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How the number of Americans in Afghanistan went from 15,000 to 6,000

U.S. Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit process evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters)
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“National security officials in the Biden administration told a bipartisan group of Senate staffers on Tuesday that about 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan, according to two Senate aides.”

Washington Post report, Aug. 17

“On Tuesday, Aug. 17, U.S. State Department officials reported that there are as many as 15,000 Americans currently living in Afghanistan that require rapid evacuation.”

— Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Aug. 17

“Based on our analysis, starting on Aug. 14, when our evacuation operations began, there was then a population of as many as 6,000 American citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to leave.”

— Blinken, remarks to reporters, Aug. 25

Readers have been asking: How did the number of estimated Americans in Afghanistan shrink so dramatically in a week? On Aug. 17, State Department officials told Congress it was as many as 15,000. Then, eight days later, the number had dwindled to 6,000, as of Aug. 14.

The vast difference has led to questions and conspiracy theories. Here’s an explanation, via an interview with a senior State Department official.

The Facts

The first number — 15,000 — was a “very, very rough estimate” largely based on the number of people who had registered with the State Department as being in Afghanistan. There is no requirement for Americans to register overseas when they travel — few people do — but odds are higher in a war-torn country such as Afghanistan. So that was the starting point for figuring out how many Americans were in the country.

Hundreds of State Department officials were then enlisted to track down people on the list. Many of those people had left. Some, such as people associated with nongovernmental organizations, had never been in the country but had signed up to receive consular notices. Others were not actually U.S. citizens. So those people were removed from the list.

At the same time, the State Department sent out repeated, urgent notices requesting Americans in Afghanistan who had not registered with the department to contact the U.S. Embassy if they wished to leave the country. Those people were then added to the list once it was determined they were U.S. citizens.

That brings us to the second number — 6,000. That was the figure for Americans in Afghanistan who wished to leave as part of the urgent airlift out of Kabul’s airport. A number of Americans, principally dual citizens, decided to remain in Afghanistan. Others could not make up their minds, first saying they would stay and then deciding to leave. Once a person signaled they wanted to leave, they were added to the list.

At the time Blinken spoke on Aug. 25, he said that 4,500 of the 6,000 had already left the country. About 500 had been in contact with the embassy and had been “provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely,” he said. The rest “may be Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan,” and officials were tracking them down to be sure.

As of Sunday morning, the State Department said, about 5,500 U.S. citizens had left the country since Aug. 14, including 50 on Saturday. About 250 Americans were known to still be seeking to leave the country. Meanwhile, there were also “280 individuals who have self-identified as Americans in Afghanistan but who remain undecided about whether to leave the country or who have told us they do not intend to depart.”

That adds up to about 6,000 total.

The Bottom Line

These were two different numbers, representing different groups of people. The first, 15,000, was a fuzzy estimate of the number of Americans who might have been in Afghanistan. The second, 6,000, was an estimate of the number of U.S. citizens seeking to leave Afghanistan. In the end, that looks like it was a pretty solid number.

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