The Conflicting Assessments of the Trends in Combat in Afghanistan: 2014-2018

By Anthony H. Cordesman


The fighting in Ghazni has highlighted the fact that the U.S. has now entered its seventeenth year of war in Afghanistan and that there is no clear end to the war in sight. At present, there seems to be little prospect that a combination of Afghan government, U.S., and allied forces can defeat the Taliban and other insurgent and terrorist forces, or will be defeated by them. The conflict has become a war of attrition which can drag on indefinitely and can only be ended through some form of peace negotiation, U.S. withdrawal, or the collapse of either the Afghan government or threat forces – a transition from a war of attrition to a war of exhaustion by one side.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has assembled a survey of the conflicting metrics and maps that have attempted to describe the levels of combat and relative control of the country since 2014. This assessment is entitled The Conflicting Assessments of the Trends in Combat in Afghanistan: 2014-2018, and it is available on the CSIS web site at

The survey draws heavily on official sources like the Department of Defense, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and the Lead Inspector General. It also, however, draws heavily on UN casualty reporting, different media reports, and the work of the FDD Long War Journal (LWJ) and Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

This focus on trends in combat and control means it does not cover force developments, or the shifts in the strategy on each side, versus their effects. It also omits the trends in the civil side of the conflict. What it does do, however, is provide a picture of the conflicting ways in which U.S., UN, Afghan, allied, media, and NGO sources have appraised the ebb and flow of conflict over time, and the different views of government versus Taliban control of the country.

The patterns revealed do not provide dramatic new insights into the course of the war or the events to date in 2018. A war of attrition is a war of attrition. They do warn, however, that the U.S. sometimes failed to properly assess the war, and that no current official assessment of the war provides a full or reliable picture as to the current situation and level of control by the Taliban and Afghan government.

In fairness, a significant degree of uncertainty is inevitable, particularly when U.S. military and civilians have a much smaller presence at the district level and access to human sources. The new “conditions-based” strategy announced by President Trump is still in the process of being implemented and its full effects will not be apparent until 2019-2020. Much will then depend on whether Afghanistan can conduct a successful election and create a more effective and unified government.

Nevertheless, the survey does raise serious questions about the combat metrics the United States and its allies have used throughout the war, and the degree that these have been consciously or unconsciously politicized to overstate success or support efforts at withdrawal. The analysis helps illustrate these issues by grouping the data into various time clusters to provide easier comparisons. It also provides summaries of the competing narratives used to explain each metric to help explain what are sometimes major differences in the trends portrayed by given sources.

It does not, however, attempt to reconcile the differences that emerge between sources, or make an independent assessment of these difference. This is left to the reader. Anyone familiar with the conflict will be aware of the extent to which the metrics provide in a given period did – or did not – fully present a valid picture of the war. Anyone who participated in the policies shaping the war over time will be aware of cases where official sources chose metrics that exaggerated success, did not address the deep divisions and lack of effective governance on the part of the Afghan government, and/or emphasized favorable tactical outcomes rather than seriously addressed the trends in insurgent influence

There are several other aspects of data provided in this survey that the reader should be aware of:

  • The threat trend and map data do not distinguish between the Taliban and other hostile movements.
  • The graphics and reporting that highlighted the impact of the war on the on the civil side of the fighting, and the effectiveness of the Afghan central government and aid efforts, were largely cancelled after 2011, evidently because the maps and graphics did not reflect the planned level of progress.
  • No attempt has been made since 2012 to map the actual level of central government control of given districts provinces. A lack of Taliban control does not mean that the central government has control vs. a war lord, powerbroker, or major narco trafficking operation.
  • In some cases, districts seem to be assessed as under government control even when there is serious violence, or when government control is limited at best outside the District capital or a major population center.
  • The UN casualty data often presents a different picture in detail of the level of rising violence and risk, and leaked UN maps of areas the level of risk to aid and humanitarian operations seem to show larger areas of risk than the official maps of government vs. Taliban/threat control.
  • In many cases, the original source never fully defined key terms, indicated the methodology used, or described the level of uncertainty in the information provided.
  • Most trend charts, maps, and graphs compare the outcome of tactical clashes, or provide sweeping comparisons of control. They do not attempt to address the deep limitations and division the Afghan government control, by District, properly map insurgent influence, or attempt to map the relative level of government and insurgent influence and control.
  • The U.S. and Afghan official data on government or threat control seem to sometimes count districts as under government control that are actually under the control of various power brokers and warlords, or where the government has only a limited presence in the district capital.
  • The survey data on Afghan public opinion seem to reflect different views of security and government control from the maps and charts showing disputed areas.
  • The combat maps take no account of the growth of narcotics production and its impact on control and security.
  • No data are provided on the trends and location of ethnic and sectarian violence.
  • The impact of sanctuaries and movements in Pakistan is not reported. Neither is the rising role of Iran and Russia.

There has been an improvement in official reporting since the U.S. shifted from a withdrawal-based strategy to a conditions-based commitment to stay. However, such improvements have come largely in the form of official contributions to reporting from outside the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense’s 1225 reports on the war – Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan – have been cut back over time.

Some of the best explanations of the war that have been provided by U.S. commanders or in command briefings provided by the U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the Resolute Support Mission. These briefings often involve maps and graphics, but the Department of Defense only provides transcripts, and does not disseminate this material. Other useful data has come in the form of testimony by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but again without public metrics.

As a result, it is the maps, graphics, and data from the United Nations, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, independent assessments by the Long War Journal, and more recently from the Lead Inspector General that provide the most detailed view of the fighting.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.