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Stars and Stripes July 09, 2004

U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at 17,900, and expected to hold steady

By Lisa Burgess

ARLINGTON, Va. - U.S. military forces in Afghanistan now number 17,900 and are likely to remain at that level at least through the New Year, according to senior Pentagon leaders.

Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Joint Staff's Director of Operations, gave the size of the current U.S. presence in Afghanistan during testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee.

His revelation that there are close to 18,000 U.S. troops involved in Operation Enduring Freedom appeared to surprise some members of the committee - including Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat from South Carolina - who had presumed a considerably smaller presence.

"We have a huge ongoing mission" in Afghanistan, Spratt said. "Yet we've only got 12,000 troops there. . Are we slighting and undersizing, under-resourcing the mission in Afghanistan because of the demands on the mission in Iraq?"

"In point of fact, right at the moment we have about 17,900 U.S. troops in Afghanistan," Schwartz replied. "And that number is adequate for the mission."

Schwartz said the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan "has grown over the last few months for several reasons, including anticipation of [Afghan presidential] elections in the early fall."

Schwartz said that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would remain steady "for months to come."

"I believe that after the first of the year we'll begin to see some adjustments," Schwartz said.

Troops currently in Iraq represent the fifth major rotation since the United States became involved in that country in late 2001.

According to Schwartz, the bulk of the U.S. force is made up of soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii.

Those troops include the 25th ID Headquarters, Division Artillery Headquarters, its Aviation and Support Brigades, and the 2nd and 3rd Combat Brigade teams.

The training mission for the Afghan National Army, meanwhile, is now the responsibility of the Oklahoma National Guard, Schwartz said.

Augmenting the 25th ID are Marine aviation and ground forces, many of whom are from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp LeJeune, N.C., Lt. Gen. Jan C. Huly, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for Plan, Policies and Operations, said during the hearing.

The 22nd MEU "has been on the ground for three or four months," Huly said.

The Marines are at Forward Operating Base Ripley in south-central Afghanistan, according to the official 22nd MEU Website (www.usmc.mil/22ndmeu).

The amphibious ships assigned to the MEU, meanwhile, have remained in waters "near Afghanistan" and "these ships will bring them out and home," Huly said.

Various news reports have also indicated that other U.S. elements now in Afghanistan include the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Special Forces Group, the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment (the unit Arizona Cardials safety Pat Tillman was assigned to when he was killed in Afghanistan in April), and about 250 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.

The sixth rotation for Operation Enduring Freedom, which will begin later this year, will include a division headquarters element from U.S. Army Europe's Southern European Task Force and the 173rd Infantry Brigade from Vicenza, Italy.

Training of the Afghan National Army will be taken over by the 76th Infantry Brigade of the Indiana National Guard, Schwartz said.

Neither Huly nor Schwartz said which Marine units would be tapped for the coming rotation. However, the 11th MEU, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 24th MEU, from Camp LeJeune, are presently deployed to Iraq, which leaves only the U.S.-based 13th, 15th, 26th MEUs as candidates.

The Corps' remaining MEU, the 31st MEU, is based in Okinawa, Japan.

Keeping tabs on the number of U.S. forces deployed overseas -- information that military analysts and commanders call the "order of battle" -- is challenging.

Top-level military leaders will almost always respond in public hearings to direct questions about such levels when posed by lawmakers. But the Pentagon does not routinely disclose orders of battle, citing "operational security issues."

Meanwhile, some think-tanks and military watchdog organizations use press reports and other sources to attempt to reconstruct U.S. orders of battle, including the website Global Security, (globalsecurity.org).

According to Global Security, as of May 19, the most recent date available, the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan totaled "nearly 10,000 soldiers" and "roughly 4,200 Marines --" considerably fewer than the 17,900 cited by Schwartz.


Copyright 2004, Stars and Stripes