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.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.