives a false impression of a lower level of troop commitments, a political boon to Trump.
In a Fox News interview in August, Trump touted that he had accomplished a campaign promise by “bringing many of the troops home and most of the troops home.”
American voters don’t have the information required to evaluate Trump’s self-proclaimed record and the decisions he’s made over where and when to risk U.S. soldiers’ lives. The number of U.S. troops deployed over recent years and in today’s war zones is a key part of that assessment.
It shouldn’t require a lawsuit to have this kind of information given to the American public.