KABUL, Afghanistan — Facing a high-stakes choice and running out of time to make it, the Biden administration is wrestling with whether to follow through with a full withdrawal in the next seven weeks of the 2,500 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan — except, as it turns out, that number is actually around 3,500.
The United States has about 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than it has disclosed, according to American, European and Afghan officials. That adds another layer of complexity to the swirling debate at the White House over whether to stick with a deal, struck by the Trump administration and the Taliban, that calls for removing the remaining U.S. forces by May 1.
A thousand troops may seem like a small number compared to the roughly 100,000 who were there at the height of the war. But the scope of the U.S. presence has become a contentious issue in Afghanistan — where the Taliban want the Americans gone, while the government’s beleaguered security forces rely on U.S. air support — and also in Washington.
Members of Congress have repeatedly called for an increase in troops if the United States decides to stay past the withdrawal date outlined in the agreement, which was reached just over a year ago.
The cloudy accounting around the troop numbers results from some Special Operations forces having been put “off the books,” according to a senior U.S. official, as well as the presence of some temporary and transitioning units. These troops, according to a second U.S. official, include Joint Special Operations Command units, some of them elite Army Rangers, who work under both the Pentagon and the CIA while deployed to Afghanistan.
Having more troops in a country than the Defense Department officially acknowledges is common practice. 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.
So last year, as former President Donald Trump pushed for rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the Defense Department and other national security agencies used familiar methods to move numbers around, which made troop levels seem to be dropping faster than they really were. It was comparable to what happened in 2019, when Trump wanted to pull forces from Syria, U.S. officials said.
The Obama administration used similar sleights of hand under the bland, bureaucratic term “force management levels,” which resulted in more troops in war zones with little public oversight.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former top State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomacy for former President Barack Obama and for Trump. “To some extent, the fudging of the numbers reflects the arbitrariness of political fixation on declaring specific numbers.”
So, officially, the Pentagon insists that troop numbers are lower. “We are still at 2,500” in Afghanistan, Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in an email to The New York Times on Friday.
What U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan are stationed at roughly a dozen bases and consist mostly of Special Operations troops advising Afghan units at the headquarters level, as well as flight and support crews for aircraft. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. jets fly overhead almost nightly.
Since this time last year, U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan have declined from 12,000 to the current number. That drop was staunchly opposed by Pentagon leaders, who have long said that at least 8,600 U.S. troops are needed, both to support Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism missions.
But a review of the U.S.-Taliban deal by the Afghan Study Group, a congressionally mandated report that submitted its findings to lawmakers last month, concluded that maintaining around 4,500 troops in Afghanistan could be enough “to secure U.S. interests under current conditions and at an acceptable level of risk.”
In addition to the 3,500 Americans, there are roughly 7,000 NATO and allied troops still in Afghanistan who depend on U.S. forces for logistics and force protection. If the United States did indeed try to leave by May 1, it would be almost impossible logistically to withdraw both the U.S. and allied forces in time, experts have said, although U.S. officials insist it remains an option.
Despite the shrinking timeline, Biden has yet to decide whether U.S. troops will stay beyond the proposed date — and if so, how many — or leave, ending America’s longest war after more than 19 years.
Biden’s own inclination, when he was Obama’s vice president, was toward a reduced U.S. presence. But as president, he must weigh whether following such instincts would run too high a risk of the Taliban defeating government forces and taking over Afghanistan’s key cities. Many senior military commanders still argue that a full withdrawal could also lead to al-Qaida and other groups hostile to the United States regaining a prominent presence in the country.
But troop levels are just one of many issues the Biden administration faces as it tries to make peace in Afghanistan.
Afghan leaders were already angry about being left out of the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban. They were also unhappy with the deal that resulted; in the past year, the Taliban have largely kept to their promise not to attack Americans, but they have stepped up violence against fellow Afghans.
This month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a blunt letter to Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, first reported by the Afghan outlet TOLO News, that proposed several steps to revive the stalled peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The letter, which asked the Afghan leader to “understand the urgency of my tone,” was received by Ghani as a personal slight, suggesting that he was one of the main obstacles to the process, said an Afghan official with direct knowledge of the matter.
Blinken’s letter also signaled continued high-level support for Zalmay Khalilzad, the longtime lead U.S. diplomat involved in the peace process, who is a divisive figure in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Many in Ghani’s circle have resented the pressure that the Afghan-born Khalilzad put on the government over contentious issues, including the release of roughly 5,000 Taliban prisoners, during the lead-up to the talks in Doha, Qatar, which began in September.
Trying to inject new energy into the talks between negotiators in Qatar, Blinken proposed in his letter that the Taliban and Afghan leadership meet next month in Turkey, where they would likely discuss a cease-fire and power-sharing proposal outlined by U.S. officials. Neither side has agreed to the deal, nor is it clear who would be attending the meeting in Turkey from either side.
Blinken also pushed for a United Nations-hosted meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the United States to discuss Afghanistan in the near future. And Moscow will host a conference on the peace process in the coming weeks that the Afghan government has agreed to attend.
In addition, Khalilzad, who is in Doha, continues to meet with the Taliban in an effort to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and he is exploring other ways the Taliban can engage Afghans and the international community in pursuit of a political solution, according to U.S. officials.
On Friday, a massive car bombing in the western Afghan city of Herat decimated a neighborhood and killed at least seven people, leaving more than 50 wounded. The attack was carried out by the Taliban, Afghan officials said, and it was condemned by Ghani. No group claimed responsibility.
Earlier in the week, the Taliban captured a district center in the northern province of Faryab, routing Afghan special operations forces and forcing the surrender of the district’s police chief.
The Americans did not come to the Afghans’ aid, according to the Afghan official, despite repeated requests for airstrikes.