Is U.S. underestimating Terrorists’ Strength and Malign Intent in Afghanistan?

At a time when the US is contemplating military withdrawal from Afghanistan it appears that the US military is underestimating the strength of its opponent.

In a recent piece, noted analyst Bill Roggio argues that the US military is “grossly underestimating” the size and scope of the Afghan Taliban. “In its latest quarterly report, US Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) approximated the Taliban’s strength as between 28,000 and 40,000 fighters.” Roggio terms this as “wildly unrealistic given the level and intensity of fighting in Afghanistan, as well as the number of Taliban casualties claimed by Afghan security forces.” Instead he states that the Taliban’s strength “is likely to number well over 100,000 fighters.” This is because the Taliban “could not possibly do what it has done with merely 40,000 fighters.”

Roggio also argues that there is a need to end the distinction that is made between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Haqqani Network as it “is one without difference; Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, has been the deputy to Taliban emir Mullah Habiatullah and military commander of the group since 2015. The two groups stopped denying that they are separate entities in 2008.”

The Long War Journal article argues that “the lowball estimate of Taliban strength may reflect a fundamental problem that the US military and intelligence community have had in attempting to estimate the strength of insurgent and terrorist groups throughout the world. To find an example of this inherent problem, look no further than Afghanistan and the US military’s faulty estimate of al Qaeda’s strength. Between 2010 and 2015, the US military and intelligence agencies claimed that al Qaeda maintained 50 to 100 fighters in the country. FDD’s Long War Journal, using the US military’s own press releases that documented raids against al Qaeda, disputed this static estimate. That delusory estimate of al Qaeda strength was used by the Obama administration to claim that al Qaeda was “decimated” and rendered ineffective. The military’s estimate of al Qaeda manpower did not change for six years, up until the US military raided two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak district in Kandahar. More than 150 al Qaeda fighters were killed during that raid alone. This forced the US military to revise its estimate of al Qaeda strength from 50-100 to 100-300. LWJ has maintained that the revised number is still far too low. Ironically, the US military’s current estimate of al Qaeda strength of 200 fighters is the average of the revised estimate from 2015.”

Further, “The US military and intelligence community have failed spectacularly in estimating the strength of terrorist groups in other theaters. For instance, the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2013 was first estimated to be about 10,000 fighters. Then it was revised upward to between 20,000 to 32,000. The US military has since claimed to have killed that many ISIS fighters since then. In Yemen, the number of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was estimated at several hundred when the group overran large areas of the south. Today, the number is said to be 6,000 to 7,000. If the US military’s claim that the Taliban has 28,000 to 40,000 fighters in its rank and file are to be believed, then it reflects quite badly on the Afghan security forces. Additionally, it does not explain how the Taliban has had the initiative throughout the country and magically regenerates its battlefield losses. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) “numbered 312,328 personnel in July 2018, including 194,017 ANA [Afghan National Army] personnel and 118,311 ANP [Afghan National Police] personnel,” according to the Inspector General’s report. Additionally, there are more than 16,000 NATO troops operating under Resolute Support’s mission, and another 8,000 US troops operating under the command of USFOR-A. If USFOR-A’s current estimate is correct, then the coalition is getting hammered by a force one-tenth its size.”

Finally, “The Taliban, despite US Department of Defense claims to the contrary, has the initiative in Afghanistan. It is fighting in nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. If the Taliban evenly distributed its forces through the 34 provinces (it does not), it would have an estimated 1,100 fighters in each. Of course, the Taliban does not operate this way, instead it distributes its fighters based on need. Provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni draw a large number of Taliban fighters. In these provinces, the Taliban controls and contests large numbers of districts. To accomplish this, logic dictates that the Taliban must deploy tens of thousands to these five provinces alone. But the Taliban’s strength nationwide is significant. It is a powerful force in the eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar, Wardak, and Laghman. In the northeast, it controls or contests a significant amount of terrain in Kunar, Nuristan, and Badakhshan. The same is true in the north in the provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar, Balkh, Jawzjan, Sar-i-Pul, and Faryab, and the western provinces of Herat, Farah, Badghis, and Nimruz. Even in the central provinces of Bayman, Ghor, and Daykundi, the Taliban has made significant inroads. Even the high-end estimate of 40,000 Taliban fighters does not hold up to scrutiny if you factor in the average of daily Taliban casualties given by Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior. Based on press releases, the Defense and Interior Ministries claim that between 30 to 50 Taliban fighters are killed daily. If this is averaged out over the course of a year, the Taliban would incur 11,000 to 18,000 fighters killed each year. This would mean the Taliban is regenerating losses of between 28 and 45 percent each year. These numbers do not include wounded, many of which would be unfit to return to the fight.”

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