WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee this week, admitted that the number of American boots on the ground in Iraq is higher than the Obama administration’s authorized cap of 3,870.
“People who are temporarily assigned — and this has been true for here and in Afghanistan for some time — they, under the caps, are counted differently, as you well know,” Carter told the lawmakers on Tuesday.
“There are some people who are subject to the troop caps, and there are some people who rotate in for a short amount of time, that are not subject to the troop caps,” he added.
Obama administration officials often cite 3,650 or 3,700 as the figure for U.S. troops serving on the ground in Iraq.
However, U.S. Col. Steve Warren, a top spokesman for the anti-Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) coalition in Iraq, told reporters in February that it is “fair to say” that there are several hundred more U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq on a day-to-day basis than the 3,870 cap allows for.
The colonel said he did not dispute a report by The Daily Beast saying that the real number of U.S. troops on the ground is about 800 over the figure often cited by the Obama administration.
“Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army,” The Daily Beast reports. “But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq… In other words, the total number of forces that Pentagon and Obama administration officials frequently cite in public are wrong.”
U.S. officials recently told The Washington Post on condition of anonymity “that the total troop number, while it varies from day to day, now stands around 5,000.”
“The more than 1,000 personnel above the official cap include the Marines in northern Iraq along with military officials handling foreign military sales and other defense cooperation matters,” notes the Post.
The death of Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, a Marine who became the second combat fatality in renewed U.S. operations in Iraq when he was killed on Saturday, has sparked a renewed focus on the troop levels in the Middle Eastern nation.
His death highlighted the quiet deployment of Marines to Iraq.
Citing defense officials, The Hill reports: “The Marines had deployed from an expeditionary unit that was already serving in the region, and they were not considered an additional deployment of troops because they were there on a temporary basis.”
“Troops who are serving in Iraq on a temporary basis, which includes many special operations forces, are not counted as part of the authorized troop level,” notes The Hill.
Echoing the Post and The Daily Beast, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told attendees at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in December that the real number was closer to 5,000.
“Defense officials have refused to give the complete number of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq,” declares The Hill.
The Pentagon has “reversed an earlier position and are now declining to confirm how many forces are presently in Iraq, saying only that the number of officially assigned forces is below the current cap of 3,870,” adds the Post.
During the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concern over the Obama administration’s “artificial troop cap,” saying it was putting the lives of U.S. troops at risk.
“The argument is, if you’re rotating people in every 30 days or whatever it is to keep below the troop caps, then the people rotating in are not going to have time to get acclimated to the environment and may be at increased risk,” said the chairman.
“The other argument I’ve heard is when you have these artificial troop caps, you don’t bring in the force protection that you would in other situations where you’re not subject to those troop caps,” he added.