The United States’ military has been in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years. Yet details of the situation today in that country tend to remain unclear to many Americans, as the war has long faded into the background of the often asinine 24-hour news cycle.
While U.S. civilians should probably pay more attention to their country’s longest war, however, there are somewhat understandable explanations for their ignorance.
For starters, pledges such as the one from President Donald Trump in his vague speech on Afghanistan this week to “not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities” do not provide the kind of clarity the average citizen needs to understand and make educated decisions — simply in terms of voting for politicians based on foreign policy positions, if not getting involved in further activism — about their country’s involvement in a distant war.
Yet beyond the lack of detail in Trump’s speech, conflicting reports about basic facts regarding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan create a potentially even more bewildering media environment for, say, the typical U.S. television news viewer flipping channels.
Despite Trump’s seemingly deliberate vagueness, it was widely reported the day after his speech that his plan would involve sending nearly 4,000 (3,900 to be exact) more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, beyond the 8,400 or 8,500 reported to already be there. Yet the very same day, the Wall Street Journal published an article claiming that there are already upwards of 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Citing anonymous officials, NBC similarly reported the next day that the “number actually hovers between 11,000 and 12,000” soldiers, which means Trump’s plan will bring the total closer to 16,000.
And yet the adjusted figures for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan — coming as they do only in the wake of a major foreign policy speech from the U.S. president outlining how U.S. strategy will ostensibly “change dramatically” there — simply represent a microcosm of a broader problem. Americans are dangerously disconnected from the reality of their country’s military engagement around the world.
Following the conflicting reports on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, further revelations emerged yesterday that in the three Middle Eastern countries where American military intervention is presently heaviest and most widely known in the U.S. — Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — America actually maintains about 20,000 troops rather than the 14,000 it officially reports. Defense Secretary James Mattis has reportedly said his first priority now is to “level the bubble” and properly account for the existing troop presence as part of Trump’s newly announced surge.
Even this higher number, however, may not go far enough towards opening Americans’ eyes to what U.S. foreign policy truly entails. Since 2014, the number of U.S. special operations forces active in Africa has reportedly nearly doubled, to a present level of 1,700 operators involved in nearly 100 different missions in 20 different countries on the continent at any given time.
Whether these numbers, too, are just the tip of some unseen iceberg, the true immensity of which will only become comprehensible the next time the president announces a major policy shift, remains to be seen. Given this week’s revelations, for instance, one wonders what U.S. Africa Command’s definition of “a few” is, following their acknowledgement in April that “a few dozen” more U.S. troops had been deployed to Somalia.
Pinning down the exact figures behind America’s sprawling military presence throughout the world may be a murky business. But one thing that is perfectly clear is that the obfuscation by the U.S. government, and often the mass media, regarding the realities of U.S. military intervention worldwide provides an obstacle to citizens of the country that is the world’s preeminent military power from being part of an informed decision-making process when it comes to foreign policy. For obvious reasons, this should be cause for concern.
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