WASHINGTON — After years of tight White House management, the Pentagon will now have a freer hand in deciding how many of its troops are deployed in the war against ISIS and when they are sent there, BuzzFeed News has exclusively learned.
President Donald Trump has delegated new authorities to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to determine the maximum number of forces to be deployed to a conflict, known as the Force Management Level, or FML, in Iraq and Syria. That number is sent to Congress, which is updated anytime there are major force deployments.
Mattis, after receiving the delegation of authority from the White House on April 20, drafted a classified memo, dated April 26th, to the department ordering a review of FML. That review will include an audit of current force accounting to determine how the military will define force levels, what the department will release to the public, and how. The secretary requested the change, in part because he wants a more transparent process, defense officials said.
"The President has delegated authority to the secretary of defense to determine force management levels (FML) for Iraq and Syria. No change to current authorized force levels has been made. This does not represent a change in our mission in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. Our strategy remains to work by, with and through local forces. Restoring FML decisions to the Secretary of Defense enables military commanders to be more agile, adaptive and efficient in supporting our partners, and enables decisions that benefit unit readiness, cohesion and lethality,” Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
The criticism from military commanders under the Obama administration, where the White House determined the FML, was that the bureaucratic process slowed their ability to deploy troops in the midst of the wars in Iraq, and later, Syria. While the White House also set that number under the George W Bush administration, the Pentagon did not face as much resistance to its suggestions as it later would under Obama.
Allowing the Pentagon to determine the number of troops it needs to deploy appears to be the latest move by the Trump administration to move decision making about the intricacies of warfighting out of the White House. Since taking office, commanders have said they feel they have more autonomy to make key battlefield decisions. That was perhaps most evident when the US military decided earlier this month to drop what is known as the “mother of all bombs,” a 21,000-pound conventional bomb, in Afghanistan without consulting with the White House.
The Trump administration also has given more authorities to commanders, relaxing the rules to prevent civilian casualties during US airstrikes in Somalia, where they are battling the al-Qaeda linked group, al Shabab.
Allowing the Defense Department to set the FML figure “would give the commanders more agility to move troops where they need to be,” one defense official said, while giving the public a more honest statistic about the size of US forces in harm’s way. Critics fret it will also mean less oversight over how the administration determine how many troops are deployed in the war against ISIS.
The FML had been presented as a means to inform the public about troop deployments, but there are numerous exceptions that have allowed the military to not give an accurate figure. Troops listed as serving in a temporary assignment (under 180 days), certain Special Forces and troops assigned to other government agencies are departments are not currently counted in the FML. In Syria, for example, the maximum troop level is set to just over 503, but currently there are actually more than 1,000 troops deployed there.
The department review, as one US official jokingly explained, is the start of the plan to “repeal and replace ‘FML-care’.”
Among the options being considered is that the department will announce the type of expertise the troops going abroad would provide and rough size of a given unit at the time they leave. For example, the Pentagon could say a battalion of infantry troops from the 82nd Airborne Division deploying to Baghdad – which could be as many as 1,000 troops. Then, at some regular frequency – weekly, monthly or quarterly – the department will announce the total number of troops deployed, including most of those once exempted from the FML number. (The press and public would be left to figure out the totals themselves in this version.)
But it not clear yet whether the new process will be any more transparent than the previous system, particularly as President Trump has stressed the element of surprise in military operations. For one, DoD has yet to decide how to determine how it will release information about troop deployments.
Moreover, by delegating the designation of such an important number to the department, it could limit input from other parts of government about the secondary effects of troop deployments, beyond military operations. Troop deployments often affect the internal politics of Iraq, other allies in a region, or even ongoing US efforts in other parts of government.
The number of troops deployed can also shaped domestic politics, which is why so often the figure is as much a political one as a military one.
“When the White House has oversight, [the figure] has a political dimension, good or bad. Trump was elected so there is a degree in which he is abdicating. That’s pretty big decision to delegate to your Secretary of Defense,” Colin Kahl, national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, told BuzzFeed News. “This allows the Pentagon to race ahead of the interagency process, which is designed to produce holistic strategies to address our most pressing challenges.”
But defense officials insist that determining the number of troops will never entirely cut off civilians in the government, who would be informed of any decision about troop deployments. They also said that interagency discussions are ongoing, not just when it is time to discuss troop deployments. And, because of that, commanders would know the potential implications of their deployment of troops.
The US military has so far hinted that it would release fewer details about troop deployment in the run up to the FML change. Last month, the US military deployed roughly 400 Marines to northern Syria but did not announce it until after press reports emerged that they were being shipped out. In contrast, under the Obama administration, the US military announced nearly all deployments of conventional forces to battle zones. Pentagon officials defending not disclosing the deployment, saying to maintain “tactical surprise,” it would “not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria.”
A week after the Marines began moving into Syria, at a March 15 briefing, a spokesman for the US war effort in Iraq and Syria, said that while the military wants the public to know the objectives and “what's happening overall with the campaign,” that doesn’t include specific numbers.
“With regard to the number of forces that are going into Syria, and their exact locations, what they're doing, their comings and goings, the exact capabilities we're bringing in -- the coalition is really not going to get into the business of giving play-by-play updates on those -- on those capabilities,” Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for US forces for Iraq and Syria, told reporters at video briefing at the Pentagon.
But defense officials insist the end result will be a more realistic figure of who is in harm’s way.
“No one is looking to do things in the dark,” the defense official said.