Phil Stewart, Reuters, Novemeber 15, 2108
The number of U.S. troops at the border with Mexico may have peaked at about 5,800, the U.S. commander of the mission told Reuters, noting he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to new border positions.
The outlook by Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, while not definitive, suggests that the high-profile military mission could soon achieve its goal of helping harden the border ahead of the expected arrival of caravans of Central American migrants in the coming weeks.
“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 said on Wednesday at Base Camp Donna in Texas, as Mattis toured the site near the Mexico border.
He acknowledged that there could be new requests, saying: “If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”
Asked whether he thought the troop levels had peaked, Buchanan said: “I do. We might increase by a hundred here or there, but probably not.”
Mattis defended the deployment on Wednesday, saying the mission was “absolutely legal,” justified and was improving military readiness.
Buchanan also said his mission guidelines were clear — to support CBP personnel. He said his work was apolitical.
The Pentagon says there are no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants and that they have been carrying out support tasks for CBP, like stringing up concertina wire and building temporary housing for themselves and CBP personnel.
In recent days, up to 1,000 migrants linked to the caravans have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, with a similar number expected to arrive in the next few days. Thousands more could arrive in border towns over the coming days as the bulk of the caravans arrive.
Buchanan estimated that about 5,800 troops were deployed in total, with about 1,500 in California, 1,500 in Arizona and 2,800 in Texas. He acknowledged he might shift forces east or west along the border if needed.
Mattis told reporters that U.S. soldiers were making rapid progress erecting barriers along the border and estimated the first, construction phase of the U.S. military effort could be completed within 10 days.