The number of Afghan districts controlled and contested by the Taliban has nearly doubled since early 2018, according to an ongoing study of the security situation by FDD’s Long War Journal. The expansion of Taliban power in the past three years, even as U.S. and NATO forces were present in the country, is an ominous sign for the future of Afghanistan.
In January 2018, when Resolute Support tried to shut down reporting on the status of districts, LWJ assessed that the Taliban controlled 45 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, or 11 percent, and contested 117, or 29 percent. Today, LWJ assess that the Taliban controls 87 districts, or 21 percent, and contested 214, or 53 percent.
The Taliban achieved this level of control even as U.S. and NATO forces remained in the country. U.S. airstrikes have been instrumental in halting major Taliban offensives designed to seize provincial capitals. The U.S. Air Force blunted Taliban efforts to overrun Lashkar Gah and Kandahar City in the fall/winter of 2021 and the spring of 2021. However, even with the U.S. backing Afghan forces, the Taliban was able to overrun Kunduz City twice, and Farah and Ghazni cities, and hold them for short periods of time over the past several years.
U.S. air power has been largely ineffective in halting the Taliban from expanding its influence into the rural areas. Nearly all the districts controlled by the Taliban are rural. In the past, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have downplayed the Taliban’s control of rural areas. But the Taliban has been following a classic guerrilla insurgency strategy of gaining control of the rural areas to project influence onto the urban ones.
In order to threaten the provincial capitals, the Taliban has deliberately sought to control the rural districts surrounding them. These districts are vital to the Taliban’s insurgency. The areas are used to recruit and train fighters, raise funds, resupply, and launch attacks into the population centers. The Taliban even controls mineral mines in these districts, which allows them to fund its operations. This strategy was explained by Mullah Aminullah Yousuf, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan, in April 2016.
Today, the Taliban directly threaten 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, including Maidan Wardak and Pul-I-Alam, the capitals of Wardak and Logar provinces respectively. These two provinces are outside of the capital of Kabul and are the gateway to Kabul City.
U.S. and NATO military power have only succeeded in keeping the lid on the Taliban insurgency, and barely, as is shown by the Taliban’s methodical but inexorable gains over the past three and a half years. With the withdrawal of U.S. airpower and special operations forces, the Taliban is poised to take over large regions of the country. The south, east, and west are particularly vulnerable. And the Taliban’s position in the north cannot be ignored.