America has 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than previously acknowledged, complicating Joe Biden’s decision on whether to pull them all out in the next seven weeks.
Classified special operations forces and the churn of temporary units moving in and out mean the true tally is some 40 per cent higher than declared, the New York Times reported.
The disclosure comes as Mr Biden’s new administration is debating whether to pull all troops out by May 1 in line with the Doha withdrawal deal signed between Donald Trump and the Taliban.
The Pentagon has said American troops numbers have fallen from around 14,000 to 2,500 since that deal was signed at the end of February 2020.
Military officials denied trying to hide the numbers, saying the rules on declaring who was deployed did not reflect the overlap when one unit replaced another.
The Pentagon has also been accused of downplaying the number of troops deployed in other countries, including Syria.
Yet the extra forces put Mr Biden closer to a troop level proposed by a recent congressional study report which suggested 4,500 US troops were needed in the country to avoid the collapse of the Afghan government.
With peace talks in Doha currently stalled, the White House is wrestling with whether to pull out and risk a collapse of Afghan forces, or extend and risk a breach of the Taliban deal and surge in violence.
Antony Blinken, the new secretary of state, late last month warned the Afghan government they could face a renewed Taliban spring offensive on their own if they did not consider a new US plan to energise a peace process.
America is proposing a temporary interim government including members of the Taliban, and an international conference in Turkey of key neighbours, such as Pakistan and Iran, to try to get buy in.
Meanwhile Russia is this week holding its own conference on the Afghan peace process in a move widely seen as an attempt to increase its influence in the negotiations.