As the United States enters a new phase of its war in Afghanistan, FDD’s Long War Journal is proud to present a renewed assessment of the Taliban’s strength and disposition, with new interactive features. Our assessment highlights the Taliban’s rural control, a key source of insurgent strength that the US military underestimates. The coalition and Afghan government cannot roll back Taliban gains or ultimately defeat it while ignoring the Taliban’s rural advantage.
“Taliban Control in Afghanistan” is a mapped assessment of districts controlled and contested by the Taliban. FDD’s Long War Journal estimates the Taliban currently controls 41 districts and contests an additional 118. The assessment is developed by regularly evaluating local, open-source reports for each district in Afghanistan. A controlled district is one in which the Taliban is openly administering a district, providing services and security, running the local courts and imposing sharia law.
Overall, LWJ has determined that 45 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban.
In developing this mapped assessment, FDD’s Long War Journal evaluates the Taliban’s claims of control. LWJ consulted local reports and utilized expertise of historical dynamics to validate any Taliban claims. When unable to corroborate the Taliban’s claims, LWJ indicated a district as “un-confirmable Taliban claim of control/contested.” Sometimes, the Taliban chooses not to claim districts one might expect, including districts considered the birthplace of and the traditional heartland of the Taliban in Kandahar province. As such, the Taliban’s self-assessment are regarded with some degree of validity. There are 25 districts where the Taliban claims some measure of control that cannot be independently verified. By and large, most of the Taliban’s claims to control or contest specific districts are rather honest self-assessments.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the congressionally-mandated oversight body on Afghanistan, reported 11 districts under insurgent control, 34 under insurgent influence, and 119 contested. SIGAR, which obtains its information for the US military and Resolute Support – NATO’s mission in Afghanistan – does not, however, release district-specific assessments. SIGAR’s assessment is dated; its latest report from Aug. 1 is based on information provided in June.
FDD’s Long War Journal assessment aligns closely with those of both the US military and the Taliban itself. The Taliban claims to control or contest 50 percent of the country’s 407 districts. The US military puts the estimate at 40 percent (note that LWJ believes that the US military’s assessment of Taliban controlled and contested districts is flawed).
The Taliban is fighting a rural insurgency
The US military and Afghan security forces tend to emphasize urban control in assessing the Taliban’s strength and downplay the Taliban’s control of rural areas. In recent SIGAR reports, the US military has described these rural regions controlled or contested by the Taliban as “less vital areas” that have “less strategic importance.”
This urban focus underestimates the Taliban and its strategy to leverage control of rural areas to launch attacks against urban centers. Continual attacks against urban centers delegitimize the Afghan government and force the redeployment Afghan National Security Forces. The LWJ classified districts in which the Taliban controls everything except the district center as “contested.” The Taliban self-assessed rural control (all but the district center) in 124 districts.
In addition to safe havens in Pakistan and Pakistani state support, rural areas in Afghanistan are essential to the Taliban’s resilience and ability to consistently undermine Afghan security. The Taliban has a stated strategy of opening interior lines in southern provinces to threaten other areas. This belt of districts, stretching east-west from Farah to Paktia, allows the Taliban to consistently attack urban centers. For example, the Taliban uses these districts to threaten the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Farah, and Tarinkot. LWJ‘s mapped assessment clearly shows this southern belt. The Taliban has attempted a similar approach in the north, albeit with less success.
Although the NATO mission in Afghanistan downplays the significance of these rural districts, the Taliban considers them pivotal. For example, the Taliban heralded its capture of Sangin district center as a “strategic victory” Although these districts may be nothing more than “rubble and dirt” to Resolute Support, they represent the lifeblood of the insurgency for the Taliban. The Taliban utilizes rural areas to launch attacks against population centers, as well as to fundraise, resupply, recruit, and train fighters.
The new American strategy for Afghanistan places much needed emphasis on Pakistan. FDD’s Long War Journal has mapped terrorist groups operating openly in Pakistan and continues to track US strikes in the country.
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I suspect that the Taliban utilize the rural areas because that is where they are from and the peoples there are more traditionally oriented than from places like Kabul. The Kabulis have been the focus of all the foreign invading forces for years instilling a variety of “foreign” values, like several of the communist leaders in the overthrow of Daoud who were actually trained in US universities, supported by many of the Afghan military who were trained in the Soviet Union with that military aid program.Di
By threaten Kandahar city, do you mean the ability to engage in assassinations, terrorism, intimidation and similar attacks on Kandahar; or to mass and threaten Kandahar? I don’t think the Taliban can mass and threaten Kandahar. By contrast the Taliban can mass near TarinKot and Lashkar Gah.
The ANSF pulled back from many rural areas starting in 2014 because they felt (correctly) that they didn’t have the TO&E and OOB to defend all of them. This enables to the Taliban to move logistics and maneuver forces around large parts of the country with some operational security. If the ANSF had a significant military presence in more districts, the Taliban wouldn’t be able to operate with as much operational security. Their ability to reliably move significant logistics through districts with significant ANSF presence is also compromised. If the ANSF had more joint fires observers and forward air controllers spread out throughout the country; the Taliban’s ability to maneuver and move logistics would significantly diminish. Combined with more D30s and CAS aircraft, this transforms the battle-space.
1) The ANSF needs a significant presence, with joint fires observers, forward air controllers, and intelligence analysts in more districts around the country. They need to engage, assist and protect the local population to the degree possible to obtain intelligence.
2) The ANSF needs more D30 (or in the short run coalition) artillery located in as many parts of the country as possible
3) The ANSF needs more CAS (and in the short/intermediate run coalition) aircraft to allow rapid CAS everywhere in the country.
This will allow the ANSF to gradually limit Taliban maneuverability and logistics. Over time this will diminish the Taliban’s ability to mass near and threaten population centers.
Taliban claim to control Lal district outside of the district center is entirely false. Very little Taliban presence in Lal wa Sarjangal district.
We have Lal wa Sarjangal as ‘unconfirmable.’ We cannot find anything to support the Taliban’s claim.
“Protect the local population…” ?? The Taliban in the Kandahar area (at least) are of the “local population”. The Taliban do not have an “army” and never have. No artillery, air force, etc. They are not fighting a combat war of tactics but a guerilla war of ambushes and roadside bombs. Even against the incapable Afghan army with all our support over the past 17 or so years, they do not have the power or organization to “win”. But neither does the ANA. These kinds of wars continue until both sides decide they cannot win and begin to talk about a joint government. And the Taliban would probably be able to end corruption, of which they were not involved during their period of governing…which would be great.
Moderating Insurgencies&War via “Per-Capita Wellbeing Assets” Development ….
Well, if the following is a relevant ‘slice of the area valuables’, how come no one seems to be interested in enhancing the socioeconomic keys to bettering the Per-Capita Wellbeing assets of the Area’s Resident Afghans — Talib or Otherwise — ….to work towards a District-by-District, Zonal, Negotiated Settlement Trials, as a Strategic-Settlement Beginning???
The Locals need HELP with (easily doable, infrastructure enhancements….), FAILED AT BY THE USG / Others) since 2002. Such “Wellbeing Assets” repairs / improvements, especially at the Kajakai Dam Complex & (promised by decades ago, but…) THE NEVER BUILT, Northern Helmand Irrigation Canals — to greatly benefit the Locals where Water & Energy are Life. There is also another, potential dam-site upstream on the Helmand River in Uruzgan…., enhancing Zonal flood control & irrigation water storage, with hydro-electric generation potentials. The real RegistanZone breakthrough, however, would be the quick construction of the TAPI (from the Turkmen gas fields) down along the Herat-Kandahar-Quetta Highways; and an Iranian NATGAS import/trunking connection, through Baluchistan, for (energy-starved…) Pakistan…. Pakistan is very short of energy, electricity and water… So, such Regional Improvements would be Win-Win-Win for the Interested Parties…. And, the Talib could help with operations security / benefit from jobs-created… And, the MAZAR-KUNDUZ Area has just the same kinds of, easily done, irrigation / NATGAS power improvements potentials…. Most of Afghanistan’s District-level stresses / infighting bases are because multi-ethnic, population increases have left so many without sufficient, per-capita, land-water-energy-employment opportunities….. Several millions of landless-waterless-unemployed Poor, crowding into AFSTAN’s few cities, is CERTAINLY NOT an attractive, “strategic solution”….
Perhaps the LWJ and the SIGAR would be interested in discussing???
[per the LWG…] “…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…..”
Bill, does LWJ have any estimate for how much of the population lives in the districts under Taliban control?
It was a different time and place, but here’s how CIA viewed “control” in South Vietnam ten months before the fall of Saigon in a now declassified report:
“Despite periodic fighting in many parts of South Vietnam since the January 1973 cease-fire, relatively little population and territory have changed hands. Saigon still controls the vast majority of the people as well as most of the economically important land. The Communists hold a fairly wide swath of territory along the western portion of the country, but they control only some 5 percent of the country’s population.”
– The Tactical Situation in South Vietnam’s Four Military Regions; CIA, 6/17/74, //www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP85T00353R000100060005-5.pdf
The territory under Taliban is exaggerated, example Panjshir valey is depicted as under control of Taliban while it is not true.
We show one district in Panjshir, Dara, that is contested. We do not list any other districts as Taliban controlled or contested.
We do not have an estimate of population living under Taliban control, but SIGAR does. See page 88, here: //www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2017-07-30qr.pdf
According to SIGAR, 2.7% of population live under Taliban controlled areas, 8.4% live under Taliban influenced, and another 29.2% live in contested districts. Keep in mind that contested districts may (and often does) mean the Taliban controls all areas of district except district center.
*Obviously………we have too many troops in the Afghan Theater. We need to walk away..
and let Airpower and Drones do whatever we can do to control those massed Taliban forces.
Welcome to Vietnam Part II……..Kandahar, the Northern Poppy Fields and the outskirts of Kabul…….should be our targets now and in the future.
Thank you Ted for mentioning Vietnam. Then too the real issue was sidelined and enemy body count was equated with success in war. Now it is area control which means just as little in the context of Afghanistan.
What matters is where sympathies of the people lie. Vietnamese detested the corrupt government installed and kept in place by a foreign power. So do the Afghans. No amount of use of force is going to change this. On the contrary it will gain sympathy and bring more volunteers for Taliban. Increasing pressure on Pakistan will only turn away the country needed most for access to Afghanistan.
The problem is the U.S are not admitting that more than peace they want to have permanent military presence which no government with a popular base in Afghanistan can deliver, not after all the killing. It means endless war and more needless killing. Total avoidable Afghan deaths since 2001 already top 3 million people, about 900,000 of whom are infants under five (see ‘Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950’ by Professor Gideon Polya). How much longer can it go on and to what end?
Wow. So, “45% controlled” (or ‘contested’). You mean to tell me that after 16 years, those tail bunnies haven’t even made it to midfield (the 50-yard line) yet? And many of you are already wanting to just ‘cut and run’ from this thing. Sure, I admit, it’s not a good thing. It is cause for concern. It just tells me that the current situation over there (at least in the short term) is for the most part a stalemate.
I say it again and again. Go after the opium trade, CIA. If you are looking for a Hail Mary play, that is it. Legitimize it, infiltrate it or do whatever it takes to seize control over it. There is no doubt in my mind that there is an intelligence bonanza to be gotten through it. You will learn everything you need to know and then some on the Taliban.
In fact, I believe that you will even make significant inroads into the inner workings of their umbrella AQ itself by doing so.
On contested districts, I’ve always thought well of the “Kilcullen Test:” does the district chief sleep in the district?
Your post highlights one of the major things going wrong within the community that comments on Afghanistan. The simple failure to read and understand the information put before you and the subsequent opinion based on that failure to comprehend distort the view for anyone unfortunate enough to read what you think. The depressing thing is that the needless confusion and distortion of facts (in an environment where facts are already difficult to come by) are easily avoidable if only people understood what they were looking at and valued accuracy over the opportunity to have their voice heard.
As the LWJ has pointed out in the past, pressure to show success has compromised USFOR-A’s control percentage metric. The LWJ has described it, charitably, as being “significantly underestimated and understated”. (Bill Roggio, Taliban control of Afghan districts remains ‘unchanged,’ according to SIGAR; 8/1/17, LWJ).
The metric, in turn, may have compromised how the war is fought. In many areas, the Afghan government appears to be maintaining besieged compounds in the centers of otherwise enemy controlled districts for the sake of the metric. The US military, in turn, is defending those data points with airstrikes.
The NYT reported on 10/3/17, for instance, that “On at least one occasion, [there have been several, actually] when the Taliban have overrun the center of a district, the government has relocated the local administration compound to another area so it can say ‘no, the district has not fallen’.”
On other occasions, security forces have claimed to have successfully defended a district center that Taliban video footage has subsequently shown to have been overrun and held. (e.g. “Afghan officials denied the district center [of Gomal] was overrun. However, the Taliban has recently released video to prove that Gomal was, in fact, under its control.” LWJ, 7/11/17.)
SIGAR’s last report to Congress, on 7/30/17, advised that the assessment process behind the metric would be altered “to allow for greater fidelity” in time for its next Congressional report, due in late October. If achieved, that “greater fidelity”, along with the results of a very busy fighting season, should produce a lurch in the controlled or contested percentages.