The number of US troops deployed to the southern border has “peaked” at 5,900 and is not expected to increase, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Thursday. It’s a figure that falls well short of President Donald Trump’s previous claim that the Pentagon could send between 10,000 and 15,000 service members to help deal with a group of migrants heading toward the US through Mexico.
“The mission has been to support the Department of Homeland Security and I think … we’re pretty much peaked in terms of the number of people that are down there,” Shanahan told reporters Monday, adding that he was unaware Defense Secretary James Mattis said just Wednesday that he anticipates the number could go as high as 7,000.
While the number of troops has peaked at this time, it could go up if the Department of Defense receives additional requests, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, told CNN on Thursday.
But for now at least, defense officials say there are no additional requests for troops and that DHS has not requested additional military support for tasks that have not yet been specified, meaning the total number essentially tops out at 5,900.
On Tuesday, CNN reported that the US troops on the Texas southern border were expected to finish their assigned task of reinforcing border crossing points, largely with concertina wire, in the coming days. Once that work is done, it’s not clear what additional orders they will be given other than putting up more wire, according to two defense officials.
The general overseeing the mission told Reuters that the military mission would begin to scale back when the work is done. “At some point in time, I’m not going to keep troops here just to keep them here. When the work is done, we’re going to start downsizing some capability,” Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan said. Buchanan did leave the door open to future requests by DHS, “If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”
While some troops could be sent home, others may be relocated to other areas along the border.
And as the groups of migrants get closer to the US border, the focus of the remaining troops is expected to shift toward medical care and aviation support for Customs and Border Patrol. If migrants on the US side of the border get hurt during the crossing, military troops could potentially be called upon to help them.
A US official also told CNN that despite Trump’s pre-midterms claim, the Pentagon never expected troop levels to rise to a number between 10,000 and 15,000 once it received the DHS request and never had more than roughly 7,000 troops on “ready to deploy” orders.
Trump has been relatively silent on the threat posed by what he had termed an “invasion” of migrants heading toward the southern border prior to the midterm elections, but Mattis traveled to Texas on Wednesday with a simple message for troops deployed to the area: Ignore the news and focus on the mission at hand.
During the trip, Mattis defended the legitimacy of the mission, particularly the task of backing up Border Patrol officers ahead of the migrants’ arrival.
“We determined the missions as absolutely legal and this was also reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers. It’s obviously a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen,” Mattis told reporters prior to visiting the base camp.
But when service members asked about the long and short term plans for the operation, he was able to offer few details.
“Short term right now, get the obstacles in so that the border patrolmen can do what they’ve got to do … longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said before encouraging troops to “keep the faith in each other, listen to your NCOs and you do what your officers tell you.”