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