WASHINGTON – Hundreds more American troops are serving in Iraq than the Pentagon has previously stated, an official said Wednesday in an acknowledgment underscoring the sensitivity of U.S. deployments to the war-torn nation.
Officially, the Pentagon has long said about 3,500 American troops are stationed in Iraq to train and equip local security forces, primarily so they can fight back against Islamic State jihadis who control large parts of the country.
But the Pentagon on Wednesday quietly increased that official accounting to 3,850 troops. Then, Baghdad-based military spokesman Col. Steve Warren said it was “fair to say” there are hundreds more troops than even that number.
The troop presence is tiny compared to the height of the Iraq War, when the United States had nearly 160,000 in-country troops during the “surge.”
But the Iraq War officially ended at the end of 2011 and the United States pulled its combat troops from the country.
Additionally, when President Barack Obama in 2014 launched a U.S.-led coalition to bomb Islamic State jihadis in Iraq and Syria, he said there would be no American boots on the ground.
Military officials have gotten around this pledge by insisting the U.S. forces are not present in a combat role.
Warren said the additional forces were a normal consequence of troop rotations, where outgoing soldiers overlap with those coming in to relieve them.
“There’s that continuous churn of people coming in, checking on things and moving out,” Warren told Pentagon reporters in a video call.
“Additionally, there’s personnel here that are part of a turnover. So, there’s always going to be some overage there.”
Still, the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have for weeks telegraphed the need for extra coalition troops to fight the Islamic State group.
“Just to remind everybody, we have 3,700 boots on the ground in Iraq today, and we’re looking to do more. We’re looking for opportunities to do more,” Carter said Tuesday, though he added the focus remained on “enabling” local forces.
Additionally, the Pentagon has in recent months said it was sending about 50 special operations forces to work with anti-Islamic State fighters in Syria, and dozens more elite commandos from a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” are in Iraq to work alongside local Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces battling the IS group.
The U.S. military is facing similar challenges in Afghanistan. There, despite more than 14 years of U.S. involvement, the security situation remains fragile and Afghan forces are struggling to lead the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
President Obama in October announced that 9,800 U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan through most of 2016 — backtracking on an earlier pledge to pull all but 1,000 U.S. troops from the country.