An Analysis of U.S. Detention Numbers in Afghanistan

Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF), a converted aircraft hangar, was the detention facility in Afghanistan from June 2005 through December 2009.[i] It has been described as a pale, concrete building, where remnants of aircraft-repair machinery left by Soviet troops were scattered throughout the prison grounds.[ii] There, prisoners were kept in six 60-foot-long cages surrounded by coiled barbed wire, with 15 to 20 detainees cramped in each of the cages at a time.[iii] BTIF was the principal detention facility used by U.S. forces inside of Afghanistan until the larger Detention Facility in Parwan was opened on December 16, 2009.[iv]

BTIF is only one example of such detention facilities, which have housed a steadily increasing number of detainees over the course of nine years.[v] According to a late 2009 report, the government has claimed that the number of detainees will likely not increase.[vi] However, an analysis of the numbers of detainees inside the principal U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan reflects a sharp and steady increase: from nearly 100 detainees in 2002 to nearly 2000 in 2011. Between 2002 and 2009 alone, approximately 2000 prisoners had been held in the various Bagram detention facilities.[vii] The reasons for such increases vary from year to year. However, a number of consistent factors have influenced the increase in detainee numbers at the various Bagram detention sites. These include: the increase in detainees seized in battles in Afghanistan, “bureaucratic backlog” in release of the innocent, and prisoner transfers.[viii]

As Tables I, II, and III below reveal, the numbers have been rising at a rate of nearly 43% annually with significant variation year to year.[ix] The current number of detainees is an 1800% increase from the detainee population in 2002.

Table I:[x] Number of U.S.-Held Detainees 2002–2011

Year Detainee Numbers
2002 100
2003 200
2004 300
2005 400
2006 500
2007 600
2008 600
2009 640
Jan. 2010 794
Feb. 2010 790
Mar. 2010 791
Apr. 2010 812
May 2010 842
Jul. 2010 850
Sept. 2010 1100
Mar. 2011 1600[xi]
Apr. 2011 1900[xii]


Table II: Number of U.S.-Held Detainees 2002–2011



Table III: Rate of Annual Increase:[xiii]


Year Range Annual Increase
2002–2003 100%
2003–2004 50%
2004–2005 33%
2005–2006 25%
2006–2007 20%
2007–2008 0%
2008–2009 6%
2009–Apr. 2010 26%
Apr. 2010–Apr. 2011 134%



We will now look in detail at the changes in detainee numbers during the years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan.


From 2002–2007 the pattern of growth was steady, with the number of U.S.-held detainees in Afghanistan increasing at a rate of approximately 100 detainees a year. As of May 2002, there were only about 100 detainees stationed at what was known as Bagram Collection Point (BCP).[xiv] According to Lieutenant Colonel Jeff A. Bovarnick, in his article entitled Detainee Review Boards in Afghanistan: From Strategic Liability to Legitimacy, the maximum number of detainees “authorized” at BCP was 100 and increased to 200 in the summer of 2003.[xv] The increase in detainee numbers between 2003 and 2006 was the result of, among other things, the suspension of prisoner transfers to the Guantánamo Bay detention site, as the Afghanistan detention sites became the preferred U.S. detention locale.[xvi] By 2004, BCP was severely overcrowded. As a result, the military refurbished the main prison at BCP and added a new wing, in order to support the increasing numbers of detainees.[xvii] By June 2005, BCP was renamed BTIF. In a report covering roughly June 2005 to January 2007, the expansion was again attributed to the cessation of prisoner transfers to Guantánamo Bay.[xviii] Though the number of detainees was rumored to have been nearly 600 as early as 2005,[xix] other reports detail that the number of detainees at BTIF increased from 500 at the end of 2006, to 600 by the end of 2007.[xx]


From 2007 through today, the number of U.S.-held detainees in Afghanistan has jumped dramatically, with a 6% increase from 2008 to 2009, growing to a 134% increase from April 2010 to April 2011. Reports suggest that detainee numbers rose from a figure of 600 as of early 2009,[xxi] to between 639 and 645 by September 2009. According to Bovarnick, there were 753 detainees transferred to the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), which was opened on December 16, 2009.[xxii]

The detainee population continued to rise in 2010. By June 18, 2010, there were estimated to be about 892 detainees at the new detention facility of DFIP.[xxiii] As of July 10, 2010, 850 people were detained in Parwan, with all but about thirty of them native Afghanis.[xxiv] As the New York Times reported, “[m]ost have been held for less than two years, but about 100 have been held for longer and about 20 have been held for more than four years.”[xxv] The Wall Street Journal reported that, as of September 22, 2010, there were nearly 1100 detainees held at Parwan.[xxvi] More recent reports put this number at 1600 in March 2011, and 1900 by April 2011.[xxvii]

Given this increase, there is the inevitable inquiry as to DFIP’s capacity; a question that surprisingly does not have a clear answer given the variety of numbers that have been published. In 2009, the New York Times described the capacity of DFIP as 1140, while Lieutenant Colonel Bovarnick’s article states that capacity is 1344. The Associated Press, in 2011, describes the capacity as 2600.[xxviii] Perhaps this suggests that the government been rapidly expanding DFIP. Alternatively, the government may be rapidly restating the capacity as the numbers of detainees increase. Such uncertainty puts into question whether such a facility can adequately house such a large number of detainees, and even the treatment of the detainees at such sites. If DFIP is at capacity, is DFIP producing the same severe overcrowding that occurred at BCP? Is the United States able to ensure that the detainees receive the proper reviews of the Detainee Review Boards?[xxix] Are any such detainees being released? At present, these questions remain unanswered.

Future changes in detainee population may depend on the progress of U.S. plans to hand over some detainees to the Afghan government.[xxx] What is not in question is that the number of detainees held at U.S. detention facilities has grown at a drastic level in recent years, at a rate of approximately 43% annually. At this rate, the number of detainees would reach 2717 by April 2012.[xxxi] Though the military has claimed that “it did not foresee increasing the detention population,”[xxxii] the numbers have continued to rise at a steady rate. Thus, it seems, the military was simply incorrect, and an analysis of the numbers has called into question its reasoning.



[i] Jeff A. Bovarnick, Detainee Review Boards in Afghanistan: From Strategic Liability to Legitimacy, 2010 Army Law. 9, app. A at 47 (Mr. Bovarnick is a Lieutenant Colonel and Professor and Chair of the International and Operational Law Department at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School). BTIF was previously known as Bagram Collection Point (BCP) from May 2002 through June 2005. Id. at 15, 18.

[ii] Eliza Griswold, Black Hole: The Other Guantanamo, New Republic (May 7, 2007, 12:00 AM),,0; see also Eric Schmitt & Tim Golden, U.S. Plans New Detention Center in Afghanistan, N.Y. Times, May 18, 2008,

[iii] Id.

[iv] Bovarnick, supra note 1, app. A at 47.

[v] From 2002 until 2005, U.S. detainees were held at BCP until it was expanded and renamed as BTIF. Most recently, the main detention facility used in Afghanistan is the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) opened in 2009. Bovarnick, supra note 1, app. A at 47.

[vi] “[T]he military said it did not foresee increasing the detention population. There are about 15,000 detainees in the [entire] Afghan system.” Alissa J. Rubin, U.S. Readies New Facility for Afghan Detainees, N.Y. Times, Nov. 15, 2009, Though Rubin does not speak to this point, I am reading the “15,000 detainees” figure as referring to all detainees in the entire system including those held by the U.S. side, but also by the Afghan government side as well.

[vii] USA: Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Court? The Right of Bagram Detainees to Judicial Review, Amnesty Int’l (Feb. 18, 2009), – sdfootnote6sym.

[viii] Tim Golden & Eric Schmitt, A Growing Afghan Prison Rivals Bleak Guantanamo, N.Y.

Times, Feb. 26, 2006,

[ix] This percentage is calculated by taking the average of annual percentages from 2002 through April 2011.

[x] All data from the table comes from Bovarnick, supra note 1, app. A at 47 as well as recent numbers from Julian E. Barnes, U.S. Seeks Role in Afghan Jail, Wall Street J., at A13, available at

[xi] E-mail from Daphne Eviatar, Senior Associate, Law & Security Program, Human Rights First, to Luna Droubi, Student, New York Law School (Mar. 24, 2011, 11:20 AM ET) (on file with author).

[xii] E-mail from Pamela S. Kunze, Captain, US Navy, to Rebecca Mopper, Student, New York Law School (Apr. 9, 2011, 07:19 AM ET) (on file with author); see also Kimberly Dozier, AP Exclusive: Terror Suspects Held Weeks in Secret, Apr. 8, 2011, Associated Press, Sites/id-fe6aaba24aeb45988207a117cf70a316.

[xiii] I calculated the rate of increase by subtracting from the end of the year number (B) the start of the year number (A), dividing that by the start of the year number and multiplying that outcome by 100. Thus (BA / A) x 100 = annual rate of increase.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Bagram Detention Center (Afghanistan), N.Y. Times, updated Nov. 16, 2009).

[xvii] Golden & Schmitt, supra note 7.

[xviii] Alec Russell, US-run Jail in Afghanistan ‘Worse Than Guantanamo’, (Feb. 27, 2006, 12:01 AM),

[xix] Id.

[xx] Golden & Schmitt, supra note 7; another report puts the number in 2006 at 600. Bovarnick, supra note 1, app. A at 47.

[xxi] Warren Richey, Next Flash Point Over Terror Detainees: Bagram Prison, Christian Sci. Monitor, Feb. 12, 2009, available at

[xxii] Bovarnick, supra note 1, at 25. See id. at 25 n.103.

[xxiii] Id. at app. A at 47.

[xxiv] Rubin, supra note 6.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Barnes, supra note 10.

[xxvii] See supra notes 11 and 12.

[xxviii] Compare Rubin, supra note 6 (“The center has room for 1,140 detainees”) with Bovarnick, supra note 1, at 25 (explaining that the capacity is now listed at 1344) and Dozier, supra note 12 (“Parwan, . . . has a capacity of 2,600.”).

[xxix] For more information on the Detainee Review Boards, see Matthew Hellman, Detainee Review Boards and Standards of Review, Detained by U.S.,(INSERT TIMESTAMP), INSERT LINK.

[xxx] Schmitt & Golden, supra note 2. See Paul Irlando, The Handover, Detained by U.S.,(INSERT TIMESTAMP), INSERT LINK.

[xxxi] Based on the above table, the number of detainees in April 2011 was 1900. Using the rate of 43%, the number of detainees by April 2012 would be 2717. This number is reached as follows: 1900 + (1900 x .43) = 2717.

[xxxii] Rubin, supra note 6.