Sound off! The Quest to Find G.I. Joe

The following is a guest blog post from Nico Zavaleta, a summer intern here at  Nico will be a junior at Penn State University this fall, majoring in Economics.

Nico_ZLike a kid in grade school skipping class, American troops have been marked as being present in multiple locations and nonexistent in places where they actually are stationed.

My assignment when I began this internship was to update a data set with the whereabouts of American troops since 1950. Specifically, my task was to try to find a straightforward answer as to how many troops were physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, not the aggregate estimate that the Pentagon publishes about the levels of troops involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Finding the actual historic levels of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and the neighboring countries surrounding them proves very difficult and while it may not require congressional clearance or a nondisclosure agreement, it leads to many empty paths and misdirection from different agencies within and outside of the Pentagon. Long story made short, the quest ended with several pending Freedom of Information Act requests and knocking on a few doors.

I have learned that it is  impossible to make a perfect accounting of the U.S. global troop presence, even though the Pentagon’s in-house statisticians, the Defense Manpower Data Center, have been keeping records since 1950. DMDC reports are published quarterly and are very helpful in finding out how many troops are deployed to countries in most of the world, but they are not collected in one spreadsheet. Rather, each new quarter’s data is published as a PDF or Excel sheet (depending on the year or probably someone’s mood). The problem is that the numbers that are published are misleading, with under-counting, double-counting, and different measures of counting troops varying from one year to the next.

Above is a chart that shows deployment levels drastically changed only at the end of 2010, despite the “surge” in troops in the years before. We are now on track to have less than 100,000 troops in the Middle East soon … give or take tens of thousands of troops that aren’t “officially” deployed to a country.

The Chaos of War

During times of war or even times of increased global tensions, the U.S. has shifted its troop presence, or posture, to adjust for the change in risk throughout the world.  As some people know, the U.S. military has bases in Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. Less well known is that during the past ten years the U.S. stationed thousands of troops in Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, Turkey, the Philippines, and Kyrgyzstan as well as over 100,000 troops elsewhere in the world that are “Undistributed.”  This notion of “Undistributed” caught my attention, and I noticed that its numbers grew even during recent drawdowns.

So as we move a little further towards trying to count for troops ashore, afloat, in the air, and the “Shh, we’re not there!”, leaving the unallocated mess of troops in the Middle East aside, we find that thousands of troops deployed to European and East Asian bases were sent to fight in OIF and OEF, but were still considered deployed to their original countries. That means the DMDC data double-counts those troops as being in two places at once. The other interesting component of the data is that during war, there are always troops moving to and from theater, but those are accounted for in the categories of “Transients.” Those troops are also included in the “miscellaneous” category as well and so are other troops that have not been deployed to a specific country.

“Undistributed” Troops: It’s all in the wording

Nico_Z 2

From what I have gathered, this category has always existed but had never reached the levels of 160,000 troops since DMDC began keeping records. As stated in the (newly formatted with less information than ever before) 2012 report by DMDC, “undistributed” includes troops in “Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Republic of Korea, and any unknown/classified locations.”  Which to many people would be the precise locations that people would want to know about if they were researching where American troops have been. Here are a few potential theories:

  • Theory 1. OIF and OEF involved immense amounts of soldiers and as such, the shifts in troops rose at a high rate. But why then the unprecedented proportion of troops being relegated to being “undistributed”?
  • Theory 2. The accounting measures for troops have changed since the data began to be collected in the 1950s or we now have better ways to keep track of troops.  It seems to be consistent in the past though…
  • Theory 3. Some of the “Undistributed” troops were involved in OIF and OEF or even in South Korea, but not deployed to a certain country. If troops were in a country, why do we not have that recorded and easily available to the public?
  • Theory 4. Political negotiations may not necessarily be private, but some countries may stipulate that American troops can be in their country provided the information is not specifically announced.
  • Theory 5. Classified missions and not “deploying” troops has risen in order to lower the total number of reported troops deployed to a country, instead of how many boots on the ground there were. It’s a simple nuance in changing “deployed” to “undistributed” or something similar in order to make the reports of changes in troops being different than they are. Think Real vs. Nominal GDP/Interest Rates.

My conclusion is that while all five theories, not to mention “intern fatigue/error” may have some part to play in this rise in troop levels, the confusion that arises from the oddly disproportionate “Undistributed” category needs to be investigated further, at the very least to understand why nearly 160,000 troops in 2010 are labeled as “Undistributed ashore” when that was over a third of all U.S. troops outside the U.S. as reported by the Pentagon.  It seems that I’ve been playing some weird combination of “Where’s Waldo?” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” with the Pentagon for the past two months.  Too bad the Pentagon has to play by bureaucratic and diplomatic rules that didn’t come in my box.

Or maybe it was “Go Fish”?

3 responses to “Sound off! The Quest to Find G.I. Joe

  1. Michael Beckley

    Thanks for sharing this. Will the updated data be made public?

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