The Taliban and allied jihadist groups control 10 percent of the Afghan population and contest another 20 percent, the top US commander in Afghanistan said. General John Nicholson, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support and US Forces-Afghanistan, characterized the fact that 30 percent of the Afghan population is controlled or contested by the Taliban as a “positive” development, as the Taliban is primarily operating in the rural areas of Afghanistan.
“We believe the Afghans control or heavily influence 68 to 70 percent of the population,” Nicholson told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing today. “We believe the enemy control or influence about 10 percent of the population. And then the balance, roughly a quarter, is in play, is contested.”
“This is a positive in the sense of the majority of the population is under control of the government forces and this primarily the population centers, and so on, and the enemy is primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country,” Nicholson continued.
While Nicholson downplayed the importance of the Taliban’s presence in rural Afghanistan, the Taliban uses the rural areas to raise funds, recruit and train fighters, and launch attacks on population centers. Additionally, Taliban allies such as al Qaeda run training camps and operate bases in areas under Taliban control.
Nicholson described press reporting on Taliban offensives, including the group’s recent operations that threatened to overrun the provincial capitals of Kunduz, Helmand, and Uruzgan, as “exaggerated reports about how dire the security situation is.” These reports, Nicholson claimed, force the Afghan government to respond.
Nicholson sidestepped a question from a reporter who asked what percentage of territory that the Taliban control, and restated his estimate is based on population control.
The Long War Journal, based on press reporting, military and government statements, and Taliban claims, estimates that the Taliban controls 10 percent of the districts in Afghanistan and contests another 12 percent.
“Contested” means that the government may be in control of the district center, but little else, and the Taliban controls large areas or all of the areas outside of the district center. “Control” means the Taliban is openly administering a district, providing services and security, and also running the local courts. Often, the district centers are under Taliban occupation or have been destroyed entirely. The Taliban does not always hold the districts it takes. It occasionally will seize a district or the district center, occupy it and fly the flag, leave after a few days, then return at a later date. These districts are considered contested at best.
The Long War Journal believes that the Taliban controls and contests more that 22 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. For instance, based on historical Taliban operations, it is likely that additional districts in Kunar, Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar, Wardak, Zabul, Ghazni, Nimruz and Kandahar are Taliban administered or contested. But without a claim of control or news reporting to substantiate the Taliban’s presence, the exact status of these districts cannot be determined.
The Taliban control and contest more territory today than at any time since US forces invaded the country after al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.