In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there are two ways to count the number of U.S. boots on the ground. There’s the one that officials admit to. Then there’s the ground truth.

Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army.

But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus another nearly 7,000 contractors supporting the American government’s operations. That includes almost 1,100 U.S. citizens working as military contractors, according to the latest Defense Department statistics.

In other words, the total number of forces that Pentagon and Obama administration officials frequently cite in public are wrong. They’re short thousands of contractors—and about 800 troops. These forces are often assigned to specialized units or tasked with supporting troops on the front line.

Those short-term “support troops” could include security personnel or others maintaining base services. The official tally is comprised almost entirely of troops serving on the front line alongside Iraqi forces.
“We create a variety of categories of troops,” the official explained.

In a war that began with the promise of no boots on the ground, the size of the U.S. footprint has become as important as the fighting itself. The Obama administration is committed to showing both the American and Iraqi public that the U.S. won’t be sending large numbers of ground forces back to the country, more than four years after that last soldiers officially engaged in combat departed.

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