President Obama, President Bush, and the March of U.S. Soldiers Abroad: Where They Are and Why

He rose to power as the consummate anti-war candidate. But after the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan, one wonders: what has President Obama actually changed? The Daily Beast crunched a decade of military data in search of an answer.

Romeo Gacad, AFP / Getty Images

Barack Obama rose to power as the consummate anti-war candidate. He wanted to unwind the international follies of the Bush administration, and, as the 2012 elections ramp up, he continues to carve a softer stance on foreign policy, telling voters that “the tides of war are receding.” But after Saturday, the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan, one wonders: how much has actually changed? Neither disillusioned Democrats nor triumphant Republicans have had much data to go on. Until now.

In an exclusive analysis, The Daily Beast combed through a decade of military deployment history, and found only a faint line between the Bush and Obama presidencies. The number of American troops abroad has dropped less than 1 percent under President Obama, buoyed by what appears to be a sharp rise in the number of clandestine assignments, and curious growth in the number of personnel at Guantanamo Bay. None of the robust deployment trends begun under Bush have significantly abated. And since World War II, only President Bush has scattered a greater proportion of American might overseas: 39.5, 42.8, and 39.1 percent of American troops were abroad between 2006 and 2008, compared to Obama’s 39.3 percent in 2009 and 38.2 percent as of December 2010, the most recent date for which worldwide data is available.* Even with an aggressive—or, to some minds, reckless—drawdown in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, it would take nearly another 300,000 reassignments to domestic duty before the military was as united at home as it was on September 10, 2001.

These are just some of the surprises buried in the military’s own personnel data. While official deployment details are strictly classified, the government’s Defense Manpower Data Center—which bills itself “the authoritative source” for all Department of Defense personnel data--publishes quarterly snapshots of where the troops are, and in what numbers. In 2004 and 2005, the economist Tim Kane used DMDC data to track foreign assignments, publishing two first-of-their-kind deployment reports through the Heritage Foundation. In consultation with Kane, and based on previously unpublished updates to his work, The Daily Beast has expanded this analysis—adding categories and extending the data through 2010.

The result is an unprecedented picture of America’s international adventures, past and present, based on the most reliable public information. The Department of Defense has not contested The Daily Beast’s formula for counting total foreign assignments: a country-by-country sum of how many troops the DMDC says are in each country, plus the number of people categorized as “foreign afloat,” and “undistributed,” which includes secret and other uncategorized foreign assignments. Major Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, says that DMDC data “delivers reasonable accuracy,” but she cautions—somewhat paradoxically—that it “is not designed to do manpower or foreign policy analysis.” A senior Defense Department official offers a more straightforward perspective, calling the DMDC data “the best way, on an unclassified level, to do this.”

The numbers are indeed remarkable. In Sept. 2001, America had 18.5 percent of its forces overseas. That’s approximately 256,789 troops, including 3,690 on uncategorized foreign assignment, 2,000 in Afghanistan, and a single solitary soul in Iraq. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, meanwhile, had 557 active duty personnel.

By 2003, that picture had been wholly redrawn. Suddenly, 31 percent of U.S. troops were abroad—approximately the same percentage as 1951 and 1968, according to Kane’s historical data. In Iraq, the Pentagon pulled its lonely soldier—so there were zero personnel in country in 2002—and replaced him with a 136,000-strong invasion a year later. In Afghanistan, total deployment rose to 9,700 troops. In Guantanamo Bay, the number of personnel jumped from 557 to 697. And the category that includes secret assignments expanded some 600 percent—to more than 25,000 soldiers.

These trends continued throughout the Bush administration. More remarkably, many of them intensified under President Obama. In 2009, Obama inherited 548,371 overseas troops, including 969 at Guantanamo Bay and 121,053 on unreported foreign duty (both all-time highs). After two full years of Obama at the helm of U.S. foreign policy, very little had changed. He had 545,942 overseas troops, the previously mentioned drop of less than 1 percentage point. In Guantanamo Bay, he had 936 personnel, a rise of 10 people during his first year in office, and just 14 fewer people than were present on average during the Bush administration.(This figure, in particular, is odd because the number of detainees has reportedly fallen from 660 in 2003 to just 170 today, including a steep drop under Obama.) Finally, the number of soldiers on unreported overseas duty experienced its own secret surge in 2009, jumping by nearly 30,000 people to 157,537 (a nearly 25 percent increase).

The Department of Defense declined to comment on these figures, or specify what portion of the “undistributed” category includes secret assignments. Initially, Matoush, the Pentagon spokesperson, said via email that all undistributed soldiers were on secret foreign assignment, quoting a "lead analyst" who defined the category as “those areas considered classified, unable to attribute to any country, or any other reason.” She later backtracked by phone, saying classified troops were just one type of “undistributed” soldier, which also includes certain training exercises.

Whatever the case, the actual number of people on foreign assignment is arguably much higher than even these calculations suggest. They don’t include the many soldiers on temporary duty, or the 20,000 Defense Department civilians, and nearly 81,000 contractors and local hires that work on the Pentagon’s foreign installations—662 in all, according to the most recent inventory of real estate.

But it does put the day-to-day war narrative in perspective. The American military remains an especially globetrotting enterprise, largely impervious to political and economic hiccups, and immune to President Obama’s best efforts to squeeze it. The post-9/11 military build-up is so huge, in fact, that even the supposedly big numbers being bandied about today are minuscule by comparison—a few U-boats after 10 years of transport planes.

With John Barry.

*Editor's Note: After this package was produced, the Department of Defense released an additional three months of data on “active duty military personnel,” bringing deployment information up to March 31st, 2011. None of the trends discussed here have reversed, however, and some have notably intensified. In Iraq, the size of the U.S. presence expanded by 7,200 soldiers (to 92,800 in all). In Afghanistan, the increase was 7,300 (to 111,000 people). And the category of “undistributed” U.S. soldiers abroad—which includes those on classified assignment—ballooned from 157, 537 to 167,342 people. While the base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba eliminated six active duty soldiers, the total number on site is 929, three more than in Obama’s first year in office. Given these figures, it seems logical that the total number of U.S. soldiers abroad increased as well.