Both the Taliban and the Afghan government have slightly increased the number of Afghan districts under their control over the past three months, but the security situation remains virtually unchanged, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its most recent quarterly report to United States Congress.
The Taliban controls 11 districts and influences 34 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (11 percent), while the Afghan government controls 97 districts and influences 146 (60 percent). Twenty-nine percent of Afghanistan’s districts remain contested. Taliban control of Afghan districts has increased one percent, while Afghan control has increased by 2.5 percent, according to SIGAR.
SIGAR’s assessment is based on data provided by US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Both USFOR-A and Resolute Support have underestimated and understated the Taliban’s control of districts in the past.
Most recently, in March, when the Taliban overran Sangin in Helmand province, Resolute Support denied the district center was overrun and instead claimed it was relocated several miles away while the old complex was bombed to “rubble and dirt.” Or, when the Taliban seized control of half of Kunduz City in October 2016, Resolute Support claimed the city was under Afghan military control. Resolute Support responded similarly when the Taliban overran Nawa district in October 2016.
The SIGAR report also identified what FDD’s Long War Journal has previously described as a belt of bases in the south that stretches across the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni which are used to attack nearby provincial capitals.
USFOR-A identified the regions/provinces with the largest percentage of insurgent controlled or influenced districts as Uruzgan Province, with four of its six districts under insurgent control or influence (a one-district improvement since last quarter), and Helmand with nine of 14 districts under insurgent control or influence (a one-district decline since last quarter),” SIGAR noted. “The region with the most districts under insurgent control or influence is centered on northeastern Helmand Province and northwestern Kandahar Province, and includes the Helmand/Kandahar border area, Uruzgan Province, and northwestern Zabul.”
“Less vital areas”
Previously, the US military justified the loss of territory to the Taliban by claiming the Afghan government’s “new Sustainable Security Strategy” calls for abandoning districts that are “not important.” Now, the US military is saying that the Afghan military is “placing less emphasis on less vital areas.”
“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 placing less emphasis on less vital areas,” SIGAR notes.
This strategy neglects the fact that the Taliban views these “less vital areas” 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 more than half of Kunduz City for more than an entire week last fall.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.