The Public Has No Real Way of Knowing How Many Troops Are Actually in Afghanistan

By playing with definitions, the military is able to keep more troops in Afghanistan than it publicly reports.


It's an open question of whether President Joe Biden will stick to the current deadline for pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan under a peace agreement signed with the Taliban last year. First, though, we'll have to figure out how many troops are actually there right now.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the U.S. has about 3,500 troops in the country, or 1,000 more than the 2,500 that the Department of Defense has been reporting.

The Times, citing European, American, and Afghan officials, reports that the additional troops are a mix of special operations forces that have been moved "off the books" as well as "temporary" or "transitioning" units that haven't been included in the official count.

Under the current timetable for withdrawal, all troops are supposed to be out of the country by May 1.

The presence of these 1,000 uncounted troops, in addition to 7,000 NATO and allied troops has some experts questioning whether the military even has the ability to meet that deadline, notes the Times.

Their presence also highlights just how opaque and secretive the conduct of America's decadeslong war in Afghanistan has been.

"I don't think the U.S. public genuinely understands just how little oversight there is over troops deployments around the world," Adam Weinstein, a research fellow with the Quincy Institute, tells Reason. "The last 20 years has produced this culture in Washington, D.C., where foreign policy and conducting wars is viewed as this technocratic or bureaucratic process that should fall outside the scope of electoral politics."

There's an incredible amount of bureaucratic minutiae that goes into how troops abroad are counted, which leaves a lot of wiggle room for the administration and the military to keep troops deployed in Afghanistan in excess of publicly agreed-to troop ceilings.

The personnel offices of each military command that operates in Afghanistan are responsible for reporting on their own troop levels in the country, which are then aggregated by the military's Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in that country.

It all "sounds really straightforward," says Jonathan Schroden, director of CNA's Center for Stability and Development. "Every day you generate a count of how many people you are responsible for that are there and you report that."

However, things get complicated quickly, he says. For starters, some U.S. troops in Afghanistan are assigned to the American military's Operation Freedom Sentinel. Others are assigned to the NATO-led mission there. Each has its own chains of reporting.

In addition to that, there are all sorts of fine definitions of who actually counts toward the troop ceilings included in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

For instance, fresh troops are constantly moving into Afghanistan to relieve those already there, resulting in both units being in the country during the transition.

"The operational commanders will argue that they shouldn't have to count all those people because they're in the middle of a swap-out," says Schroden. "But that's happening fairly frequently, so you get numbers that are higher than the supposed ceiling."

Troops that are in the country for only a few weeks, or a few months, might also not be included in the topline figure of U.S. military personnel in the country. In the past, troops in the country for as long as 90 days weren't reported, Schroden notes.

The process of withdrawing from the country can complicate things further. Additional logistics personnel are needed to do things like pack up equipment and prepare vehicles for being shipped home. Those people might not be counted as boots on the ground either.

Many of these reporting issues were less impactful when we had many more troops stationed in Afghanistan, says Schroden. It's a much bigger deal now, given how few troops the U.S. is technically committed to keeping in the country.

By playing with definitions, the military now has a lot more room to get away with keeping a larger force in the country relative to what Congress or even the Biden administration might want.

There is, of course, a good chance that the administration will amend the current timetable and keep U.S. forces in the country past the May deadline for withdrawal.

The fact that it's only the military and the president calling the shots about whether or not we actually end our involvement in Afghanistan shows just how much of a need there is for Congress to reassert itself in the whole process, says Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.)

"I think fewer than 20 percent of people who voted to deploy troops, who voted to go to Iraq, who voted for the global war on terrorism, are still in Congress," says Massie. "It's something we should at least debate."

As for the issue of transparency when it comes to troop numbers, Massie says the solution is actually pretty easy. "The only way to know exactly how many troops we have there is to have zero troops in Afghanistan," he says.