The battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban “remains a stalemate” and the number of districts under Taliban control or influence is “unchanged” since the last assessment by the US military was made more than five months ago. The Afghan government continue to cede “less vital areas” in order to “prevent defeat.”
That assessment, provided by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its most recent quarterly report to United States Congress, is likely the best possible scenario provided by the US military. SIGAR’s evaluation is based on data provided by US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
The only problem is both USFOR-A and Resolute Support have significantly underestimated and understated the Taliban’s control of districts in the past.
According to the report, the Taliban continues to control 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.
According to SIGAR, Kunduz province has the largest percentage of districts under Taliban control or influence (five of seven). Uruzgan (four of six Taliban controlled or influenced) and Helmand (nine of 14) round out the top three.
USFOR-A’s assessment of Helmand, for example, demonstrates that the US military is painting the rosiest picture possible when it comes to determining the extent of Taliban control. USFOR-A claims that only nine of 14 districts are Taliban controlled or influenced, however the situation is far more dire than that. The Taliban now controls six of the province’s 14 districts (Baghran, Dishu, Khanashin, Now Zad, Musa Qala, and Sangin) and contests another seven, including the provincial capital (Lashkar Gah, Nahr-i-Sarraj, Nawa, Kajaki, Nad Ali, Marjah, and Garmsir), according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal.
In other words, 13 of Helmand’s 14 districts are at the very least contested – much more than the assessment of nine by USFOR-A.
Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the security situation in Helmand and is known to operate in southern Helmand. Fighters from al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent have reportedly trained at camps located in Helmand’s Dishu and Khanashin districts as recently as 2014. The town of Baramacha in Dishu is a known hub of jihadist activity. The camps are believed to be operational to this day. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Al Qaeda operates in southern Helmand province.]
Another key indicator that USFOR-A’s data is skewed to present a more positive picture of the security situation is the identification of a problem area in southern Afghanistan. This region was previously described by FDD’s Long War Journal 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 and districts. According to SIGAR:
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. This region alone accounts for one-third of the 45 districts currently under insurgent control or influence.
While USFOR-A does not provide data on Taliban control or influence on a province by province basis, it did identify the Taliban threat in two provinces: Helmand and Uruzgan. According to USFOR-A, there are 13 districts controlled of influence in Helmand and Uruzgan combined. If one-third of the 45 districts (15) controlled or influenced by the Taliban reside in the region, then this means only two districts in Zabul and Kandahar are Taliban controlled or influenced. The data clearly shows otherwise.
The Taliban clearly controls three districts in northern Kandahar (Miya Nishin, Khakrez, and Ghorak) and two more in Zabul (Khak-e-Afghan and Arghandab). Several others, including Arghastan, Khakrez, Maruf, Maiwand, and Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar, are contested.
Like in Helmand, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the security situation in Kandahar province to established bases. Up until Oct. 2015, al Qaeda ran two large training camps in Shorabak district. US forces killed more than 150 al Qaeda fighters while raiding the camps.