US officials estimate Taliban strength at a minimum of 60,000 fighters

NBC News reports that US and Afghan officials estimate the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan to be a minimum of 60,000 fighters. This updated figure is significant, because as the report notes, for years the only previous estimate was approximately 20,000:

In 2014, US officials told NBC News that the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan was about 20,000. Four years later, one US defense official said the current Taliban strength is at least 60,000. Another senior U.S. official said 60,000 “passes the sniff test,” while a third official said 60,000 is “a place to start.”

An Afghan official told NBC News earlier this month that the Afghan estimate of Taliban strength is also 60,000. That marks a significant increase from the estimate of 35,000 that Afghanistan’s TOLOnews attributed to an Afghan defense official in 2011.

Given all of the information available to FDD’s Long War Journal, I believe this latest assessment to significantly more accurate. I am quoted in the above-referenced article that 60,000 would be my low-end estimate. In fact, with the amount of territory up for grabs and fighting taking place, that number could easily be doubled.

The report went on to note that one official thinks it’s a “fool’s errand” to estimate Taliban strength as “the fighters often change their allegiance from one terror group to another”:

The US military does not release official numbers on how many Taliban are in Afghanistan. One US official called such estimates a “fool’s errand” because the fighters often change their allegiance from one terror group to another.

“It’s a wildly varying planning figure,” the official said, explaining the US military needs a marker to plan to fight but is hopeful many fighters are not ideological and will eventually lay down their arms and “find a reason to identify with Afghanistan nationalism and the larger good.”

Part of the reason for the apparent increase in Taliban strength is integration between the Taliban and a separate group of Islamist militants, the Haqqani network. According to the Pentagon’s June 2017 Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, “Haqqani and Taliban integration has become so robust that many observers no longer look at them as separate entities, but as factions within the same group.”

There is a lot to unpack in those three short paragraphs, but here are the three key issues with those statements.

1) If the fighters “change their allegiance from one terror group to another,” what difference does that really make? The groups they are moving between are still comprised of jihadists who are battling the Afghan government and Coalition forces.

2) Unfortunately, some US officials remain blind to the fact that the Haqqani network is a integral part of the Taliban and view it as some sort of separate entity. This is both shortsighted and incorrect. As we’ve explained numerous times here at FDD’s Long War Journal, both the Taliban and Haqqani leaders have repeatedly denied there is separation between the two. Siraj Haqqani, the operational leader of the Haqqani Network, is one of two deputies to the Taliban’s emir. He also serves as the Taliban’s top military commander and leads its Miramshah Shura, one of four Taliban subcommands. His father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, sits on the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, also known as the Quetta Shura. Haqqani Network leaders have served as Taliban shadow governors for Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. The Taliban claims credit for attacks that the US and Afghan government blame on the Haqqani Network. Statements by Haqqani network leaders are routinely released at Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official propaganda arm.

3) Hope is not a strategy. One disillusioned US official says, according to NBC News, that he is “hopeful many fighters are not ideological and will eventually lay down their arms and ‘find a reason to identify with Afghanistan nationalism and the larger good.'” US officials have hoped this for years, and yet the Taliban remains more potent than ever. Hopefully, US officials will begin to recognize the commitment of the Taliban.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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7 Comments

  • Paddy Singh says:

    That means the US and allies would need over 550,000troops to fight them? No way. The UK has no forces so to speak of and the US? They need to read Steven Pressfield’s book on Alexander the Great – ‘The Afghan Campaign’. Also they need to remember the old Afghan saying – “You can rent an Afghan, but you can’t buy him” – will eventually be borne out. The biggest mistake was the Soviet interference and overthrow of the Shah, followed by the supposed fight by the Americans to force their form of democracy from the Communists. The Middle East is an example of Bush and Blair’s path to their idea of imperialism.

  • Moose says:

    Hey Bill, an article on the differences between the Taliban shuras would be interesting.

  • conradswims says:

    Good article Bill! Here is a little fat for folks to chew on. Afghanistan is a Land Locked Tribal region with at least 14 ethane-linguistic groups who do not want nor trust a central govt. and nave no reason to become a Nation State as we view it! Here are some stats to prove my point. The hardworking American tax payer has flushed more than a Trillion $ into this “Latest” misadventure in the land of the high flags. Thousands of dead and maimed America Warriors. Here is how much good we have done. TI corruption ranking has A-stan at 169 out of 176 countries with a score of 15 out of a possible 100. The GDP per capita is $561.78. The literacy is 38.2% and 40% of the folks are unemployed. The good news is that life expectancy is 60.72 years. This train wreck will go down as one of the five worst ever foreign policy blunders in the history of man.

    • Rob says:

      1.) Just because there are various ethnic groups with differing languages, doesn’t mean they all “want nor trust a central government.” You’re throwing a wide net and catching nothing.
      2.) The only ethnic group in the entirety of Afghanistan that utilize tribal denominations to self-identify, are the Pashtuns.
      3.) You bring up a trillion dollar price tag and American lives lost. Yes, wars cost lives and money.
      4.) Transparency International’s figures are correct, but you’re throwing them out there without any form of context. You act like the Afghans just suddenly one day had horrible GDP, employment and literacy ratings. The very fact you throw out stats like that without understanding how or why those numbers are the way they are, demonstrate your ignorance.
      Here’s something you forgot to mention in your comment:
      Afghanistan is a nation that has been in continuous conflict for four decades, almost a half-century. Do you think it’s easy to work on improving economics, corruption, literacy and quality of life, while you’re at war? Here’s one more fact for you: The reason they rank that high on the TI corruption index, is because the USA openly allied itself with warlords (still does) who are among the most corrupt people in the entire country. So when you build a government of warlords and other corrupt actors, you’re going to get massive corruption. The USA looked at the corrupt government it had assisted in creating, and said “Oh wow, look how corrupt the savage Afghans are. They’re so corrupt, we could never help, that’s just how they are and how things get done there. Why bother helping them with anti-corruption?”
      We haven’t even had any form of an anti-corruption plan until recently, because everyone in the US government thought it was best to just leave it alone, when in reality, it was one of (if not the biggest) hindrance to the whole war effort. You’re spewing BS.

  • Zimriel says:

    Another point is that the US is covering for child molesters among the nonIslamist militias. Has been since they got there.

    The Taliban got into power in the first place because Najib and his Russian allies were doing the same. It’s just their culture; we can’t afford to lose these guys; what, are you some kind of homophobe etc etc etc.

  • Bryan says:

    Nothing like trying to solve the wrong problem. In particular, the quote: “hopeful many fighters are not ideological and will eventually lay down their arms and ‘find a reason to identify with Afghanistan nationalism and the larger good”, is very telling to support the idea of not understanding the problem.

    Changing the cognitive dimension of Taliban members is something that must be supported through targeting and not from a kinetic aspect alone. The fact is, many of the fighters have based their decision to support the Taliban from an ideological position, which is difficult to influence or overcome. However, not impossible…but, hope is not a strategy or even a throw away COA to effect that aspect of the network.

    Three elements must exist for network to form and sustain itself: a catalyst, receptive audience and accomodating environment. Many of the articles published on actions taken focus specifically on the third portion: the environment. What about the other two elements? How quickly can they adapt to changes in the environment? Pretty quick. However, adapting to changes that impact the catalyst for the network and their receptive audience are much more difficult.

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