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The Department of Defense (DOD) is gearing up to send an additional 1,000 American military personnel to Afghanistan ahead of the spring fighting season, the Washington Post reported on Sunday, a deployment that would mark a significant uptick in the number of troops deployed there since President Donald Trump announced a renewed push to fully defeat the Taliban insurgency. Since taking office one year ago, Trump has nearly doubled the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. So what, then, is the total number of United States military personnel fighting the war in Afghanistan?

The complicated answer to that question is: Well, that depends. The simple answer is a bit more straightforward: You'll never really know. Both answers underscore a fundamental problem regarding the nature of America's Forever Wars: How can anyone hope to stop its military presence when there's little understanding of how large it actually is?

To be clear, the DOD does regularly disclose troop levels to the public in a systematic manner through the Defense Manpower Data Center. Established in 1974 toward the close of the Vietnam War, the DMDC is designed to provide an authoritative account of the U.S. military's 1.3 million active-duty personnel. DMDC data suggests that overseas troop levels fell below 200,000 for the first time since since 1957 back in August of 2017, despite the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. (And don't look to the White House for any help on the matter: The Trump administration declared last year that it would no longer disclose troop deployments, citing operations security concerns.)

But the DMDC doesn't provide a complete snapshot of U.S. military operations abroad. A DMDC quarterly update for September of 2017 revealed an apparent three-fold increase in U.S. military personnel deployed to fight ISIS in Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (or OIR, the DOD's name for the military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria). Following that update, a Pentagon spokesman explained that the DMDC doesn't always reflect the DOD's Force Management Levels—that is, the number of troops deployed as part of an "enduring mission" subject to congressional oversight (think: OIR and Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan).

Indeed, as a spokesman told me at Task & Purpose, U.S. military personnel excluded from Force Management Level reports include:

  • Civilian or contract personnel.
  • Military personnel on short-duration temporary duty.
  • Military personnel assigned to units while they conduct overlapping turnover with other units ("RIP/TOA"—Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority).
  • Military personnel assigned to DOD combat support agencies.
  • Military personnel supporting other U.S. agencies, or in certain sensitive missions.
  • Military personnel assigned to embassies.

But the DMDC's report of a decline in active-duty troop levels overseas, which comes in the time of one of the most bellicose administrations in recent memory, points to another absent component from the DOD's troop level accounting: U.S. special operations forces.

While these elite commandos are increasingly on the front line of the Global War on Terror, their deployments are rarely, if ever, disclosed in the interest of operational security. Although an estimated 8,600 of the nearly 200,000 troops stationed abroad are special operations forces, their deployments are inherently the riskiest: Special Operations Command (SOCOM) personnel made up a significant portion of the U.S. forces killed abroad in places like Niger, the site of the deadly ambush in October of 2017, and Afghanistan, where they accounted for more than half of the 15 service members who died there in 2017.

A U.S. Army helicopter flies outside of Camp Shorab on September 11th, 2017, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

A U.S. Army helicopter flies outside of Camp Shorab on September 11th, 2017, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

As the DOD leans on SOCOM, special operations forces are increasingly fighting the major battles of the Global War on Terror, from Niger to Yemen to Afghanistan to the Philippines. That means the longer these wars continue, the less transparent and accountable the government will be, opting instead to conduct its business primarily in the shadows of operational security.

The lack of SOCOM disclosure doesn't reflect the real sacrifices of special operations forces. The increasing reliance on SOCOM personnel as the DOD's best fighting force, deployed to 70 percent of the countries on the planet, has translated to an unsustainable operational tempo in recent years. Consider that the 1,700 SOCOM personnel deployed to just 20 countries in Africa (the most anywhere else by the Middle East) conduct hundreds of missions a day between them, according to documents obtained by Vice; as Theresa Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told the House Armed Services Committee in May: "We've been operating at such a high [operational] tempo for the last decade plus, and with budgets going down, what we've had to do is essentially ... eat our young, so to speak.

U.S. troop levels are an easy statistical sparring point for lawmakers, but they reflect neither the scope of America's military footprint nor its increasingly commando-centered nature.