When the Biden administration vowed to end the US presence in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, certain things were unclear. How many American troops are in the country, and how many are outside it, supporting the operations there? Will the entire US presence, not only troops but also contractors, leave Afghanistan? And how many might remain in the region, capable of intervening in Afghanistan?
To put it another way: Is the United States ending its war in Afghanistan or just moving it?
It is not publicly known how many troops are left in Afghanistan. Officially, the Department of Defense claims that about 2,500 troops remain there. But The New York Times reported in March and April that the tally was closer to 3,500 once 1,000 or so “off-the-books” troops are accounted for. This wasn’t the first time the Pentagon admitted that it had been undercounting the forces in Afghanistan. In 2017, the official number was reported as 8,400 until the Defense Department acknowledged that the actual number was 11,000.
Whatever the number of troops in Afghanistan today — 2,500 or 3,500 or more — they are far outnumbered by contractors, who provide all kinds of services in the theater of war, including dining services, logistics, fuel supply, weapons maintenance, and security. In its latest report, from April, the Defense Department showed 16,832 contractors in Afghanistan. These include 6,147 US citizens and 4,286 Afghans. The remaining 6,399 contractors are from other countries.
How many of these contractors would leave Afghanistan as part of a US withdrawal is unclear. The official stance is that most but not all of the contractors will leave. Those who remain would bolster the Afghan Security Forces, diminishing — but not eliminating — the US presence. And even a complete withdrawal of these people would still leave over 20,000 contractors in the region covered by Central Command, or CENTCOM, including nearly 4,700 Defense Department contractors in Iraq and Syria.
The United States is unlikely to withdraw the troops and contractors in surrounding countries in addition to withdrawing the troops and contractors in Afghanistan. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., who heads CENTCOM, testified on April 20 that the United States wants to retain the ability to conduct air strikes and other interventions in Afghanistan. McKenzie noted that the military was looking into where it could position counterterrorism forces near Afghanistan, calling these “offshore, over-the-horizon options.”
The question now is: What does it mean to withdraw from Afghanistan, really? Is this just a shift of troops, contractors, and resources to outside the boundaries of Afghanistan but still within that theater of war? The political manipulation and opacity surrounding troop numbers in that country, combined with the heavy but little-discussed presence of contractors, make it nearly impossible for the American public to know whether we’re actually ending the war in Afghanistan.
Heidi Peltier is director of the 20 Years of War project at Boston University.