Pentagon Granted Authority to Determine Troop Levels in ISIS Fight

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Gen. Joseph Votel / AP
April 28, 2017

Defense Secretary James Mattis now has more flexibility in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State after the White House granted the Pentagon new authorities to determine the number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Syria.

President Donald Trump on April 20 gave Mattis the authority to set the Force Management Level, or FML, the maximum number of forces deployed to a conflict, in both Middle Eastern countries, BuzzFeed News reported Wednesday.

Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White confirmed the move to BuzzFeed but said no changes to troop levels or strategy have been made in the fight against ISIS.

"This does not represent a change in our mission in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS," White said in a statement. "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."

The FML number is sent to Congress, which is updated in the event of a major force deployment.

Mattis, who defense officials said requested the change, ordered the Department of Defense to review FML after receiving the new authority from Trump. The 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," according to BuzzFeed.

Critics worry the changes will mean less oversight over how the Trump administration decides how many troops to deploy to Iraq and Syria.

The White House set the FLM under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, but after senior military officials complained about bureaucratic delays in deploying troops under the Obama administration, the Trump White House changed the rule.

The Obama administration reportedly resisted Pentagon suggestions for troop level increases.

Commanders have felt more "autonomy to make key battlefield decisions," since Trump took office, BuzzFeed noted. News of the Pentagon's new authority followed a pattern of Trump gradually shifting warfighting decisions to the Department of Defense.

The military recently decided, for example, to drop the so-called "mother of all bombs," America's largest non-nuclear bomb used in battle, on an ISIS tunnel network earlier this month without consulting the White House.

Mattis' responsibilities could expand further after he ordered the review of FML on Wednesday. One U.S. official joked about the review, suggesting it was the beginning of a plan to "repeal and place 'FML-care,'" an apparent reference to Republicans' efforts to overhaul Obamacare.

The Pentagon could, for example, start announcing "the type of expertise the troops going abroad would provide and rough size of a given unit at the time they leave," according to BuzzFeed.

Colin Kahl, national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, worried the Pentagon could get too much independence from its new authorities.

"This allows the Pentagon to race ahead of the interagency process, which is designed to produce holistic strategies to address our most pressing challenges," he told BuzzFeed.

Defense officials denied that civilians would ever be completely excluded from determining troop levels and said that interagency discussions were ongoing.