Analysis: US military grossly underestimates Taliban, al Qaeda force levels in Afghanistan

Once again, the US military has grossly underestimated the size and scope of the Taliban, despite battling the group head-on for the last 17 years. In its latest quarterly report, US Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) approximated the Taliban’s strength as between 28,000 and 40,000 fighters.

That number should be doubled, at the minimum, because the USFOR-A estimate is wildly unrealistic given the level and intensity of fighting in Afghanistan, as well as the number of Taliban casualties claimed by Afghan security forces.

This latest estimate of the Taliban’s strength was disclosed in the Department of Defense Inspector General’s quarterly report on Afghanistan, which covered July through September, 2018. USFOR-A estimated the Taliban to have 30,000 to 35,000 fighters, and the “Taliban Haqqani Network” another 3,000 to 5,000 [see chart above, reproduced from the inspector general’s report].

As FDD’s Long War Journal has noted for more than a decade, the distinction between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network is one without difference; Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, has been the deputy to Taliban emir Mullah Habiatullah and military commander of the group since 2015. The two groups stopped denying that they are separate entities in 2008.

Combining the US military’s Taliban and Haqqani Network estimates would put the low end at 28,000 and the high end at 40,000. Al Qaeda, which has an extensive network in Afghanistan and embeds its fighters as trainers and advisers with the Taliban, is said to have only 200 fighters in country.

The inspector general report noted that “these estimates have not changed significantly since the DoD OIG first began requesting this data in September 2017.”

“This may be attributed in part to the difficulty of estimating the size of insurgent and terrorist groups,” the report indicated. “It may also reflect the groups’ ability to recruit fighters to replace those killed or captured during Afghan and U.S. counterterrorism operations.”

Failing spectacularly at estimating strength of insurgent and terrorist groups

The lowball estimate of Taliban strength may reflect a fundamental problem that the US military and intelligence community have had in attempting to estimate the strength of insurgent and terrorist groups throughout the world. To find an example of this inherent problem, look no further than Afghanistan and the US military’s faulty estimate of al Qaeda’s strength. Between 2010 and 2015, the US military and intelligence agencies claimed that al Qaeda maintained 50 to 100 fighters in the country. FDD’s Long War Journal, using the US military’s own press releases that documented raids against al Qaeda, disputed this static estimate. That delusory estimate of al Qaeda strength was used by the Obama administration to claim that al Qaeda was “decimated” and rendered ineffective.

The military’s estimate of al Qaeda manpower did not change for six years, up until the US military raided two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak district in Kandahar. More than 150 al Qaeda fighters were killed during that raid alone. This forced the US military to revise its estimate of al Qaeda strength from 50-100 to 100-300. LWJ has maintained that the revised number is still far too low.

Ironically, the US military’s current estimate of al Qaeda strength of 200 fighters is the average of the revised estimate from 2015.

The US military and intelligence community have failed spectacularly in estimating the strength of terrorist groups in other theaters. For instance, the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2013 was first estimated to be about 10,000 fighters. Then it was revised upward to between 20,000 to 32,000. The US military has since claimed to have killed that many ISIS fighters since then. In Yemen, the number of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was estimated at several hundred when the group overran large areas of the south. Today, the number is said to be 6,000 to 7,000.

Estimates of Taliban strength don’t hold up under scrutiny

If the US military’s claim that the Taliban has 28,000 to 40,000 fighters in its rank and file are to be believed, then it reflects quite badly on the Afghan security forces. Additionally, it does not explain how the Taliban has had the initiative throughout the country and magically regenerates its battlefield losses.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) “numbered 312,328 personnel in July 2018, including 194,017 ANA [Afghan National Army] personnel and 118,311 ANP [Afghan National Police] personnel,” according to the Inspector General’s report. Additionally, there are more than 16,000 NATO troops operating under Resolute Support’s mission, and another 8,000 US troops operating under the command of USFOR-A.

If USFOR-A’s current estimate is correct, then the coalition is getting hammered by a force one-tenth its size.

The Taliban, despite US Department of Defense claims to the contrary, has the initiative in Afghanistan. It is fighting in nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. If the Taliban evenly distributed its forces through the 34 provinces (it does not), it would have an estimated 1,100 fighters in each. Of course, the Taliban does not operate this way, instead it distributes its fighters based on need. Provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni draw a large number of Taliban fighters. In these provinces, the Taliban controls and contests large numbers of districts. To accomplish this, logic dictates that the Taliban must deploy tens of thousands to these five provinces alone.

But the Taliban’s strength nationwide is significant. It is a powerful force in the eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar, Wardak, and Laghman. In the northeast, it controls or contests a significant amount of terrain in Kunar, Nuristan, and Badakhshan. The same is true in the north in the provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar, Balkh, Jawzjan, Sar-i-Pul, and Faryab, and the western provinces of Herat, Farah, Badghis, and Nimruz. Even in the central provinces of Bayman, Ghor, and Daykundi, the Taliban has made significant inroads.

Even the high-end estimate of 40,000 Taliban fighters does not hold up to scrutiny if you factor in the average of daily Taliban casualties given by Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior. Based on press releases, the Defense and Interior Ministries claim that between 30 to 50 Taliban fighters are killed daily. If this is averaged out over the course of a year, the Taliban would incur 11,000 to 18,000 fighters killed each year. This would mean the Taliban is regenerating losses of between 28 and 45 percent each year. These numbers do not include wounded, many of which would be unfit to return to the fight.

There are few fighting forces that could take such high levels of casualties and still remain a dominant player on the battlefield.

Given these facts, the Taliban’s strength is likely to number well over 100,000 fighters. US military and intelligence officials who track the Taliban agree. One official told LWJ that the Taliban likely has more than 70,000 fighters and tens of thousands of support personnel and supporters. Another said that the Taliban “could not possibly do what it has done with merely 40,000 fighters; double or more realistically triple that number, and you are closer to the truth.”

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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5 Comments

  • Nick Mastrovito says:

    We will never win nor will the Afghan Government win as long as we are counting heads. To break the Taliban/al Qaeda/ISIS-K insurgency, we need the uprising of the populace that disallows these terrorists safe haven and we need to deny sanctuary in Pakistan, Iran, etc. In order for that to happen, the populace must believe that they are safer under the government’s control than under the terrorist’s control. That’s a tall order, one in which, we have yet to figure out. My vote goes for going back to 2001 where we take charge of the fighting and stop making the Afghan military look like the US military!

  • S R says:

    The Taliban are winning. Since 1 Jan 2015, the Taliban have on average killed 30-50 ANDSF personnel every day. That would be 43,800 – 73,000 ANDSF personnel the Taliban will have killed from 1 Jan 2015 – 31 Dec 2018. Also, if you take into consideration the number of ANDSF personnel wounded in battle and the number of ANDSF personnel who have deserted/defected from the ANDSF, the ANDSF has shrunk by a huge size since 1 Jan 2015. The size of the ANDSF was 352,000 on 1 Jan 2015.

  • DEVENDRA SOOD says:

    Agree with the LWJ estimate of over 100,000 Taliban fighters and the logic that supports it.

  • Ross says:

    A query indicates that the Taliban control as much as 15 million people. Even if only 5 percent of that total is under arms for the Taliban that would equal 75,000. Seems likely the Taliban are far stronger than the military is letting on.

  • mawendt says:

    I think Mr. Roggio misses the combat power balance, although within this article it is evident the numbers of the DOD IG are pretty on target.

    Tellingly, Mr. Roggio lays out the numbers of Afghan and coalition forces, then writes “If USFOR-A’s current estimate is correct, then the coalition is getting hammered by a force one-tenth its size.”

    Apples-Oranges. The actual combat troop of Afghan and coalition is about 25% of the total number. So fighters v fighters are somewhere along 60,000 Afghan/Coalition and… 30k to 60k AAF. Very close to parity, or at least a serious challenge.

    Complicate that with Afghan/coalition having true security duties being required to conduct more or less static defense and localized deterrent operation against an mobile opponent with no hard infrastructure, no complicated administrative obligations, no restrictive legal oversight, and who lives among the population with very light dependency on technology… and the toss away line ‘hammered by a force one tenth its size’ just isn’t accurate.

    No. The numbers are a more or less accurate estimate, and may actually be closer to the low end. The successes of the AAF forces are more from the Afghan/coalition refusal or incompetence to conduct war unfettered by Western imposed constraints. If you want to defeat the Taliban and their ilk, target their families, ignore international (Pakistani) borders, and kill their fighting men and the next two generations. Basically, start killing until they cry “uncle” in Pashto (mostly).

    They’ll quit, at least for a couple decades. But it’ll be giving the concept of Afghan democracy a chance to get grounded for the next dust up.

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