Analysis: US military assessment of Taliban control of Afghan districts is flawed

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The US military says that the Taliban “influences” at least 25 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and controls only 8 more. The numbers are at odds with an assessment by The Long War Journal of Taliban control in Afghanistan. The US military’s estimate does not explain how the Taliban is able to support multiple concurrent offensives across the country and threaten five provincial capitals.

The US military’s estimate of Taliban control and influence of Afghan districts was reported by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, in its quarterly report to Congress that was released on Oct. 30. The data are current as of Aug. 28, 2016.

“[O]f the 407 districts within the 34 provinces, 258 districts were under government control (88 districts) or influence (170), 33 districts (in 16 provinces) were under insurgent control (8) or influence (25), and 116 districts were ‘contested,’ SIGAR noted, based on discussions with US Forces-Afghanistan, or USFOR-A.

“USFOR-A described contested districts as having ‘negligible meaningful impact from insurgents,'” SIGAR continued. It is unclear if the so-called contested districts have a “negligible meaningful impact” from the Afghan government.

The names of the Taliban controlled and influenced districts, as well as those that are contested, were not disclosed by USFOR-A.

Additionally, USFOR-A said that the Afghan government controls or influences 68.5% of the population (~22.0 million) and controls 61.3% of Afghanistan’s territory (~350,000 square kilometers), and the Taliban controls or influences 8.1% (~2.8 million) and controls 8.7% of the ground (~66,000 square kilometers). The remaining 28.5% of the population (~7.3 million) and 22.7% of the land (~183,000 square kilometers) is contested.

The Long War Journal believes that the US military’s assessment of the state of play in Afghanistan’s districts is flawed. A study by The Long War Journal estimates the Taliban controls 42 Afghan districts and contests (or influences) another 55. [Note, USFOR-A’s definition of “influence” matches that of LWJ‘s definition of “contested.” The term “influenced/contested” will be used for clarity to describe these districts. LWJ does not assess districts that are defined by USFOR-A as “contested,” which means neither the Taliban or Afghan government hold sway.]

The number of Taliban controlled and influenced/contested districts has risen from 70 in October 2015 to 97 this month.

Districts under Taliban command are typically being administered by the group, or the group controls the district center. Additionally, districts where the district center frequently changes hands are considered Taliban-controlled. In influenced/contested districts, the Taliban dominates all of the areas of a district except the administrative center.

A map created by LWJ [below] lists the districts thought to be controlled [black] or influenced/contested [red] by the Taliban. LWJ believes that the Taliban controls and contests more districts displayed on the map above, however the districts listed on the map are ones that can be confirmed via independent sources such as Taliban claims, US and Afghan government reports, and news reports. For instance, the Taliban has traditionally held significant sway in many districts in eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, however the status of these districts cannot be assessed based on open source information.

Without USFOR-A’s list of Taliban controlled or influenced/contested districts, it is difficult to compare the discrepancies between the US military and LWJ‘s assessments. However, USFOR-A did provide information on one province which reveals that the military is providing a best-case scenario of the situation on the ground.

According to SIGAR, USFOR-A said that only 21% of Helmand province is controlled or influenced/contested. This means that, according to USFOR-A, only 3 of Helmand’s 14 districts are Taliban controlled or influenced/contested.

However, numerous local and international press reports indicate that all of Helmand remains a battleground, and the Taliban controls or influences/contests far more than three districts. Based on these reports, LWJ has assessed that of Helmand’s 14 districts, six are known to be controlled by the Taliban (Now Zad, Nawa, Musa Qala, Baghran, Dishu, and Khanashin), and another seven, including the provincial capital, are heavily influenced/contested (Lashkar Gah, Nahr-i-Sarraj, Kajaki, Nad Ali, Marjah, Garmsir, and Sangin). The status of Washir district is uncertain as new reports from the district are scarce. Nearly all of Helmand has been controlled or influenced/contested for well over a year.

The situation in Helmand is so bleak that the Taliban has effectively surrounded the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah for well over a year, and have launched several forays into the city. Less than three weeks ago, the Taliban ambushed a large convoy of Afghan troops after they negotiated their safe passage from their base on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah. More than 200 Afghan troops were killed, wounded, captured, or surrendered. [See LWJ report, Taliban details deadly ambush of Afghan military convoy.]

The Taliban has also attacked four other provincial capitals: Kunduz City, Tairn Kot, Maimana, and Farah City over the past several months. Additionally, last week, the Taliban cut off the main roads to Maidan Wardak, the capital of Wardak province just outside of Kabul.

In order to threaten these provincial capitals, the Taliban has deliberately sought to control the rural districts surrounding them. These districts are vital to the Taliban’s insurgency. The areas are used to recruit and train fighters, raise funds, resupply, and launch attacks into the population centers. This strategy was explained by Mullah Aminullah Yousuf, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan, in April 2016.

Despite the success the Taliban has had employing this strategy, General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in the country, has downplayed the Taliban’s control of rural areas.


Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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10 Comments

  • David Smith says:

    USFOR-A are always going to try and paint the rosiest of pictures. A lot of Sar e Pol and Faryab (not just Maimana city) provinces are heavily under Taliban control, as are very large parts of Kunduz province (not the city). As is large parts of Dostum’s stronghold; Jowzjan. I think both USFOR-A and SIGAR have grossly underestimated Taliban ‘control’.

  • Eugene says:

    So does this mean that what we are told-thought to be true-isn’t by the U.S.Military in country? Are the pooh-baas in both the DoD & the Congress in a state of delusional denial about where the war on terror has lead to? Questions, questions, yet the drain on the treasury continues. As the U.S. adventure continues, along with the ever widening footprint, just how long can it be sustained?

  • Arjuna says:

    Good points, Bill. Sad no one is listening.
    America lost the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan.
    The same as we lost the war in Syria to Russia.
    We should just sell weapons. Jk lol.
    We are too dumb (politicized) to use them effectively.

  • Carrick says:

    For those of us who were adults in the mid-1960s, this sounds distressingly familiar.

  • Dave Roberts says:

    The US military command has been instructed to paint a more positive picture of the status in Afghanistan to assist President Obama’s false “legacy”. Isn’t it obvious? The rosier the portrait just prior to his exit from the White House, the easier it will be for him to blame the upcoming collapse in Afghanistan on his successor.

    The President’s staff merely instructs the military to construct a positive picture regardless of the truth. To understand it all, you must know the following;

    WAR IS PEACE
    FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
    IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

    • tom says:

      Much as “Mission Accomplished” and the 2008 Bush-Iraq agreement allowed Bush to leave in glory.

      • Dave Roberts says:

        That’s a good point, Tom. Although I do think that the military scenario in Iraq in 2008 was far more positive for us than the one in Afghanistan today.

    • Joe Johnson says:

      Wait a second, do you honestly believe that there is anybody in the military, especially the U.S. Command in Afghanistan that actually “cares” about the Obama legacy, especially enough to give false data that would make him look better than he does? Really?

      • Dave Roberts says:

        Now that his ally, HRC, has lost the elction, it’s less likely to occur. But yes, I do believe that those in the military would enhance situation reports to make it look better than it really is. You’re naive to think otherwise.

        You’re right that no-one truly cares about the Obama legacy, Joe, but the primary factor in human activity is self interest. The military isn’t immune to this either, and consequently they will lean towards doing whatever they can to please their boss, the Commander in Chief. Promotions rely on their reviews, ultimately given by the President’s appointees.

        C’mon Joe, this isn’t rocket science! Try reading “In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story” by John Stockwell for an example of how we fought a war (in Angola) that we knew we would lose irregardless of our country’s best interests. And that’s hardly an isolated example.

  • Moose says:

    It just dawned on me how the Taliban has made significant inroads in places like Faryab and Jowzjan in the north. I had underestimated the willingness of Dostum’s rivals to ally with them. The Taliban probably provided weapons and some of their Uzbek fighters to the warlords up there. Everyone’s hedging their bets.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis