Afghan mission releases district-level assessments

For the first time, the military has released district-level assessments of control in Afghanistan. FDD’s Long War Journal has consistently advocated for greater transparency on the situation on the ground. 

In an effort to accurately describe the Taliban’s strength and disposition, we developed an open-source assessment of each district in Afghanistan, resulting in a publicly-available interactive map. NATO’s Afghan Resolute Support mission, on the other hand, would only release a country-wide percentage of districts controlled and contested by the Taliban. 

In its most recent quarterly report, the Afghanistan watchdog the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) was finally able to release the military’s detailed assessment, allowing for a direct comparison with our data. The data has mostly confirmed our open-source assessments, but has also offered new insights, particularly on Taliban controlled districts with limited press access.

Direct comparison. SIGAR’s initial release of Resolute Support’s assessments, starting in 2015, only included country-wide statistics. Based on our district level assessments, we could roughly compare our totals with the military’s high-level assessment. Now, we can directly compare our assessments district-by-district with the military’s.

Similar results. Previously, our totals were within five percent of the military’s nation-wide aggregate. The newly released district-level information allowed us to assess some districts we have previously missed due to a lack of information. In total, we assess that the Taliban controls 38 districts and contests an additional 150. The largest change from our previous release resulted from resolving unconfirmed Taliban claims with the military’s data (see below.)

Different classification system: Resolute Support (RS) has five classifications for a district: Government Controlled; Government Influenced; Contested; Insurgent Contested; and Insurgent Controlled. LWJ has only three classifications: Government Controlled; Contested; Insurgent Controlled. LWJ developed this classification system for two reasons. First, it is very difficult to assess Control vs Influence based on press reports and other open source information. Second, we believe the “influence” distinction is somewhat meaningless. Whether the government controls 70 percent or 30 percent of a district, the government is still unable to fully secure and administer to the population and faces a challenge from the Taliban in these realms; we therefore classify these districts as contested.

Minor divergences. As expected, much of the difference between RS/SIGAR and LWJ data stems from our separate classification systems. As we have noted in the past, we believe the military’s assessments are overly optimistic and not fully representative of the security conditions in Afghanistan. In some cases, where the military assessed a district as Government Influenced, we believe the assessment is flawed. For example, in Shib Koh, Farah, the Taliban overran the district center in Oct. 2017, looting and torching government buildings. Afghan forces reportedly retook the center shortly thereafter, but reports from Afghanistan describe the district as “insecure” and state that the Taliban routinely attacks military outposts. Resolute Support assesses that the district is government controlled, but we assess it as contested.

– Resolving Taliban claims without verification. In previous releases of our in-house mapped assessment, we classified up to 24 districts as “Unconfirmable Taliban claim,” displayed in orange on our map. These are districts in which the Taliban claims control, but we were unable to find any further open source information that would confirm or dispute that assertion. In many cases, press reporting decreases dramatically due to the adverse security conditions, so it is often difficult to corroborate the Taliban’s claims of control. Now, Resolute Support’s data has allowed us to match unverified Taliban claims of controlled or contested districts. In most cases, the military’s assessment confirmed that the Taliban does in fact control or contest a given district. There are, however, two cases in which the Taliban and the military both claim control: Shib Koh, Farah and Karjan, Daykundi.

– Military data reveals more Taliban control. As we have previously stated, we are aware that our attempts to assess the status of districts based on open source information is a challenging enterprise, to put it mildly. Many districts in Afghanistan exist in a media black hole. Surprisingly, RS has identified some districts as Taliban controlled which we have been unable to assess due to lack of information. Given that a negative assessment does not help the military’s efforts to promote the progress made in the war, we accept these assessments and display them as controlled.

The Long War Journal will continue to monitor the security environment in Afghanistan and regularly produce updated maps and assessments. We will compare our assessment to the military’s whenever their information is released.

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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