The number of U.S. troops currently at the southwest border to support the Department of Homeland Security is likely the highest it will get until the expected end of the mission December 15, a top defense official said Thursday.
"I think we're pretty much peaked in terms of the number of people [at the U.S.-Mexico border]," Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.
Homeland Security has requested troops remain through Dec. 15, but that "can always be amended," Shanahan said.
There are roughly 5,900 troops currently stationed across Arizona, Texas and California. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited troops stationed in McAllen, Texas, on Wednesday, stressing to troops the necessity of their presence, even though they remain in a mission-support role only.
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"It's very clear that support to border police or Border Patrol is necessary right now," Mattis said.
The secretary called the decision "a moral and ethical" mission, but said the Defense Department is still weighing what the long-term objectives are.
"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," Mattis said.
Shanahan could not say why reported troop numbers have fluctuated so radically in recent weeks.
President Donald Trump and other top officials have said as many as 15,000 troops could deploy to the border, surpassing the number of troops currently stationed in Iraq and Syria, and nearly matching the number now in Afghanistan.
Shanahan expressed uncertainty as to whether the troops' mission may shift to providing law enforcement or engaging with migrant civilians.
"I would defer ... to Secretary Mattis" on whether that will change, Shanahan said.
Troops have largely been involved in laying razor wire as the migrant caravan continues to approach the border.
A group of roughly 400 migrants has broken off from the thousand or so people who for weeks have been headed toward the U.S. border to seek asylum. Many stayed in Mexico City, but the remainder reached the border city of Tijuana on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Trump tweeted in October that the caravan could be taken down by lethal force if clashes the situation became violent.
"The Caravans are made up of some very tough fighters and people," he tweeted Oct. 31. "Fought back hard and viciously against Mexico at Northern Border before breaking through. Mexican soldiers hurt, were unable or unwilling to stop Caravan."
The next day, he implied that troops should take retaliatory action if the migrants threw rocks at them.
"We're not going to put up with that," Trump said during a White House press conference. "[If] they want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We're going to consider it -- and I told them, 'consider that a rifle.' When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say 'consider it a rifle.' "
He then revisited his remarks, saying he never said U.S. forces would shoot migrants.
"What I don't want is these people throwing rocks. ... What they did to the Mexican military is a disgrace," Trump said. "They hit them with rocks. Some were very seriously injured, and they were throwing rocks in their face. They do that with us, they're going to be arrested, there are going to be problems. I didn't say shoot."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.