Puerto Rico response delays troop deployments to Afghanistan
Troop deployments to Afghanistan and elsewhere have been delayed by the hurricane response effort in Puerto Rico, Pentagon officials confirmed Thursday.
“There’s a finite number of U.S. transport aircraft that U.S. Transportation Command has. We’re moving things to Puerto Rico, we’re doing a variety of things to help down there,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon.
“Given the fact that we have a finite number of transport aircraft, that will inevitably slow movement to other theaters. The slight delay in moving forces to Afghanistan is sort of a natural component of that,” McKenzie explained.
Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday said the Pentagon had “all hands on deck” and “no lack of resources” in aiding Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria pounded the island last month.
But in sending roughly 4,000 active duty troops and more than 7,000 National Guard forces to the island, “that it is going to impact the deployments perhaps of some of these troops overseas next year because we have interrupted the preparation,” Mattis said during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing.
“That’s OK when it’s helping fellow Americans, especially, although we also help some of the other small countries that were hard hit,” Mattis added.
More than 3,000 U.S. troops are to be deployed to Afghanistan as part of President Trump’s new strategy for the country’s 16-year war. The plan, announced in August, includes sending the additional troops to join the 11,000 forces currently there to train and assist the Afghan military and conduct counter-terror operations.
“Forces are flowing to Afghanistan. They have been slightly delayed by ongoing hurricane relief efforts. It’ll take a little bit of time to build a force up in Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.
In addition, the Pentagon’s hurricane relief efforts will also slow several ship deployments, including the USS Wasp amphibious assault ship, which reached Puerto Rico on Wednesday to deliver more helicopters. The ship was scheduled to sail to Japan to take on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
At least 17 Navy and Coast Guard ships are now in the waters off Puerto Rico, including another amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and the hospital ship the USNS Comfort. The Defense Department has also sent 80 aircraft, 5.8 million liters of water, 278 generators and more than 100 trucks and drivers.
“There are just going to be downstream effects when you make those decisions, but American citizens are involved in Puerto Rico and that’s a very high priority for this department,” McKenzie said.
Pentagon Chief Spokeswoman Dana White, who spoke alongside McKenzie, said the delays do not reflect on the overall health of the military.
“This is a building all about plans. It is not the first time we have had natural disasters and deployed forces. It’s a minor delay, but there are still forces flowing” into Afghanistan, she said.
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