President Joe Biden has sought to bring an end to the era of so-called "forever wars" in which the United States has been mired over the past two decades. And while the exit of U.S. troops from a 20-year war in Afghanistan marked a major step toward reining in these conflicts, more than 30,000 troops remain active in the tense Middle East and its periphery.
This figure marks the lowest on record for the one-year mark of any U.S. president this century.
But the full scope of the U.S. military presence here remains difficult to ascertain, frustrating analysts who seek to understand the course of Biden's stated desire to depart from the focus of his predecessors on open-ended conflicts in the region.
The troop figure was provided to Newsweek by a spokesperson for Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. military operations across an area of responsibility (AOR) spanning the entirety of the Middle East, with the exception of Turkey, and includes Egypt in North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia and the nearby Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
"Currently there are more than 30,000 troops deployed across the CENTCOM AOR," CENTCOM told Newsweek.
The command declined to break down the locations of these troops by country.
"Due to concerns related to operational security and force protection, we do not comment on the disposition of U.S. forces," the spokesperson added.
Under President Donald Trump, the Pentagon moved to restrict the share of troop counts. While Biden has promised more transparency in his approach to U.S. military activities, there have been no apparent moves toward once again disclosing information that previously had been made public.
Some additional insight into the number of U.S. troops in the CENTCOM region could be found in the Pentagon's latest annual budget request submitted last May for the fiscal year of 2022. The report detailed a steady decrease in the number of personnel needed for overseas contingency operations.
For Afghanistan, the average annual troop strength dropped from an actual figure of 16,025 for the fiscal year of 2020 to the requested 8,600 for the fiscal year 2021. It went down to zero for the fiscal year 2022, as the Biden administration prepared for the total exit that ultimately occurred in late August.
For Iraq and Syria, whose data have been combined, the average annual troop strength for the fiscal year 2020 stood at 5,487. The requested figure jumped to 8,003 for the fiscal year 2021 before dropping to a request of 3,400 for the fiscal year 2022.
Asked for comment on these figures, CENTCOM confirmed them to Newsweek.
"There is no U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Our mission in Afghanistan ended in August 2021," a spokesperson said. "As previously acknowledged, U.S. troop numbers for Iraq and Syria are approximately 2500/900 respectively."
The fiscal year 2022 budget request also outlines "In-Theater Support," which "includes support for Iraq, Syria, and Counterterrorism" and comprises forces posted in the vicinity of these two countries. The average annual troop strength here has gradually dipped from an actual 48,513 for the fiscal year for 2020 to a request of 46,109 for the fiscal year 2021 and 43,899 for the fiscal year 2022.
Most of these troops are not continuously involved in any active war but serve to support ongoing engagements across the CENTCOM region. And they would also likely be the first to react should a wider conflict erupt with the likes of Iran at a time when the Biden administration has refused to rule out a military option if nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Tehran fails.
The U.S. military presence abroad is by far the largest of any nation in the world. Some 750 bases, as estimated by American University professor David Vine, constitute more than the overseas installations of all other countries combined. A few other countries, including France, Russia and the United Kingdom, have a little over a dozen each. Far more countries have less, and most possess none at all.
Washington has a long history of sending forces to the Middle East, dating back to the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century. However, a more permanent presence would not come for more than a century and a half, with the dawn of the Cold War. The region was one of many to be targeted by the whims of the U.S. and other major powers in the form of coups and other interventions, but the first major escalation did not occur until the near the end of the U.S.-Soviet geopolitical contest in 1991, as the U.S. engaged Iraq in the first Gulf War.
The attacks of 9/11 ushered in a new era, as President George W. Bush declared a "War on Terror" that began with taking out the Al-Qaeda-aligned Taliban government in Afghanistan and was followed by a full-scale invasion of Iraq less than two years later. Since then, the number of U.S. military personnel has fluctuated drastically as the U.S. pivoted between the two conflicts and shored up supportive positions, especially in the Arabian Peninsula.
Efforts to pull back from these wars began after the conclusion of President Barack Obama's "surge" strategy in Afghanistan and the beginning of his withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. But instability in Syria that same year and the rise of the jihadis that would form the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in neighboring Iraq compelled the U.S. to devote additional troops and equipment to face an emerging foe in 2014.
It was Obama's successor, Donald Trump, who would then oversee the defeat of ISIS' self-styled "caliphate" and begin to co-opt the oft-cited phrase "forever wars" to describe a desire to withdraw U.S. troops from foreign conflicts. In his final year in office, Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to exit Afghanistan and drew down troops in Iraq and Syria. But he also bolstered military positions in countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as a counter to growing tensions with Iran.
Biden also criticized the "forever wars" in his campaign against Trump, signaling somewhat bipartisan fatigue as a result of 20 years of U.S. interventions with few clear victories. But a year on, Biden's own record on this effort appears mixed.
His total exit from Afghanistan marks a significant development, while the shift from "combat" to training and assisting in Iraq has failed to abate the fury of local Iran-aligned militias. The ambiguity over the U.S. presence in Syria, which is opposed by the country's government and its Iranian and Russian allies, has eluded any major policy announcements.
The administration's reluctance to reveal the exact number of U.S. troops still in the CENTCOM region, a lasting legacy of the Trump administration, has drawn criticism from experts. Analyzing the scope of the U.S. military presence in this region and elsewhere is at the heart of the research of one team that shared its most recent findings with Newsweek.
Using available data from the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center, Boise State University Associate Professor Michael A. Allen, working with Kansas State University's Associate Professor Michael E. Flynn and Professor Carla Martinez Machain, provided a partial view of the U.S. military presence in the CENTCOM area of operations outside of the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which were not included in the report. "Temporary" deployments were also omitted from the report, inclusion of which could result in much larger deployment figures.
The figures for strictly "permanent" troops included the following: 4,533 personnel in Bahrain, 298 in Egypt, 99 in Jordan, 24 in Kazakhstan, 2,843 in Kuwait, 9 in Kyrgyzstan, 21 in Lebanon, 30 in Oman, 67 in Pakistan, 516 in Qatar, 1,585 in Saudi Arabia, 50 in Somalia, 15 in Sudan, 8 in Tajikistan, 10 in Turkmenistan, 221 in the United Arab Emirates, 13 in Uzbekistan and 5 in Yemen.
This adds up to 10,347 personnel, while some additional 10,822 are marked "unknown" in the general "overseas" category of the report. For Iraq and Syria, Allen too came up with the figure of 3,400 utilizing media reports.
But this still left an incomplete picture without the full breadth of "temporary" deployments across CENTCOM, or those of another category of sailors and Marines considered "afloat." The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which operates across 2.5 million square miles within the CENTCOM area of operations, counts some 20,000 personnel in its ranks.
There is also an unspecified number of U.S. Special Operations Command personnel that operate in the region, USSOCOM spokesperson Kenneth McGraw said these forces fall under CENTCOM's command once they are deployed to the region.
"USSOCOM's mission is to organize, train, equip and deploy special operations forces in support of the geographic combatant commander, like U.S. Central Command," McGraw told Newsweek. "Once those forces arrive in a geographic combatant command's area of responsibility, they are under the geographic combatant command's operational control."
As for the exact figure of USSOCOM personnel in this area of operations, he referred Newsweek back to CENTCOM, which confirmed that Special Operations Forces were included in the provided assessment, as were all "temporary," "permanent" and "afloat" personnel operation in the designated region.
"Yes, once deployed to the CENTCOM AOR, those military personnel in your list above are counted in the over 30k figure," CENTCOM said.
Though these data sets shed a bit more light on the stated U.S. military presence in the Middle East and its periphery, analysts still feel shut out from the whole story.
"This issue is important to our research, as we rely on having consistent numbers in understanding the effects of U.S. deployments overseas," Allen told Newsweek. "It seems clear that there was a public decision by the Trump administration to draw down in particular conflict zones. Shortly after, the DOD stopped reporting official numbers for those conflicts and seemingly obfuscated the true numbers, despite the decision to draw down."
Efforts to reveal more comprehensive figures were the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Just Security online forum against the Pentagon in October 2020. But the resulting release of data for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria only included "permanent numbers," without any reference to the larger "temporary" category of personnel deployed to each of the three countries at the time.
"Researchers, citizens, and policymakers should have reasonable estimates of where soldiers are, generally, as the decisions made overseas has consequences both domestically and abroad," Allen said.
Martinez Machain followed up on that point, noting that she was not commenting specifically on the Biden administration, "but broadly on transparency by the U.S. government and military."
"To add to Mike's point, the lack of consistent numbers has affected how we carry out our research," she said. "For example, we focus on people's self-reported interactions with the U.S. military abroad rather than on subnational locations of U.S. military forces, as there is not fine-grained enough data that tells us where within host countries U.S. troops are located."
The lack of transparency has also fueled conspiracies abroad as to the true nature of U.S. military activities even in relatively stable nations with which Washington has otherwise good relations.
"During the interviews that we conducted with host country civilians in places like Panama and Peru (which are not countries that are at war with the U.S.), many respondents expressed suspicions that the U.S. was carrying out secret military operations in their countries," Martinez Machain said.
"The lack of transparency likely contributes to such suspicions," she added.
But she noted that "there is also a general trend toward decreasing the U.S. military abroad that is influencing this drawdown" initiated by Trump and followed through with Biden. She said it is driven by the realities that "there are always pressures to cut U.S. military spending, and politically it is much less costly to bring back troops stationed abroad than it would be to close or consolidate domestic military installations."
Allen pointed to a combination of domestic factors and a desire shared by the past three administrations to reorient the foreign policy focus to countering great power rivals of the U.S. — Russia, and especially China. He highlighted a shift in the most recent National Defense Strategy crafted in 2018 that explicitly prioritized challenging Beijing and Moscow, as opposed to previous installations such as the 2008 National Defense Strategy, which viewed non-state and regional actors as the most pressing concern a decade earlier.
Even amid these trends, however, Allen argued that "the issue of mission creep is a persistent one within the U.S. military, and it is feasible that new issues arising in a region may lead to increases of troops in a region to deal with an emergent threat or issue."
"The present drawdown makes it so that largescale operations, like those of the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not an immediate option for U.S. forces in the area," he said. "Smaller force sizes increase the likelihood that training and intelligence provision to friendly nations and other actors is a more common route for the U.S. than the U.S. being the primary source of force in dealing with non-state actors in the region. However, U.S. forces still see combat in the region."
Flynn spoke further on the issue, noting "a couple of key components to keep in mind."
"First, successive U.S. presences have adopted an expansive definition of U.S. interests, and even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed a significant amount of resources and attention, the U.S. has also expanded its counter-terrorism operations throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa," he told Newsweek. "These other deployments have received less attention, but suggest that the U.S. will continue trying to project power and influence by using military force even as it draws down elsewhere."
"Second, there appears to be little appetite in Congress to more forcefully restrain the executive from using military force under such broad circumstances," he added. "The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs have been used to justify a number of military operations. But so far Congress hasn't done much to constrain presidential freedom of action here."
These AUMFs, or Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, have constituted the sprawling mandate through which four successive U.S. presidents have conducted military action in the Middle East and beyond without requesting permission from lawmakers. Biden has expressed support for the repeal of the 2002 AUMF adopted in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq, but a congressional push lost momentum last year as other pressing domestic issues took precedence.
Ambiguity on the part of the Biden administration to even follow these AUMFs was also noted by Brian Finucane, senior adviser for the U.S. Program at the Belgium-based Crisis Group and a former adviser at the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser, who agreed that "the Biden administration has not significantly improved transparency regarding the war on terror."
"The full list of groups with whom the U.S. is at war under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force remains classified," Finucane told Newsweek. "Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration has failed to submit a legally required, comprehensive report of actions taken under the 2001 AUMF. The White House has yet to answer questions from members of Congress regarding U.S. military operations in Somalia and Syria."
And as he argued that the full picture of U.S. military operations remains incomplete in documents available to the public, one of Joe Biden's primary goals remains elusive.
Finucane said he "would give the Biden administration a grade of 'incomplete' on winding down the U.S war on terror."
"Yes, President Biden finished the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and there were far fewer U.S. airstrikes in 2021 than there were a few years ago (largely though not solely due to changed facts such as the destruction of ISIS's physical 'caliphate')," he said. "At the same time, U.S. forces continue to engage in hostilities in Iraq and Syria, including against Iran-backed paramilitaries. And the U.S. is again flying surveillance flights over Afghanistan, consistent with preparations for 'over the horizon' counterterrorism strikes."
According to Finucane, the only way to curb a U.S. war machine untethered by congressional authority is to push forward the repeal of the 2001 AUMF that first set the stage for the "War on Terror" that continues to be waged worldwide.
"A true commitment to curtailing the war on terror in a durable fashion would entail reforming the war's legal underpinning, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force," he argued. "Unreformed, this 20-year old authorization will remain a blank check for war-making by future administrations."