The Afghan government “has lost territory to the insurgency” and “district control continues to decline,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its most recent quarterly report to United States Congress. An estimated 15 percent of Afghanistan’s districts have slipped from the government’s control over that time period.
The picture is more bleak than what the Obama administration and top military commanders have let on when looked at from a longer distance. According to SIGAR, the Afghan government controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts today compared to 72 percent in Nov. 2015.
“SIGAR’s analysis of the most recent data provided by US Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A) suggests that the security situation in Afghanistan has not improved this quarter,” the watchdog group noted in its most recent assessment of the country. “The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.”
“[T]he ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency,” since the last reporting period. The Afghan government has lost control of more than six percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts since SIGAR issued its last report, on Oct. 30.
According to SIGAR, the insurgency, which is overwhelmingly made up of the Taliban, now controls nine districts and influences another 32, while 133 districts are “contested.” USFOR-A defines contested districts as “having ‘negligible meaningful impact from insurgents,’ contending that neither the insurgency nor the Afghan government maintains significant control over these areas.”
The names of the Taliban controlled and influenced districts, as well as those that are contested, were not disclosed by USFOR-A or SIGAR. However, according to SIGAR:
The region with the most districts under insurgent control or influence is centered on northeast Helmand Province and northwestern Kandahar Province, and includes the Helmand/Kandahar border area, Uruzgan Province, and northwestern Zabul. This region alone accounts for 16 of the 41 districts (or 31.7%) under insurgent control or influence.
“Less strategic importance”
The US military justified the loss of territory by claiming the Afghan government’s “new Sustainable Security Strategy” calls for abandoning districts that are “not important.”
“USFOR-A attributes the loss of government control or influence over territory to the ANDSF’s strategic approach to security prioritization, identifying the most important areas that the ANDSF must hold to prevent defeat, and focusing less on areas with less strategic importance,” SIGAR reported. “Under its new Sustainable Security Strategy, the ANDSF targets ‘disrupt’ districts for clearance operations when the opportunity arises, but will give first priority to protecting ‘hold’ and ‘fight’ districts under its control.”
This strategy neglects the fact that the Taliban views rural districts or those “with less strategic importance” as critical to its insurgency. The Taliban uses theses districts 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. This strategy was explained by Mullah Aminullah Yousuf, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan, in April 2016.
The Taliban has utilized its control of the rural districts to directly threaten major population centers. Last year, the Taliban was able to threaten five of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The government lost control of Kunduz for more than a week last fall.
US military underestimates Taliban control and contested districts
FDD’s Long War Journal has maintained that the US military’s assessment of the state of play in Afghanistan’s districts is flawed. Our study estimates the Taliban controls 42 Afghan districts and contests (or influences) another 55. [Note: USFOR-A’s definition of “influence” matches our 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 properly 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.
USFOR-A claims, according to SIGAR, that “The region with the most districts under insurgent control or influence is centered on northeast Helmand Province and northwestern Kandahar Province, and includes the Helmand/Kandahar border area, Uruzgan Province, and northwestern Zabul. This region alone accounts for 16 of the 41 districts (or 31.7%) under insurgent control or influence.”
While this geographic area is poorly defined, LWJ estimates that 24 districts are controlled (12) or influenced/contested (12) in the four provinces mentioned (Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Zabul). This means that the Taliban, based on USFOR-A’s estimate, controls or influences/contests only 17 districts through the remaining 30 provinces. However the Taliban is known to control or influence/contest multiple districts in the provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, Badghis, Faryan, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Jawzjan, Kapisa, Badakhshan, Nuristan, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika, Wardak, Logar, Ghazni, Ghor, Farah, and Herat.
Top military commanders have downplayed the Taliban’s gains over the past year. 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. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US commander in Afghanistan downplays Taliban control of 10 percent of population.]
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.