Just over half of the Afghanistan’s populations lives in a district outside of government control, according to a new study conducted by FDD’s Long War Journal. Using the military’s official population data, LWJ assessed that 41 percent of the population resides in a district contested by the Taliban, while more than nine percent resides in a Taliban controlled district. Despite the Afghan military’s abandonment of rural areas to the Taliban, the government has yet to increase populations under its control.
LWJ has also re-produced the military’s data on population control in the same format – using the military’s definitions – to allow for a comparison [see map below]. According to the military’s assessment, only 24 percent of the Afghan population resides in a contested district and 12 percent reside in a district they describe as having some degree of insurgent activity. The military refuses to use the term “Insurgent Control.” The military’s assessment is current as of May 2018, although an update is expected later this month.
Providing metrics adjusted for population is valuable, particularly given the varying size of Afghan districts. For example, although we assess that more districts are contested than government controlled, the districts that the government controls are more populous; about three million more Afghans reside in a government controlled district than a contested district. The Afghan government controls the four most populous districts in Afghanistan, according to the military’s data and the Long War Journal assessment. These four districts alone account for over six million people – or about 18 percent of the total population. By comparison, the four least populous districts contain only 22,000 people total.
This methodology does, however, have its limitations. In both cases, the assessment is still conducted at the district level. Then the population totals are calculated by multiplying the district’s assessed status by its population, as provided by the military. An individual may live in a district assessed as contested, but their personal experience may involve more or less exposure to the Taliban; this individual is nonetheless counted towards total population residing in a contested district. It is also possible that violence has altered the population of a given district, either through casualties or migration.
The military has long touted population control as a measure of success, in an attempt to downplay the number of districts under Taliban control. In Nov. 2017, then Resolute Support Commander General John Nicholson stated that “over the next two years the Afghan Security Forces will expand their control of the population to 80 percent.” Nearly a year later, the Afghan government has yet to meaningfully increase population under its control.
In fact, Afghan government population control has declined, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
“Since SIGAR began receiving population-control data in August 2016, the overall trend has been a decrease in the percentage of the Afghan population living in areas under government control or influence (by about four percentage points), fluctuation in the population living in contested areas (from roughly 23 percent to 29 percent), and an increase in percentage living in areas under insurgent control or influence (by about three points),” according to the watchdog’s most recent quarterly report.
Even if the Afghan government could secure more of the population, territorial control remains a key source of the Taliban’s resilience. As Long War Journal has consistently demonstrated, the Taliban uses rural areas to recruit fighters, operate training camps, tax the residents, spread its radical ideology, and launch attacks on more populous areas under government control.
Furthermore, the military has often overstated the Afghan government’s actual control. For example, The New York Times revealed that seven districts in Ghazni governorate were “virtually administered” because the Taliban had forced the government to flee; the military assessed none of these districts as Taliban controlled. Across the country, Long War Journal assesses that the Taliban controls or contests 75 of the districts that the military claims are controlled or influenced by the Afghan government.
Even in districts under government control, the Taliban has retained the ability to launch major attacks. The Taliban remains active in the four largest districts controlled by the Afghan government (Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat). In Kabul particularly, the Taliban and its rival, the Islamic State, routinely carry out attacks against military and civilian targets.