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.”

What Does Pakistan Want in Afghanistan?

The Pakistani establishment has always believed that Pakistan has the right to decide the government and future of Afghanistan. With the recent decision by the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the question facing Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan is: Does Pakistan know what it wants in Afghanistan?

A recent editorial in Dawn stated the challenge facing Pakistan: “helping achieve an Afghan peace settlement that has the support of internal and external powers” before asking whether “Pakistan has a plan or ability to help achieve a region-wide desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

It seems that Pakistan’s quarter-century support of the Taliban has left Pakistan with few genuine friends in Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban, Pakistan favored Pashtun fundamentalists as Afghanistan’s rulers after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. 

It would be a tragedy if Pakistan uses the U.S. withdrawal as an excuse to instal extremists in power in Afghanistan again.

At least the latest talks have led to an end to lies that Pakistan has nothing to do with the Afghan Taliban as the ISI acts as facilitator for American contacts with Taliban leaders enjoying safe haven in Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi, and Rawalpindi. 

According to the editorial in Dawn, “Abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated, waging war in Afghanistan in response to 9/11 and allowing itself to be distracted by a disastrous war of choice in Afghanistan are some of the well-known reasons offered for US failure in that country.”

However, “as the US appears to be attempting to fashion a hasty exit after a prolonged stay, the US may create yet more problems for the region. A withdrawal without a peace settlement would risk not just plunging Afghanistan into chaos but could also have disastrous effects across the region.”

Yet, “as a Pentagon report this week has asserted, reintegration of Taliban fighters will take place if the fighters and Taliban leadership believe that they may be on the verge of outright victory?”

‘Naya Pakistan’ & ‘Madina State’ are Excuses to Avoid Acknowledging Mistakes

A Naya Pakistan will be created the day Pakistanis acknowledge past mistakes, and move forward. It will not be created by looking back at some mythical past.


Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly spoken about how Naya Pakistan will resemble the 7th century state of Madina. Starting from his inaugural speech of August 20th the Premier has mentioned this on more than 11 different occasion. As academic and commentator Pervez Hoodbhoy notes in a recent article, “To create a prosperous welfare state is an admirable — and universal — objective. Serving the needs of their citizens without prejudice, a few modern states already have operational systems in place. To join them, just five minutes of serious contemplation can tell you what needs to be done here in Pakistan. It’s almost a no-brainer: eliminate large land holdings through appropriate legislation; collect land and property taxes based upon current market value; speed up the courts and make them transparent; make meritocratic appointments in government departments; change education so that skill enhancement becomes its central goal; make peace with Pakistan’s neighbours; choose trade over aid; and let civilians rule the country rather than soldiers. That’s pretty hard! Implementation shall need no less than a revolution, bloodless or otherwise.”


Further, he notes, “if Imran Khan wants to emulate the Madina state as a political entity, it will be way trickier. Modern states have geographical boundaries, a practice that followed the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) between European powers. But for the Madina state, borders were irrelevant — where you lived did not matter. Is Imran Khan’s goal to adopt the Madina state’s laws and emulate it as a political entity?”


Furthermore, “what about judicial matters? Shall laws of the Madina state apply in naya Pakistan? Viewed through the prism of history, the accord negotiated by the Holy Prophet was perfectly logical at a time of bitter intertribal wars. The interested reader may consult Dr Tahirul Qadri’s PhD thesis on the Misaq-i-Madina. This lists 63 rules for determining diyat (blood money); ransoms to settle tribal feuds; life protection for Muslims and Jews; apportioning of war expenses; etc. These led to peace within the framework of Arab tribal justice. But justice is an ever-evolving concept in every culture and religion. So, for example, 2,000 years ago, Aristotle had argued that some individuals and races are “natural slaves” better enslaved than left free. And, until 200 years ago, socially respectable Americans were slave owners. Kinder ones treated slaves better but slave-owning is now viewed as utterly abhorrent.”


Finally, “The world of yesterday and the world of today bear no comparison. One marvels at the Holy Prophet’s sagacity in negotiating a better deal for all warring Arabian tribes. Still, we should appreciate just how different the world has become from those times. The combined population of Makkah and Madina was less than Kharadar’s, a typical Karachi neighbourhood. Joblessness and lack of housing were non-issues; air pollution and load-shedding hadn’t been conceived; and white-collar crime was awaiting invention centuries later. No police or standing army existed in the Madina state. There were no jails. It is easy to see why certain religious slogans appeal to the popular imagination. In a country that is deeply unequal and plagued by huge class asymmetry, people yearn for an unblemished past when everything was perfect. But when political leaders promise to take us there, how seriously should we take them? The masses had responded favourably when Gen Ziaul Haq had raised a similar slogan in the 1980s — that of Nizam-i-Mustafa. Disappointment soon followed. Can it be different this time?”

Police Officer Kidnapped in Pakistan, Killed in Afghanistan: The Murky World of ISI’s ‘Good Taliban’

On October 27, Mr Tahir Khan Dawar, Superintendent of Police (Peshawar), left his house in Islamabad for a walk but never returned till his body was handed over by Afghan authorities to their Pakistani counterparts at Torkham crossing on Thursday November 15.
Tahir Dawar hails from North Waziristan and “was promoted as acting SP a couple of months ago. He had served as DSP in different areas of Peshawar and also worked in the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). The Pakistan Provincial Police Services Officers Association expressed concern over Tahir Dawar’s mysterious disappearance, but nobody else has highlighted the issue.”
Since end October Mr Khan’s family and elders of North Waziristan tribal district had demanded that “The government should recover the missing police officer within five days otherwise the residents of North Waziristan district will organise sit-ins protest in Islamabad and Peshawar simultaneously.”
In early November Dawar’s family and elders of Dawar tribe “set a five-day deadline during a press conference at the Peshawar Press Club a few days back. His family members and elders of his Dawar tribe addressed the press conference along with his two daughters, who were holding pictures of their father in their hands and demanding his safe recovery.”
As pointed out by news reports: “The police and the government are facing criticism for failing to recover its officer, who in turn was responsible as a cop for the security of the people. Tahir Dawar had gone to Islamabad on October 26. None of his guards was accompanying him. He had dinner at his home in the federal capital and then went out alone at around 7pm, officials said. His cellphone was found switched off at around 8pm.”
Finally, on Wednesday November 13, news reports broke out about the murder of Mr Dawar inside Afghanistan. “After the news of Mr. Dawar’s death broke out on the evening of 13 November 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of Pakistan in Kabul immediately contacted Afghan authorities for confirmation of the news and handing over of the body of the deceased to Pakistan. The Ambassador of Pakistan had asked the Afghan government to immediately send the mortal remains foregoing routine formalities.
According to an ISPR release, “The brutal murder of SP Tahir in Afghanistan is highly condemnable. We have lost a brave police officer. Tahir Dawar’s abduction, move to Afghanistan, murder and follow up behaviour of Afghan authorities raise questions which indicate involvement or resources more than a terrorist organisation in Afghanistan. While investigations by Pakistani authorities are in process, we reiterate that Afghan security forces to cooperate in border fencing and bilateral border security coordination to deny use of Afghan territory against Pakistan.”

Will Imran Send Troops to Yemen to Get $$$ from Saudi

Continuing an old tradition going back to the 1970s, Prime Minister Imran Khan, went to Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip. During his two-day trip Khan called on King Salman, Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman and also attended a state banquet.
With Pakistan’s economy in the doldrums, the country once again is turning to its two faithful allies – Saudi Arabia and China – seeking aid in order to avoid having to go to the IMF for the 13th time.
Soon after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests when Pakistan faced crippling sanctions, Saudi Arabia offered Pakistan oil on deferred payments but there was a tacit understanding that Pakistan would be there for the Saudis when required. 
In earlier decades, Saudi Arabia has deposited money in Pakistan’s exchequers to help the government tide over shortage of foreign exchange reserves. The Saudis did this in 2014 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took over power. But at that time Pakistan had promised to send its troops whenever Riyadh requested. However, when the time came, we backed off and did not send our troops. The Saudi displeasure has been evident, clearly visible in their deepening ties with India.
If the current government would like Saudi Arabia to either offer deferred oil payments or deposit money in our exchequers, then what are we willing to do in exchange? Are we willing to send troops to Yemen?  
And even if we say we will send troops, why would Saudi Arabia trust us this time round and give us money before Pakistani troops show up? We should understand their frustration too. Why promise what we cannot deliver?