US commander in Afghanistan downplays Taliban control of 10 percent of population

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.

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  • David says:

    We control the cities, they control the countryside? Hmm, sounds familiar.

  • anan says:

    General Nicholson’s point is that Taliban control and influence isn’t appreciably greater now than 1 year ago. In some parts of the country Taliban influence has receded over the past year (Nuristan, Kunar, Khost, Paktia, Kabul, Badakhshan, Nangarhar, Kunduz, Kandahar). In other places GIRoA influence has receded (Helmand, Uruzgan.) Districts change hands back and forth, but the overall strategic battlespace is not changing much.

    This year the ANDSF is likely to have record KIA, perhaps over 10,000. The Taliban/ISIS are also likely to experience record KIA and burn through record cash, ammunition, equipment and spares. The Taliban have no significant net battlefield successes to show for it.

    The reason HiG is officially joining GIRoA is that militarily they are at their weakest point since 2001.

    Recent increases in Afghan property prices, including in Kabul, suggest increased confidence in the GIRoA and ANDSF.

    The Taliban is increasingly focusing on terrorist attacks against soft westernized cultural targets (business, schools, universities, media, entertainment, tourists, international business people, international workers). While this hurts the Afghan economy and GIRoA tax revenue, this also de-legitimizes the Taliban among the Afghan people. Attacks on soft targets are now a greater threat to GIRoA than Taliban attacks against the ANDSF.

    ANDSF capacity continues to increase. Taliban military capacity is not growing as quickly. The long term trends are not favorable to the Taliban as long as international support for the ANDSF continues along current trends. Of course if India/Russia choose not to donate as much artillery, spares and aircraft as is the current expectation (and Resolute Force doesn’t increase their aid to compensate); the Taliban could regain momentum.

    As General Allen said at a recent Brookings panel, the ANDSF wasn’t given sufficient capacity to win; but given sufficient capacity not to lose. This was the plan all along. Things are going according to plan.

    Some of the reasons the ANSDF were purposely not given more capacity was:
    1) for fear the GIRoA would become more intransigent during peace talks with the Taliban and Pakistan
    2) for fear the GIRoA might launch cross border attacks into Pakistan
    3) for fear the Pakistani Army and Gulf would feel threatened and retaliate by increasing support for the Taliban.

    Again, things are going according to plan.

  • Chris says:

    Well, he has to, or accept and admit defeat to Fred Flintstone and Company.
    One always will protect ones face

  • pop seal says:

    My six contract deploys to the region confirmed the fact that you can’t make a silk purse using a sow’s ear. Nation building is a fool’s game. The only reason to be in any of those stink hole countries is to facilitate the deaths of as many jihad animals as possible.

  • Your last sentence says it all. Despite intensive (and costly) military campaign the Taliban expand their control, do not retreat as expected. Full or partial control of almost 30 percent of the territory is massive. Next, Gen Nicholson downplays the role of rural areas, but in fact Afghanistan is a rural country with only 26.7 percent of population living in urban areas (and those urban areas are not industrial modern centers). This all means that the government has little control over the territories and their population outside Kabul and most provincial centers. While the Taliban’s ‘control’ means effectively ‘governance’ – they perform most (if not all) functions of the state there. This all once again proves that pursuing the military campaign as a means to end the war in Afghanistan (as in many other countries) is mirage. Recently, in one of my blog posts I compared this sort of thought and rhetoric with sunk cost fallacy–more you invest, less you are willing to give up, even if evidence of failure looks straight into your face. Imposing does not work, it is proven counter-productive. Importing solutions (including capacity building or introducing modern practices, where no institutions exist to make use of them) is ineffective; huge cash injections in various good-sounding initiatives is largely waste and counter-productive, too (as the SIGIR latest report on corruption has shown). The solution is only in negotiation, concessions on all sides, and finding localised (i.e. built on local culture and political tradition), locally owned terms for peace settlement. The deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a kind of move in this direction. It is a long, painful, frustrating and iterative process but it has no alternative. The sooner we realise that the better it is for all.

  • Frank Dunn says:

    “Nicholson described press reporting on Taliban offensives….”as “exaggerated reports about how dire the security situation is.” These reports, Nicholson claimed, force the Afghan government to respond.”

    This press reporting is not coming from US news sources, since our journalists are limiting their coverage of Obama’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Islamic terror attacks in the US to help Obama’s legacy & Clinton’s election. So, what are the sources of these “exaggerated reports”?

  • Bo Bischoff says:

    Dear Anan,
    The Afghan Security Forces are hard pressed. ANA numbers has dwindled from 180.000 men to 120.000 due to losses and defections. ANA has suffered 40% more killed in 2016 – An attrition rate deemed unsustainable by all experts. Furthermore recruitment for the ANSF is getting increasingly harder. Not receiving salaries on time if at all is not a morale booster. I would suggest that Afghanistan is only held together by airstrikes and NATO Special Forces.

    On the other hand the Taliban, who has also suffered significant losses, has little difficulties attracting recruits and has risen by an estimated 14%. Even Uzbeks and Tadjiks is increasingly joining the Taliban, which seem stronger than ever and openly parades captured equipment (Helmand) and parades through towns (Kunduz, July). Presently the Taliban controls 39 districts all over the country as opposed to 9 districts in 2015 , while 43 districts are heavily contested. The killing of Mullah Mansour in Balochistan represented a minor setback and his successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has already made his mark in many ways, one of which is omitting the sanctuary normally given to humanitarian organisations in the yearly Taliban press release. What may be more challenging to the Taliban is the rift between the South and the West represented by Haibatullah and Mullah Rasul Akhund in Herat (who is rumoured to be dead) aligned with Iran and the animosity between the Kunduz and the Baglan Taliban following the Kunduz attack. Mullah Haibatullah has secured the support of the main Taliban factions and has proven himself a commander and a unifier.

    Finally, the Taliban has not deployed in full strength. Significant resources are still in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

    So, I beg to differ – things are not going according to plan – depending on your level of cynicism.

  • Bo Bischoff says:

    Dear Elbay Alibayov,
    I fully agree with your train of thought; military campaign as a means to end the war in Afghanistan is a mirage. That said, the deal with with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is perhaps not a move in the right direction – Hezb-i-Islamis military influence has waned significantly in his abscense – which is why he is seeking a return. With the current in-fight in the unity government (Jumbesh – Jamiat-e-Islami) adding another notorious trouble maker and turncoat will not make Ashraf Ghanis task easier. The GIRoAs power base is waning and allowing HiG is a display of weakness.

  • Arjuna says:

    Good comment.

  • Dear Bo,
    Your point is taken. Surely, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is driven by self-interest (who is not?) in this deal and, agree, given his past/customary behaviour he’s not an ideal partner for coalition building. The unity government struggles to consolidate even without new disruptors, especially now, under the pressure of deadline. The move by them might be done in despair, but it also bears certain symbolic significance, indicating the readiness to make a deal even with notorious persons (actually, after four decades of various wars, who can claim to stay clean?).
    On a more general note, I think that Afghanistan has yet to define its constitutional set-up. Externally promoted, Western-style centralised nation-state might not be their model; considering the tribal structure of polity it may well be organised as a state with highly (and deeply, down to the local level) devolved powers. The Afghans have a long way ahead of them to negotiate, try and test how their future would be organised. Two things are clear to me: this should be a process owned and driven by them and solutions should be rooted in their culture and tradition. We can assist, not drive.

  • anan says:

    Bo Bischoff, the ANA does not have a challenge with recruitment. The ANA has a challenge with training seats. The insufficient basic training seats the ANA has are full.

    General McChrystal and General Petraeus in 2009 suggested a massive increase in the ANATC (ANA Training Command) and ANP training command along with an ANSF force structure with an $11 billion per year steady state budget. In late 2009 and early 2010 briefings the ANSF planned training seats was increasing to 54,0000; with more to follow. I think the goal (albeit not publicly shared) was around 80,000. What was publicly telegraphed in many public military briefings was a plan to increase the number of 4 year cadets at the Afghan Defense University to between 2,000 and 3,000 graduates per year. In mid 2010, President Obama dramatically cut off the ANSF build. Reducing the number of training seats to just over 30,000; and reducing the number of planned annual 4 year cadets to 650. The planned steady state ANSF budget was reduced from $11 billion per year to $4 billion per year.

    The ANSF have no difficulty filling their training seats with new recruits. The problem is that the ANSF don’t have enough training seats to train all the Afghans who want to join.

    Even this the Afghans can live with. If we assume the Pakistanis and Gulf have a red line about how many soldiers and police the ANSF can have; the Afghans could still use more than twice as many training seats and a better trained force. Currently the ANATC only trains new recruits 8 weeks because they need to replace ANA casualties, AWOLs and planned retirements. Most ANA NCOs only get 4 weeks of additional training. Most ANA and ANP officers only get 20 weeks of training. These training cycles are far too small. This is the cause of most of the ANSF’s problems.

    The size of the ANA is publicly available:

    The ANA hasn’t appreciably shrunk in size.

    “ANA has suffered 40% more killed in 2016”
    There has been a major increase in KIAs in 2016. Total ANSF KIAs in 2015 were about 8500. This year KIAs are likely to be more than 10,000. How much more, I don’t know yet. My suspicion is that MoD and MoI are understating actual ANSF KIAs. This said, there has been a considerable increase in Taliban KIAs too.

    “has little difficulties attracting recruits”. True. But the type of recruits matter. Foreign recruits (mostly Pakistani) delegitimize the Taliban inside Afghanistan. Afghan recruits who fight in a province far away from their homes are not as useful from a legitimacy perspective. The attacks on Kunduz, Uruzgan, Helmand, Paktia, Paktika are extensively using non local recruits.

    “Even Uzbeks and Tadjiks is increasingly joining the Taliban” Would dispute you on Tajiks. The Taliban has always had a lot of fighters from Uzbekistan (IMU/IJU). Don’t think their numbers of Afghan Uzbeks (as opposed to non Afghan Uzbeks) is increasing.

    Another point to remember is that not all Taliban soldiers are the same. Senior cadre, NCOs, officers, leaders are worth a lot more than local untrained villagers. The Taliban have lost a lot of their best cadre.

    The brief Taliban foray into Kunduz with nonlocal fighters in July cost them a lot of casualties.

    Do the Taliban control any new districts they didn’t control a year ago outside of Helmand and Uruzgan?

    Moving districts from Taliban control to heavily contested to moderately contested . . . back and forth sometimes on maps mean less on the ground than one might think.

    “Haibatullah Akhundzada has already made his mark in many ways, one of which is omitting the sanctuary normally given to humanitarian organisations in the yearly Taliban press release” Without a doubt. This has significantly hurt the GIRoA, Afghan economy, and Afghan tax revenue.

    “Finally, the Taliban has not deployed in full strength. Significant resources are still in the tribal areas of Pakistan.” True. They are also receiving much more support from the Pakistani Taliban and ISI backed outfits (such as LeJ/Sipah e Sahaba/Jundullah, JeM/LeT, IMU/IJU) than in the past.

    Within the ANA, I would argue that 201st, 203rd, 205th, 207th, 209th Corps have improved. 11nth and 20th Divisions as well. 215th ANA Corps has suffered catastrophic casualties and now been filled with fresh slightly trained inexperienced recruits. Furthermore their battlespace has shrunk, providing them greater force densities in the areas they control.

    201st and 203rd ANA Corps are handling their battlespace with relatively modest ANASOF and Resolute Support. 203rd ANA Corps doesn’t even have a permanently assigned Corps level advisory team. 209th ANA Corps’ 20th Division is managing the fight in Badakshan with little ANASOF and Resolute Support.

    It shouldn’t be like this. If every ANA Corps, Division and Brigade had advisors; the situation in Afghanistan would be far better right now. If Resolute Support provided close air support and combat enablers to the ANA in a significant way, the situation would be much better now.

  • Nic Stuart says:

    As Baldrick comments in the comedy Blackadder, “the General has a cunning plan”. Arun is striving to be a Baldrick for our times . . .

  • Old Blue says:

    While specifically stating GIRoA control of cities, note that Nicholson speaks of population percentages. Since the vast majority of Afghans are rural dwellers, the indication would be that GIRoA controls more than just Kabul and Kandahar. The meme about the central government only controlling Kabul and little else sounds catchy, but it’s ignorant crap. Anyone who repeats it is likely not to be taken seriously.

    Nicholson is also likely correct in his assessment of overly dire reports of catastrophic collapse in areas that were not previously so threatened. We used to call it, “Afghan math.” The rule was to divide by three and you would have a more accurate number. If they said they’re were sixty insurgents, there was more likely thirty. They wanted your attention and knew that thirty wouldn’t get them that.

    Anand makes a good… and accurate… point about the reduction in training seats. There is no doubt that this has had a great impact. What is missed by every commenter is that there was an expansion plan for the ANSF (now ANDSF… another bullet point on an OER for adding the “D” to a term that was not ambiguous to begin with) according to the campaign plan laid by GEN McChrystal. That plan called for rapid expansion of infantry, while accepting risk, for the short term, on combat support and combat service support elements that were to be more fully developed later. Under the campaign plan, we were to provide these enablers in the short term, working with the ANDSF over the longer term… once the additional companies, battalions and brigades of infantry were built out and sustainable. Reducing training seats made sustainment of the infantry problematic, but it devastated the embryonic CS and CSS elements.

    It been said many times that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics. One area that we chose to accept risk on was logistics. Anyone who has worked with the ANDSF (hand raised here) knows that they have always been logistically challenged. That’s being polite. The point is that we never got there. The drawdown derailed the campaign plan. Medical and aviation also took back seats and were left unfinished. Some work has been done to salvage the aviation piece, but mostly in the CAS role. Death rates as a percentage of casualties have shot up as a result of pulling the rug out from under the campaign plan. With a much reduced MEDEVAC capacity and underdeveloped medical corps to care for CASEVAC’d casualties, Afghans are dying from wounds that they did not succumb to a few years ago when American MEDEVAC and medical care were often available. I know my team used it and saved lives.

    The reduced survivability of poor logistics and lack of medical and evacuation capability harms morale. Afghans are valiant fighters, but they are affected by the same impacts such conditions would have on any troops in such conditions.

    Finally, the point on governance… and the competition to govern that is an insurgency… is important. Yes, mistakes have been made. Massive mistakes. But the mistake is not in trying to build capacity. It is more along the lines of the deserved criticisms for trying to pattern Afghan governance after models most familiar to us and our partners, in ignorance of previous sustainable models that featured a central government with more autonomy at the provincial and district levels. Also, the Italian insistence on re-working the criminal code from scratch, when the Afghans themselves wanted to start with the Criminal Code of 1973, helped to create conditions that fostered corruption in the judicial system, leaving a huge opportunity to out-govern GIRoA in one whole leg of the three-legged structure that is governance. We also never used the technique that has enabled the ANDSF to have the success that it has even with its shortcomings; mentoring (except at high levels).

    Gulbuddin making peace is a good sign, and a positive development. Anyone who says otherwise, or claims that the deal displays GIRoA weakness ignores what the HiG is, where they came from, and their involvement in governance all along. I sat in provincial coordination meetings with “former” HiG governors. HiG was a spinoff of the Hizbi Islami Kulis, a legal political party to this day, because Gulbuddin was too inclined to violence for the HiK. But the HiG have always had a robust and active political arm, and their influence in the east/northeast has been strong and pervasive. In the Tagab Valley of Kapisa Province, the HiG outnumbered the Taliban by a 5:3 ratio. And the district sub-governor was “former” HiG.

    Disenfranchisement breeds radicalism and makes violence the only alternative. Eventually, any solution must provide for Taliban inclusion as a legitimate political party and participant in legitimate governance. The HiG have shown the way, and GIRoA the capacity to include. Not a bad sign, nor weakness.

  • Old Blue says:

    I’m REALLY interested to hear what you did as a contractor, and what company you worked for.

  • Bo Bischoff says:

    Dear Elbay,
    We agree.
    Little unity in the Unity Government. Many significant positions throughout the administration remain unfilled and it is uncertain for which period the GIRoA will remain in office. Elections were called for 2016, in spite of US statements (Kerry) that the Unity Government will rule for a 5-year period. Preparations for elections are limited and it is unlikely they will be held in the near future. The 2 Northern Warlords in the Government, Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Govenor Atta Mohamad Noor are fighting and have both threatened to field and fielded their militias in separate defence of their provinces in the north, though President Ghani has forbidden it. Adding HiG and Hekmatyar to this equation is not going to make the situation easier.
    My main concern is that Ashraf Ghani is running out of time. GNP is stagnating, more than 100.000 jobs were lost with force withdrawal, major infrastructural projects have been put on hold and the GIRoA is increasing unpopular. In that respect bringing Hekmatyar back does not make much of a dent in popularity.
    Yes, we can but assist, the Afghans must drive. However, the general feeling in the country – as I hear it – is that the window of opportunity has been wasted, that the Western powers are too fickle and shortsighted – significant and lasting positive changes in governance taking between 17-27 years on average (World Dev. Report 2011) and that we may have to return at a later date to pick up the pieces after yet another devastating civil war. So, the Afghan nation-state may once again be defined by the biggest stick?


Islamic state



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