Mapping the Afghan war, while murky, points to Taliban gains

Map of Afghanistan shows which districts are controlled by the Taliban, contested or under government control
Map of Afghanistan shows which districts are controlled by the Taliban, contested or under government control

DUBAI – Trying to map the long war in Afghanistan has become an increasingly challenging task ahead of the planned withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 and subsequent overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban government, insurgent activity shrank, then began to grow again as the conflict stretched on for two decades. Now, as the withdrawal with a summer completion date looms, even American officials acknowledge being publicly in the dark about the Taliban's strength.

“By many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001, though many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced,” a March report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service warned.

That included data offered on the roughly 400 local districts across Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Control of those districts had been a key metric to judge overall control in the country.

In its last published report to include that level of detail, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the Afghan government controlled just 54% of those districts as of October 2018, the lowest number recorded since public tracking began in November 2015. Of the remaining districts, the U.S. government described 34% as contested and 12% as being under insurgent control.

In April 2019, the inspector general said the U.S.-commanded NATO Resolute Support mission no longer assessed district-level control, describing them as offering "limited decision-making value to the commander.” But that decision came amid the Trump administration's push for negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, suggesting military officials shut down the effort to avoid showing how bad things had become, said Bill Roggio, who has been tracking the war for years.

Roggio, whose Long War Journal now operates in the Washington-based hawkish think tank called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has tracked the conflict for years based on press reports and data he's gathered. He believes half of the country's districts are now contested between the government and the Taliban, with over 120 fully government controlled and more than 70 fully held by the Taliban.

But even he acknowledges those numbers represent his best guess. Some districts held by the government swing back and forth depending on Taliban offensives. Others see the government hole up in central headquarters or barracks — and then “the police commander is getting killed in an IED attack when he pulls out of the base,” Roggio said, using an acronym for a homemade bomb.