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The Syria withdrawal and Pentagon spin: When 'plan' and 'decisions' don't mean anything
Should your friend and humble Pentagon correspondent live for another 50 years, you can expect to read a Pentagon Run-Down in 2069 about how many U.S. troops President George P. Bush III plans to leave in Syria. (Assuming, of course, that Joe Biden doesn't run in 2068.)
That's because current President Donald Trump had vowed to pull all U.S. troops from Syria back in December, but since then has agreed to leave some U.S. service members there. The White House initially said about 200 U.S. troops would remain in Syria, but government officials have since pegged the number at several hundred.
Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that up to 1,000 U.S. troops could make up the residual force in Syria. The Pentagon pushed back on that story unusually hard, presumably because defense officials are terrified that Trump will think the military is trying to force him to commit more troops to Syria.
Well, your friend and humble narrator is not in the business of protecting the president from news that might upset him, so let's take a look at how DoD can parse words.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Wall Street Journal story "factually inaccurate."
That sounds pretty definitive, but keep in mind that Dunford recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that in general, the strategic situation in Afghanistan has not changed since last year and he is "cautiously optimistic" about U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. (Afghanistan's national security advisor is somewhat less optimistic.)
Regarding the figure of 1,000 troops cited by the Wall Street Journal, Dunford said, "There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the president's direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence."
The key word here is "plan." If the plan has not yet been finalized, it is factually accurate to say that it has not been changed. In other words, nothing is official until everything has been finalized; and a U.S. official confirmed to Task & Purpose that the military has not made any concrete decisions about how many troops will remain in Syria.
To your aged Pentagon reporter, Dunford's choice of words sounds a lot like the how the Obama administration's responded when the Associated Press first reported in October 2011 that the White House had abandoned efforts to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep U.S. troops there.
Both the White House and Pentagon denied the AP story, claiming that negotiations with the Iraqis were ongoing and no final decision on the U.S. troop presence had been reached. While technically correct, the Obama administration's responses hid the fact that the AP story was accurate. Less than a week later, Obama announced that all U.S. troops in Iraq would be home before the end of 2011. (Most transparent administration ever.)
The words "plan" and "planning" also allow government officials to play all sorts of rhetorical games. When President George W. Bush told a reporter in April 2002 that there were no plans to attack Iraq on his desk, he meant that the war plans being developed were literally not sitting on his desk at that particular moment, as author Bob Woodward noted in his 2004 book "Plan of Attack."
Another word that gives the Pentagon and White House a lot of wiggle room is "decision." Officials will often bat away questions by saying something to the effect of, "no decisions have been made." What that really means is, "no announcements have been made."
Two weeks before the Iraq war began, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that Bush had not yet decided whether to use force against Saddam Hussein.
"The president of the United States has not made a decision to do this," Rumsfeld said at a March 5, 2003 Pentagon news briefing. "But I think it's fair to say that one would expect a great deal of planning and thought to be going into that."
That same day, the Pentagon held a background briefing for reporters about how the military takes collateral damage when it selects which targets to strike – undercutting the argument that war was not a foregone conclusion at that point.
As your friend and humble narrator reads the Pentagon tea leaves, the size of the U.S. residual force in Syria could very well be bigger than what defense officials have said so far. The reason we don't know yet is the White House and Pentagon are very good at waging war on the English language. Officials use words that no longer have meaning.
Ultimately, the DoD's goal seems to be trying to avoid angering President Trump — since the U.S. military is one tweet away from a total withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 13 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.
'It just happened' — the Iraq War’s first living Medal of Honor recipient recalls his harrowing fight against 5 insurgents
On Nov, 10, 2004, Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia knew that he stood a good chance of dying as he tried to save his squad.
Bellavia survived the intense enemy fire and went on to single-handedly kill five insurgents as he cleared a three-story house in Fallujah during the iconic battle for the city. For his bravery that day, President Trump will present Bellavia with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, making him the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the award.
In an interview with Task & Purpose, Bellavia recalled that the house where he fought insurgents was dark and filled with putrid water that flowed from broken pipes. The battle itself was an assault on his senses: The stench from the water, the darkness inside the home, and the sounds of footsteps that seemed to envelope him.
With the Imperial Japanese Army hot on his heels, Oscar Leonard says he barely slipped away from getting caught in the grueling Bataan Death March in 1942 by jumping into a choppy bay in the dark of the night, clinging to a log and paddling to the Allied-fortified island of Corregidor.
After many weeks of fighting there and at Mindanao, he was finally captured by the Japanese and spent the next several years languishing under brutal conditions in Filipino and Japanese World War II POW camps.
Now, having just turned 100 years old, the Antioch resident has been recognized for his 42-month ordeal as a prisoner of war, thanks to the efforts of his friends at the Brentwood VFW Post #10789 and Congressman Jerry McNerney.
McNerney, Brentwood VFW Commander Steve Todd and Junior Vice Commander John Bradley helped obtain a POW award after doing research and requesting records to surprise Leonard during a birthday party last month.
Hundreds of Marines will join their British counterparts at a massive urban training center this summer that will test the leathernecks' ability to fight a tech-savvy enemy in a crowded city filled with innocent civilians.
The North Carolina-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will test drones, robots and other high-tech equipment at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville, Indiana, in August.
They'll spend weeks weaving through underground tunnels and simulating fires in a mock packed downtown city center. They'll also face off against their peers, who will be equipped with off-the-shelf drones and other gadgets the enemy is now easily able to bring to the fight.
It's the start of a four-year effort, known as Project Metropolis, that leaders say will transform the way Marines train for urban battles. The effort is being led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Virginia. It comes after service leaders identified a troubling problem following nearly two decades of war in the Middle East: adversaries have been studying their tactics and weaknesses, and now they know how to exploit them.
WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) - President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions onIran on Monday following Tehran's downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.
Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called "the hostile conduct of the regime."
"Sanctions imposed through the executive order ... will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader's office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support," Trump said.
While it can be difficult to peg down just how star-spangled a state is, one indicator is the rate at which citizens enlist in the military, especially during the United States' longest period of sustained conflict. At least, that's the thinking behind WalletHub's new study, 2019's Most Patriotic States in America.