Analysis: US military downplays district control as Taliban gains ground in Afghanistan

The Taliban has continued to make incremental gains in Afghanistan’s provinces despite an uptick in US airstrikes during the past year. The US military downplayed the Taliban’s gains, stating that this is “not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy or progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan.” However, the last commander of US forces said less than two years ago that regaining control of 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory was crucial to defeating the Taliban.

The Taliban has increased its control or influence by seven districts, or 1.7 percent, since the summer, according to a report by the Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Taliban control of population has also increased by 1.7 percent between July and Oct. 2018.

SIGAR receives its data directly from Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and the US Department of Defense. According to Resolute Support, the Afghan government controls or influences 219 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (53.8 percent), and insurgents (the Taliban) control or influence another 12.3 percent. The remaining 33.9 percent are contested.

FDD’s Long War Journal, which has tracked the status of Afghanistan’s districts since 2014, believes the security situation in Afghanistan and the status of the districts is worse than is being reported by Resolute Support.

LWJ assesses that the Afghan government controls 35.1 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and the Taliban controls another 13.0 percent. The remaining 49.6 percent are contested, while seven districts (or 1.7%) cannot be accurately assessed at this time.

A major difference in Resolute Support and LWJ‘s methodologies is that LWJ does not assess “influence,” as influence is merely a measure of control. LWJ believes that Resolute Support uses influence to skew the data and provide a rosier picture of the security situation to prop up the Afghan government. On multiple occasions, LWJ has detected Resolute Support gaming the status of districts.

As the Taliban gains ground in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Defense Forces continues to shrink. According to SIGAR, the ANSDF “decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS [Resolute Support] mission began in January 2015.”

The Taliban has also gained ground despite a marked uptick in US airstrikes. The US military “dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018,” according to SIGAR. “This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.”

Resolute Support says district control is not important. Last Resolute Support commander said it was.

Resolute Support is now downplaying the importance of government control of Afghanistan’s districts. According to SIGAR:

“When providing district and population control data this quarter, DOD and RS reported for the first time that this data is “not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy or progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan.” DOD and RS also reiterated that there is “some uncertainty in models that produce [the data]” and subjectivity in the assessments that underlie it.”

Yet, General John Nicholson, Resolute Support’s last commander, said in Nov. 2017 that the goal of regaining control of 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory was crucial to defeating the Taliban.

“This we believe is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance, meaning they’re living in these remote outlying areas, or they reconcile, or they die,” Nicholson said, according to Reuters.

Resolute Support’s attempt to downplay the importance of Taliban control is contrary to everything known about counterinsurgency. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been adept at using areas under its control to further its goal of retaking control of the country. In areas the Taliban controls or contests, it raises taxes, produces opium, and recruits, indoctrinates, and trains fighters. It also uses these areas to stage attacks on districts, towns, and cities under government control.

This is not the first time that Resolute Support and the US military have downplayed the Taliban’s control of Afghan districts. In 2016, after SIGAR noted that the Taliban was slowly gaining ground, Nicholson said that “the enemy is primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country.”

More than two years later, the Taliban continues to use these “rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country” to make gains.

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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  • akram says:

    only control of one government over Afghanistan and Pakistan i.e. union of both countries could stabilize this region.

  • Richard Scott says:

    This suggests that the Taliban gets much if not most of its support from the rural area which means where most of the people live.


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