In February 2020, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban, which secured a withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021, after almost 20 years of continuous U.S. military presence. A little over a year later, the Biden administration is still determining whether or not to stick to the agreement, which would require a full withdrawal of 2,500 troops deployed there over the next seven weeks.
But that number, provided by the Department of Defense, isn’t quite the full tally: On Sunday, the New York Times reported that 1,000 more troops are in Afghanistan than stated in the official count. The service members, considered “off the books” according to one senior U.S. official, include Joint Special Operations Command units, working under both the CIA and the Pentagon, as well as some temporary and transitioning military units.
As the Times reports, this practice of strategic undercounting is a common and convenient way for the executive branch to avoid public oversight in the long and entangled conflicts of the U.S. after September 11: “From Syria to Yemen to Mali, the United States often details military troops to the CIA or other agencies, declares that information ‘classified’ and refuses to publicly acknowledge their presence.” When asked by the paper about the additional 1,000 troops, a Pentagon spokesman replied with a bureaucratic denial: Thanks to this scattering around of forces on paper, officially “we are still at 2,500.”
The real number also makes Biden’s decision to stick with the full removal more complicated, as the Defense Department would need to withdraw close to a third more troops if May 1 remains the hard deadline. According to experts who spoke with the Times, it would be close to impossible to get the remaining U.S. forces and around 7,000 NATO and allied troops out in the next month and a half, although U.S. officials claim the option is still on the table. According to Trump’s deal, the U.S. must remove all military forces, including “non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel” in exchange for the Taliban renouncing commitments to al-Qaeda and beginning peace talks with the Afghani government. Last Friday, the Afghani government agreed to attend a peace conference in Turkey, with the Taliban, in April, which was proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken.
Since Trump made the agreement in February 2020, the U.S. has withdrawn around 9,500 troops, to the dismay of military leaders who have claimed since 2016 that 8,400 to 8,600 troops are needed to support Afghan forces and engage in counterterrorism. Last month, a congressionally required report known as the Afghan Study Group determined that 4,500 troops could be enough “to secure U.S. interests under current conditions and at an acceptable level of risk.”
Meanwhile, after the cost of $2 trillion in taxpayer money and the lives of over 2,300 American troops and over 2,800 American contractors, Afghanistan’s long civil war still rages. On Friday, a Taliban car bombing in the western city of Herat killed seven, and earlier in the week, the insurgents captured a district center in the northern province of Faryab. The Afghani government repeatedly requested U.S. military aid during the attack, but it was not granted.