Mapping Taliban controlled and contested districts in Afghanistan: LWJ vs US military assessments

Today, The New York Times published an article titled “How the U.S. Government Misleads the Public on Afghanistan.” FDD’s Long War Journal data on Taliban controlled and contested districts is compared to US military data. The side-by side comparison is striking. LWJ has long argued that the US military has provided a Pollyannish, best-case scenario of Taliban controlled & contested districts that downplays the Taliban’s territorial influence.

The NYT article also points out several areas where the US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan. For instance, the the report looks at Afghan and Taliban force strengths, and how they are perceived by the US military and the Afghan government. The article finishes with a side-by-side comparison of US military statements vs NYT reporting about the Taliban’s incursion into Ghazni that is wildly unflattering. LWJ noted from the beginning of the Ghazni attack up until the end that the US military was issuing statements that did not comport to the reality on the ground.

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.

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  • Paddy Singh says:

    There are districts in Afghanistan which have no open show of Taliban presence, but neither are there any Afghan soldiers. or signs of their government. Twice or three times a week the former brazenly walk in to check if soldiers have returned. They simply disappear in the evenings. In reality these areas are controlled by the Taliban. These areas constitute 30% of the country. Military analysts agree that over 60% of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban and it is honest to admit that over 80% of the country is under sway fo the militants where their writ runs. All that the Afghans are the Green Zones of Kabul and Kandahar and these too have faced the havoc of the Taliban who manage to infiltrate. An Afghan who goes back via Pakistan but lives here, told me that the Taliban run their writ almost throughout the country. He could not be lying.

  • Maurice Levie says:

    Contested, in control, in control during the night, all mean the same. Might as well color the entire country yellow except where the Shiites killed off the taliban (that White spot in the middle is urugzan).. and maybe the Kabul green zone.

  • Hank Baez says:

    Sounds like the same propaganda the government fed us about Vietnam

  • Joseph Shoemaker says:

    I believe in numbers and I’m grateful for sites like yours that gives facts and those facts indicate that we need a new approach.

    It seems the best approach here and probably for all of our foreign policy is to respect the sovereignty and the independence of every country whether we agree with how they do things or not especially when not a direct threat to us.

    My observation is what’s driving this continual War effort across the Middle East and now in Africa is to satisfy the needs of people are dependent upon the security budget to support their living standard. Maybe a little cruel but my God what are we doing.

    We have two oceans protecting us which makes it a little difficult for the countries we’re talking about to attack us.

    It’s unfortunate our elected leaders are leaving it to one person whoever is president to decide what we do. Let’s take it to the Congress and have the people’s elected officials make a decision and let the American people have their voices heard their representatives – that would be novel for a change. Think we know a high probability of what that decision would be- time to come home boys.

  • I would agree with the LWJ on these assessments. I’m here in Kabul right now and small arms fire can heard close by. Not sure what’s going on but doesn’t sound healthy. However, I disagree that we should pull troops out and leave the country to the Taliban.

    A complete NATO withdrawal would play right into the hands of the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance and the religious and mystical symbolism of such an could not be overstated and would embolden the global jihadist movement exponentially. It would not only feed into the end-of-days propheices as foretold in the Hadiths but mobilise support at grass roots levels across continents. This is truly the Long War, but for the likes of the Taliban/Al Qaeda it is more than that. It is a cosmic war being fought here on earth and time itself is meaningless.

    More to the point, the West has absolutely nothing they want and a withdrawal would not only vindicate their methodology, which is increasingly becoming unpopular amongst mainstream religious scholars, but would also re-legitimise their religious credibility amongst would-be followers by enabling the prophecies to be realised in our time. If the West is unprepared to fight, then perhaps someone should reconsider Eric Prinz’s proposal of utilising PMC’s to do the job instead.

  • Salman Ahmed Ibrahim says:

    the longer you stay in Afghanistan the more soldiers you loose and the stronger Taliban grow.

    better leave .

  • Baz says:

    There is a recurring feature throughout history which I call “False Victory Syndrome”, in which empires and conquering warrior-kings throughout the ages always present themselves in their propaganda as being victorious in their wars even if they actually losing in reality, in order to prevent their troops and supporters from losing morale. They rarely or never admit or openly display their war losses, or if they talk about the war they lost they twist it to present it as a victory or stalemate. If you look at the propaganda wall paintings of ancient Egypt, you may think that the pharaoh has never lost a war or battle in his life, because they only show the pharaoh’s victories. Similarly the soviets also due to their False victory syndrome, rarely or never admitted they LOST wars like Afghanistan or expensive spacecraft in failed space race missions. They only declassified their failures decades later. And now, in the long road to the decline of American global world domination, the generals and government leaders of Pax Americana, the American hegemonial neo-empire, are going down the same path of false victory syndrome by publicly pretending to win wars when in reality they are losing. It may be years or decades until they declassify the true extent of US and allied Afghan troop losses which are they are now hiding from the world. The so-called victories claimed by the so-called Afghan national armed forces and resolute support in pushing back the recent string of rebel/insurgent assaults on major cities, are the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.

  • mark says:

    It would be instructive if the Long War Journal would depict the same data in terms of population control. How much of the population does the Taliban control?

  • JWC says:

    Great article and I am glad that there is finally some attention in the U.S. media to the problem – I hope it is sustained. Anyone dealing with Afghans who have fled the country knows that 1) “Taliban” often is used to describe extremist terrorists, regardless of temporal affiliation, and 2) they are their neighbors, they are their brothers and they are everywhere – whether in control or not. I see it like a landmine – you don’t need one on every street corner to be in serious danger. It is the nature and success of terror-ism, to be able to put fear into innocents and others and exercise social control in that way.
    These “Taliban” are horrific.
    Tha analogy to the Viet Nam war is excellent, and the contrast deplorable.

  • Murad Badshah says:

    This is impressive. Though not a Taliban released map, still it shows who’s the winner on the ground. Though Taliban victory is written on the wall, lets see which city will be the first to fall into Taliban’s hands, Lashkargah, Farah, Kandahar or may be Mazar e Sharif.
    Thank you America for the fighting experience you gave to Taliban.

  • Baz says:

    The map above, along with the Taliban’s propaganda showing off their state-building efforts, clearly proves that their Islamic Emirate is now less of an insurgency and more or less a government-in-waiting. The only solution America can achieve to get out of this quagmire is to make a peace deal with the Taliban’s government-in-waiting verified by international inspectors, similar to the ones Obama made with Iran and Trump is making with Kim Jong’s North Korea. There is no other realistic solution.

  • Frank Dunn says:

    Immediate concern is whether the US and our allies have an escape plan if the Afghan military collapses and the Taliban move into Kabul and Kandahar. The 20,000 US troops and 3,000 allied soldiers plus several thousand civil/contract workers plus the Afghans who fear horrible reprisals will have to be airlifted out quickly. Do we have sufficient air evacuation capability? There will not be aircraft carriers offshore to allow helicopter landings as happened when South Vietnam collapsed.

    Next concern is what do we do for the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Afghans who become refugees? And, will the Taliban now be able to send even more of its forces to fight US forces in Syria and Iraq?

    Long term, are we able and willing to conduct drone strikes on Taliban and ISIS leaders after we leave? How do we identify targets without a ground presence? Since there always seems to be a wedding party involved no matter when or where we bomb, can we handle to attacks by The NY Times if innocents are killed?

  • Paul Kanninen says:

    Every time we kill the undeclared we create more Taliban
    Leaving is the best we can
    The Afghan people do not want us in their country let them decide the government they want.

  • Thomas Ruttig says:

    is this site’s moderater taking steps (blocking) commentary like this? this is advocating mass murder of innocent people.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    It is an imperfect process, thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  • JWC says:

    Mark – this is not only a question for Long War Journal, but one for all who are counting. Excellent point.
    I would also ask
    – how much of the Hazara/Shia populations have been attacked? And how many have experienced casualties?
    – what are the effects of trauma, including Psychological breakdowns, on these statistics? Are they recognized? Measured? Included?
    and – given the landscape, the language differences, and that people do not have direct contact with UNAMA and or U.S. statisticians, what percentage of reality to the actual numbers reflect? For example, it is well-known in the West that rape is under-reported. How much tragedy is under-reported in Afghanistan?

  • BobD says:

    It’s been 17 years, and they have not captured one city for more than a couple of days. They have the capability to overrun soft targets and lightly armed rural villages. Not hold of anything significant.
    Like someone said, what is the population breakdown of these controlled and contested areas? Would be willing to bet that doesn’t fit the narrative.

  • Baz says:

    Now even the Таlibаn themselves on their website are talking about that New York Times article, using it as evidence to reinforce the narrative that LWJ has been long warning about. The generals and government leaders will not pull their heads out of the sand and admit the truth and reality, until the very last minute when it is time to scramble helicopters to evacuate thousands of people from the U.S. embassy rooftop, followed by the Таlibаn reclaiming Каbul and renaming it to Мullаh Оmаr City.

  • Zach says:

    That’s not Uruzgan.

  • Sid Finster says:

    Guess what! That ship has long set sail.

  • Sid Finster says:

    Afghanistan is pretty rural, and the cities are dependent upon the countryside.

    The writing is on the wall, whether you or the generals want to admit it or not.

  • BobD says:

    Perhaps the Taliban should concentrate on holding one city let alone Kabul.

  • Murad Badshah says:

    I agree with Baz. This map shows kind of Taliban shadow government. This time Taliban have ready-to-deploy full fledged system whenever they take an area. The problem with Americans is that they are still seeing Taliban through the old lens i.e.2001 time’s. No one is seeing that they are no more that simple and naive Taliban. They have changed so much, improved so much and learned so much that it looks unbelievable. West and especially America is not admitting that.
    Some people say that as Taliban have captured no major city so they are no victorious. Isn’t it a victory that America is constantly “begging” Taliban for negotiations so that it can have a way out. This shows that Taliban have exhausted their opponent.
    Once America is out of Afghanistan, cities will fall to Taliban like a string of beads broken.
    And thank you America for all this valuable lesson and experience.

  • Murad Badshah says:

    I think when Taliban capture Kabul, they rename it Omarabad, for Mullah Omar (May his soul rest in peace).

  • Erwin Wagner says:

    Taliban don’t need to takeover cities when they control all the access points to the cities. They can slowly bleed cities into submission through sieges, disruptions and chaos – much like they did in 1994-96. This strategy is clear as daylight if you see the second map which shows them controlling 61% of Afghanistan. The map corresponds with Afghanistan’s Highway 1, also known as ring road. Highway 1 is the entry point to main cities and as such serves as the supply artery of Afghanistan.

  • BobD says:

    How do they depend on the rural villages? At the end of the day, they have to overthrow the government in Kabul and after 17 years of war, they are incapable of doing so.

  • Passer by says:

    Afghanistan is not the US or Germany. Only 28 percent of its people live in cities, while the rural population is 72 percent. Here is one reason why the US never controlled the country – the cities represent only a small part of the population.

    And the Taliban does control cities now, for example Sangin, Maruf, Waghaz, Rashidan or Sangar.

    The number of districts and cities under Taliban control is growing with every year.

    Taliban will suffocate the cities by blocking the roads and trade/food deliveries, destroying the powerlines, cell phone towers, etc. He who controls the countryside controls food, opium (which is probably the biggest part of the Afghan economy), most of the population, the natural resources and transportation/powerline links.

    Another Dune in the making.

  • BobD says:

    So when do they start doing that? It’s been 17 years. And you are misreading the second map, it’s 61% contested or controlled according to LWJ which gets its info from Taliban propaganda and open source. Dubious at best.
    If things are so bad throughout the country, how was an unarmed peace envoy able to walk from Herat to Kabul unharmed?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Bob, much of the information we use is from the US military itself. We were able to determine a significant number of contested districts that there was zero reporting in the Afghan press. Every single Taliban claim is verified by Afghan press reporting. If we can’t verify it, is is listed as such (that is why you see two orange districts, we cannot independently verify these claims in Afghan press reports, or by the US military data).

    The US military lists Ghazni City as government controlled. We list it as contested. There are numerous other districts like that. You can decide who you believe.

    Think of this another way. If you accept the US military’s data on its face (keep in mind it is outdated, it’s assessment is from May), it still looks pretty bad, no?

    As far as the peace activists go, it isn’t in the Taliban’s interests to harm them. The Taliban merely dismisses them as “puppets” of the Afghan government. However they did rough some up in the north recently.

  • James says:

    “can we handle to attacks by The NY Times ?”

    Frank, good point you make about that ‘graveyard of the media mob’ publication the New York Toombs. Certainly not your best and most reliable source when it comes to Taliban propaganda.

    Like they say in NY, “It ain’t over till it’s over”, and “Never say never.”

  • Bruce says:

    So you propose putting the decision in the hands of Congress? Where you been for the last 10 years. They’re lucky if they can agree what color to paint the Senate bathrooms let alone the what to do with the endless war in Afghanistan. Jeez man!

  • Murad Badshah says:

    “No one can say for sure how much of the country the Taliban administer. Estimates of territorial control are hotly disputed. Operation Resolute Support, the NATO-led training and support mission, estimates that the insurgency influences or controls 14 percent of the country’s districts while the government controls 56 percent and the rest is contested. In contrast, a BBC study released in January estimated that the Taliban were “openly active” in 70 percent of the country’s districts.

    Terms such as influence and “openly active” are difficult to visualize. The Taliban’s strategy defies zero-sum notions of control. An accurate map of Taliban influence would show most major district centers and cities encircled. An hour’s drive in any direction from Kabul will put you in Taliban territory. There may not be a Taliban flag flying, but everyone knows who is in charge. The Taliban make and enforce the rules; they collect taxes and decide how much of a presence the government can retain.”
    The Taliban’s Fight for Hearts and Minds by Ashley Jackson,
    Foreign Policy, Sept. 12, 2018 –

  • Arnaud Tarantola says:

    “We have two oceans protecting us which makes it a little difficult for the countries we’re talking about to attack us.”

    And yet that is precisely what they did

  • Bob S says:

    Can you be more specific?
    Are you suggesting that the U.S. was attacked, or?

    If that is what you are saying, I have to make two points: One, it was not a country that attacked the U.S., not even a tribe. Afghanistan, such as it is, can’t pull off an election that isn’t corrupt. Suggesting that it, as a country, acted in unison on September 11th under Al Qaeda, is like saying that the acts of the Mafia of 1950 were acts of the U.S. Two, it is important to note that half of the people who are suffering in Afghanistan are children – really suffering. By definition, none of them were alive or able to influence military behavior in 2001.

    But if you are not referring to the U.S. then where, and what countries attacked?


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram