With everything happening, or not happening (in the case of the Republicans’ attempt to pass a new healthcare bill), in Washington, it is easy to miss things. Here’s one from earlier this week.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East, announced that the Pentagon would no longer be announcing exact numbers of troops being sent into combat in Iraq and Syria. Only general unit sizes would be provided.
The report didn’t give a reason for the change in policy. Nothing was said, or at least reported, claiming the change was necessary for military reasons. That can be true in some cases. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. military refused to give out information on the deployment of our troops, especially where they were located. The news media complained about it at the time, saying it was censorship. But it was important to keep this information secret back then. It is hard to believe today, but 26 years ago, Saddam Hussein really didn’t know where our troops were located. His air force had been destroyed, and he didn’t have satellites or other ways to find out where they were. (He also didn’t have anybody who would give him the information, but then George H.W. Bush knew how to organize a coalition.) When the land operations started, our troops were able to surprise Saddam’s forces by moving around their right flank, ending the fighting in 100 hours.
A couple of years ago, right after President Obama said, in December of 2014, that our combat mission in Afghanistan was over1, the Obama administration tried to classify information on U.S. efforts to build up the Afghan army and police forces. The Special Inspector General said at the time that “classification of this volume of data is unprecedented.” While the U.S. commander in Afghanistan claimed the purpose of classifying the information was to protect U.S. forces in Afghanistan, I commented:
“[W]hen it comes to the capabilities of the government forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban already knows. In fact, they probably know better than we do, whether through their efforts on the battlefield – or their spies in the Afghan government.
With this new policy, the only people who aren’t going to know how it’s going in Afghanistan is the American public.”
The same is true here. While the attempt by the Obama administration to keep the information secret in 2015 may have been slightly more egregious than what the Trump administration is doing now (especially since the Obama administration made its attempt right after President Obama claimed our combat mission in Afghanistan was over), the objection to what the Trump administration is doing is the same: Just about the only people who aren’t going to know how many U.S. troops are involved in combat in Iraq and Syria, are Americans.2
1 Do you remember President Obama claiming that? It was right up there with, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor (also here).
2 If the reason is that our “allies” don’t want their people to know how many American soldiers are fighting for them, maybe they need to figure out a better way to tell them.
UPDATE (4/2/17 3:25 pm): For some additional thoughts on this question, see this article in today’s Chicago Tribune (print edition; I am linking to the article on the Los Angeles Times website because it isn’t on the Tribune’s website). According to the Pentagon, the theory is:
“The coalition commander’s intent is that ISIS be first to know about any additional capabilities the coalition or our partner forces may present them on the battlefield.”
If this is really talking about U.S. forces, one wonders if we are going to be doing a lot more of the fighting in the future than we have in the recent past.
The comments by former Obama administration staffers in the article seemed a little overly self-righteous, especially given the Obama administration’s attempt, noted above, to classify information re Afghanistan.
Michael O’Hanlon may have gotten it best when he said:
“Broad contours of an operation should be debated openly, and publicly understood, but specific raids or other modest changes in capabilities and deployments should not be telegraphed in advance.”
I don’t think this is that far off from my thoughts.