Pentagon: Number of troops at border has 'pretty much peaked' at 5,800

The number of active-duty U.S. military personnel at the southern border has “pretty much peaked” at roughly 5,800 troops, a top Pentagon official said Thursday.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE at one point threatened to send up to 15,000 service members to the border ahead of the arrival of a migrant caravan of Central American asylum seekers.

While Republican lawmakers largely supported sending troops to the border, Democrats and immigrant rights advocates accused the president of seeking to stoke anti-immigrant fears ahead of the midterm elections earlier this month.

“We’ve pretty much peaked in terms of the number of people that are down there,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Shanahan said that a large number of additional troops are likely not required, with the current mission scheduled to end Dec. 15. He added, however, that the end date “could always be amended.”

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Reuters reported earlier Thursday that the commander in charge of the mission is looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said he would also look at possibly shifting some troops to new border positions, a move that indicates the mission — hastily ordered by Trump late last month ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections — is nearly complete.

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The troops were sent to Arizona, California and Texas to help bolster the southern border ahead of the expected arrival of a caravan of several thousand Central American migrants. 

The deployment, in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), was initially expected to reach more than 7,000 troops and last through Dec. 15.

Buchanan, the commander of U.S. Army North, said he did not think an extension of the mission was likely at this point. 

“It is a hard date. And we have no indications that CBP is going to need us to do our work for longer than that,” Buchanan told Reuters on Wednesday at Base Camp Donna in Texas.

“If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”

Buchanan also said he believed troop levels had peaked. He estimated that about 1,500 troops were deployed in California, 1,500 in Arizona and 2,800 in Texas.

“We might increase by a hundred here or there, but probably not.”

He added that he might shift forces east or west along the border if needed.

In the weeks leading up to the elections earlier this month, Trump spoke publicly about the migrant caravan in dramatic terms, calling it an "invasion.” But since the polls closed last week, Trump has said little about the border deployment or the caravan.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisPoll: Majority of Americans believe midterm elections were secure from hacking Trump directs creation of Space Command as 11th combatant command Overnight Defense: Almost half of border deployment sent home | Trump, Dems dig in as shutdown nears | Flynn associates charged over illegal lobbying MORE, who toured Base Camp Donna on Wednesday, defended the deployment to reporters, saying he believes it is “so far improving our readiness for deployments.”

He also said that the mission was reviewed by Justice Department lawyers and was “absolutely legal.”

Buchanan has said his mission guidelines were to support CBP personnel and that he was “not being directed to do anything unnatural.”

Pentagon officials have said the troops will not directly interact with migrants approaching the U.S. Instead, the soldiers are assisting Border Patrol staff with stringing up concertina wire and setting up temporary housing for U.S. personnel. 

Mattis on Wednesday said that within 10 days the military personnel at the border will have finished all tasks initially requested by CBP. Additional tasks, however, may be added.

Buchanan indicated soldiers would go home once they had fulfilled the CBP requests.

“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,” Buchanan said. 

“I’m looking as early as next week to start thinking through rightsizing, if we need to change, or do I need to shift (troops elsewhere on the border),” Buchanan said.

Updated: 1:30 p.m.