Taliban control of Afghan districts remains unchanged despite increased US military pressure

The latest report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) indicates that the Taliban’s control of districts as of the end of Jan. 2018 remains virtually unchanged. The Taliban continue to maintain its grip on half of Afghanistan, despite US military’s reinvigorated effort to force the group from its strongholds.

The US Department of Defense and Resolute Support (RS), NATO’s command in Afghanistan, provides the district control data to SIGAR. SIGAR’s data is dated as of Jan. 31, 2018.

According to the SIGAR report, the Afghan government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (56.3%). The Taliban controls or influences 59 districts (14.5%). The remaining 119 districts (29.2%) are contested.

There is little change between this quarter and last, when a US military spokesman noted that “approximately 56% of the country’s 407 districts are under Afghan government control or influence, 30% remain contested, and approximately 14% are now under insurgent control or influence.” (Note: Last quarter, the US military and Resolute Support only released a country-wide statistic and did not declassify district-level assessment. After pressure from SIGAR, the military released the information and claimed the classification was due to a “human error.”)

FDD’s Long War Journal has tracked the status of Afghanistan’s districts since the summer of 2015, six months before the US military and Resolute Support began releasing data to SIGAR. LWJ maintains that the US military provides the most optimistic outlook of the Taliban’s strength and disposition, using a more complex categorization system to obscure the full extent of insurgent control.

Resolute Support/SIGAR has five assessment levels: insurgent controlled, insurgent influenced, contested, government influenced, and government controlled. LWJ does not maintain an “influenced” assessment for the districts, and simply has three assessment levels: insurgent controlled, contested, and government controlled.

LWJ considers the influenced assessment to equate to contested. The reasoning is that if the Taliban wield influence in, say 30% or 70% of a district, the end result is the same. Neither the government, nor the Taliban, fully control the district.

Additionally, SIGAR’s data is dated as of Jan. 31, 2018, while LWJ’s data is current as mid-April 2018, when the last full review was conducted. Changes to individual districts are updated as new information is obtained (for instance, on April 28, the Taliban overran the Qala-i-Zal district center in Kunduz province; the current status of this district is Taliban controlled).

According to LWJ, the Afghan government controls 159 districts (39%), the Taliban controls 39 districts (9.5%), and 200 districts (49%) are contested. LWJ was not able to determine the status of 9 districts (2%).

Therefore, according to LWJ’s data, the Taliban controls or contests 239 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, or 59%.

Notes on LWJ’s methodology to determine status of a district:

The data and research behind this are based on open-source information as well as data provided by SIGAR/Resolute Support in Jan. 2018. This is a living map that LWJ frequently updates as verifiable research is conducted to support control changes. Any “Unconfirmed” district colored orange has some level of claim-of-control made by the Taliban, but either has not yet been—or can not be— independently verified by LWJ research. A “Contested” district may mean that the government may be in control of the district center, but little else, and the Taliban controls large areas or all of the areas outside of the district center. A “Controlled” district may mean the Taliban is openly administering a district, providing services and security, and also running the local courts.

In Jan. 2018, LWJ incorporated district data provided by SIGAR/Resolute Support. LWJ used the following methodology to reconcile SIGAR/Resolute Support’s information with LWJ’s data:

– If RS/SIGAR assessment of a district matches LWJ’s assessment, there are no changes.

– If RS/SIGAR identified a district as Insurgent Controlled and LWJ identified as contested, LWJ assessed the district as Insurgent Controlled (based on review of available information).

– If RS/SIGAR identified a district as Insurgent Influenced and LWJ determined as Contested, LWJ will assess the district as Contested.

– If RS/SIGAR identified a district as Contested and LWJ has no determination, LWJ accepts RS/SIGAR’s assessment and identifies the district Contested.

-If RS/SIGAR identified a district as GIRoA Influenced, and LWJ has information there is significant Taliban activity in the district, LWJ assesses the district as Contested.

– If RS/SIGAR identified a district as GIRoA Influenced, and LWJ cannot see evidence of Taliban activity, LWJ assesses the district as GIRoA Controlled.

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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