The State of the Fighting in the Afghan War in Mid-2019

The Afghan War has entered a critical period in which the U.S. is actively seeking a peace settlement with the Taliban, and doing so in spite of the fact that it is negotiating without the full participation of the Afghan government.

Peace is a highly uncertain option. There are no official descriptions of the terms of the peace that the Administration is now seeking to negotiate, but media reports indicate that it may be considering a full withdrawal within a year of a ceasefire, and other reports indicate that it is considering a 50% cut in U.S. military personnel even if a peace is not negotiated.

As of mid-August 2019, the Taliban has continued to reject any formal peace negotiations with the Afghan government, and has steadily stepped up its military activity and acts of violence while it negotiates with the United States. Terrorist groups like ISIS-K add to the threat, as do the many splits within the Afghani government and political structure. The Taliban has not encouraged further ceasefires, or shown any clear willingness to accept a lasting peace on any terms but its own. It may well see peace negotiations as a means of negotiating a withdrawal of U.S. and other allied forces and a prelude to a peace that it could exploit to win control of Afghanistan.

At the same time, major uncertainties also exist regarding continuing support for the war. Some press reports indicate the Administration is seeking a 50% reduction in active U.S. military manpower in country by the end of 2019 or some point in mid-2020 regardless of whether a peace settlement is reached. Some members of Congress have called for major U.S. force cuts and shown only a limited willingness to keep up U.S. support of the Afghan government and forces if peace negotiations do not succeed.

Much depends on current trends in the war, and the extent to which the Afghan Government or the Taliban are winning control and influence over the country. Much also depends on the degree to which the Afghan government forces can stand on their own if a peace negotiation leads to the withdrawal of U.S. and Resolute support forces, or if the U.S. makes major further force cuts.

Understanding the Trends in the Fighting

The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a report that draws on recent official reporting by the Resolute Support Command, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1225 Report), the Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (LIG-OCO), the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the United Nations, and a variety of outside sources.

The report is entitled The State of the Fighting in the Afghan War in Mid 2019. It is available on the CSIS web site at The report compares the key data and conclusion in each recent official report to show their assessments of the threat, and the problems in estimating Government vs. Taliban influence and control. It examines key problems in the reporting on the levels of violence and civilian casualties, and in the estimates of the terrorist threat.

The report is divided into the following five major sections:

  • Estimates of Military Balance and the Size of the Threat Show Little or No Progress
    in Defeating the Taliban (pp. 10-22)
    All of the sources shown indicate that the Taliban continues to be a major threat, and that the level of violence inflicted by other movements and by terrorist organizations continues to be serious. The OSD reporting seems to understate the levels of Taliban activity, but the LIG and SIGAR reports – as well as a CIA report – war and that the Taliban may be gaining.

Broadly speaking, all of the reports describe a near stalemate. The differences are largely over whether this stalemate currently favors the Taliban. None of the reports address the degree to which the Afghan Government and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are dependent on support from U.S. airpower, elite ground troops, and the forward deployment of security force train and assist personnel at the combat unit or Kandak level to prevent major Taliban gains in Afghan population centers, or what would happen if U.S. and other major Resolute Support forces were severely cut or withdrawn.

  • Estimates of Levels of Government and Threat Control and Influence Get Steadily Worse and Then Are Cancelled or Classified (pp. 23-42) The official reporting on the war by OSD and Resolute Support has steadily cut the level of reporting on which side is winning influence and control, and on the successes and problems in building up effective Afghan forces. It is coming closer and closer to mirroring the “follies” in providing on favorable reporting on the war that characterized far too much of the reporting on Vietnam. This has now culminated in the cancellation of all official reporting on which side controls, influences, or contests given districts.

Reporting by SIGAR and the LIG, however, strongly indicates that the Taliban continues to make gains, as does reporting by the Long War Journal – which has consistently provided the best outside assessments of progress on each side. None of these reports indicate that the Taliban is strong enough to seize control of the country or most of its major population centers, but they are a warning that the Taliban may be making serious progress even while the U.S. and Resolute Support forces are still present and actively supporting the Government in the fighting, and that a political decision has been made within OSD and Resolute Support to avoid publicly reporting the level of Taliban progress.

  • Estimates of Combat Activity as Largely Useless Indicators of the Trends in the War (pp. 43-58) These warnings are sharply reinforced by the fact the OSD Report and Resolute Support have substituted virtually meaningless indicators of the trends in Effective Enemy Attacks (EEAs) and Enemy Initiated Attacks (EIAs) for reports on Government versus Taliban influence and control – the key measures of progress and success in insurgency and counterinsurgency.

As the report shows in detail, these EEA and EIA indicators are defined and presented in ways that make them virtually useless indicators even of the level of violence in the fighting, and seem to be designed to provide a more favorable picture of ANSF success without any regard to the importance of given battles and role played by outside combat support.

Other official metrics like the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) are not as positive, and both the EEA and EIA metrics ignore the fact that the struggle for influence and control over the population does not require the Taliban to directly attack prepared and well-organized Afghan government forces and the very nature of counterinsurgency warfare.

The most that can be said about these official assessments of combat activity is that they too have the same character as the reporting that one expected at the Vietnam “follies”—something that becomes all too clear from independent observers and media reports, and from informal discussions with members of the security train and assistance and combat teams .

For example, a report by Rod Norland and David Zucchino in the New York Times on August 13, 2019—entitled “As U.S. Nears a Pullout Deal, Afghan Army Is on the Defensive,”—examined more than 2,300 combat deaths of government forces. These were compiled in daily casualty reports by The New York Times from January through July 2019. The Times, found that,

“,,,more than 87 percent occurred during Taliban attacks on bases, checkpoints or command centers. These numbers indicate that the Taliban could attack many such bases almost at will. During that seven-month period, the Taliban mounted more than 280 such attacks — an average of more than one a day…Police and soldiers are stuck in their bases,” said Abdul Aziz Beg, head of the district council in Badghis Province in western Afghanistan. “The Taliban are killing security forces easily, but no one pays attention.”

Local government officials in several provinces said the only ground operations against the Taliban were being carried out by the American-backed Afghan Special Forces… “They come here, kill some people and arrest some, and that’s it. When they leave, the Taliban come back” and kill regular troops in their bases , said Rahmatullah Qaisari, a district governor in Faryab Province in northern Afghanistan… “To make people happy, security officials announce operations,” said Tor Khan Zarifi, a tribal elder in Herat Province in the north. “These operations are kind of show-off — they don’t have any impact.”

A senior American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, acknowledged that the Afghans were increasingly relying on elite units such as commandos and special police units to attack the Taliban. He said regular Afghan units still sustained most of their casualties while trying to hold on to territory anchored by bases and checkpoints.”

  • Casualty Trends Show Limited Growth in Total Deaths, but Growing Differences in Resolute Support and UNAMA Assessments of the Impact of ANSF and Coalition Attacks on Civilians (pp. 59-78)

Civilian casualties do provide some crude indications of the impact of the war on the civilian population and the intensity of the fighting in given areas. They do not, however, reflect the efforts of the Taliban, warlords, and narco-traffickers to intimidate the population – classic aspects of counterinsurgency warfare. The data are often highly uncertain, and reflect a natural bias towards counting military battles and air strikes and no the overall pattern in the country side.

The data also reveal a major difference between the Resolute Support and UN estimates of the casualties inflicted by Afghan Government forces and by airpower – which largely consists of U.S. strikes. In this case, quotes explaining the UN methodology indicate that it probably exaggerates the civilian casualties inflicted by pro-Government forces although the data on the Resolute Support estimates indicate that it may undercount to a lesser degree.

The UN assessment also seems somewhat unrealistic in assessing what any military force can actually do in a war where the Taliban routinely uses human shields, where accurate air strikes often produce far fewer casualties than land fighting through and in populated areas, and prolonging the fighting by carrying out fewer strikes would probably produce higher civilian dead and injured.

In broad terms, however, both sets of estimates indicate that the total levels of civilian casualties are far lower than in Iraq and Syria, and are not steadily rising.

As for military casualties, the level of U.S. and other Resolute Support casualties is now very low. The LIG report for the first quarter of 2019 noted that, “Four U.S. military personnel died because of combat injuries during the quarter. The DoD announced that a Soldier died of wounds sustained on January 13 in Badghis province; a Soldier died on January 22 as a result of small arms fire in Uruzgan province; and two Soldiers died as a result of wounds sustained in Kunduz province on March 22…Resolute Support did not report any casualties among its non–U.S. partner forces during the quarter.” (p.31)

The level of ANSF casualties is a different story. The actual numbers are classified, as are the details of the reasons for the shrinking manpower totals in the ANA—evidently to disguise the level of the problems that now occurring. However, virtually all independent reporting talks about steadily higher levels, particularly in the Afghan National Police (ANP), but in the Army (ANA) as well.

The LIG report for the first quarter of 2019 notes that,

USFOR-A told the DoD OIG that the number of ANDSF casualties during the period December 2018 to February 2019 was approximately 31 percent higher than the same period one year ago. The number of casualties during defensive operations increased by 45 percent while the number of casualties during offensive operations increased by 21 percent. Almost half of the ANDSF casualties during this 3-month period were inflicted during checkpoint security operations.

…USFOR-A classified ANDSF casualty and attrition rates at the request of the Afghan government. However, Afghan political leaders occasionally release some information about ANDSF casualties to the media. In January 2019, President Ghani stated that 45,000 ANDSF members had been killed since he took office in 2014.

The same report in the New York Times mentioned earlier states that,

Afghanistan’s minister of defense, Asadullah Khalid, said that since taking command in December he had worked to shift regular forces out of their defensive posture…“Their mind-set has changed from defensive to offensive,” Mr. Khalid said in an interview at the defense ministry in Kabul…. “Let’s be clear: These bases are not for us to just stay there and sleep there. They are going out on the offense.”

But Mr. Khalid also said that some regular forces had sustained high casualty rates this year during Taliban attacks on checkpoints and bases, in areas where the militants were not threatened by government offensives. “We are trying to reverse that situation,” he said.

Only about three percent of the 2,300 deaths in the casualty reports compiled by the Times this year occurred during offensive combat operations carried out by regular forces. Among those were troops killed in Taliban ambushes after being sent to reinforce besieged bases or checkpoints .

Roughly 10 percent of the deaths occurred in other actions, away from bases and checkpoints. They were attributed to roadside bombs; attacks on convoys; snipers; insider attacks; friendly fire; and ambushes of soldiers or police who were on food runs, driving to work, in their homes, in bazaars, at weddings, in mosques.

  • Estimates of Terrorism in Afghanistan Are Uncertain but Seem to Reflect Steady Increases (pp. 79-89) All of the sources reflect warnings that ISIS-K and other terrorist movements are now playing a role in the fighting, although this role so far remains limited. This is a warning that Afghanistan might become potential center for international terrorism if the Afghan government was defeated, although it is not clear that Taliban has such intentions or would tolerate such rivals. The data are also uncertain, poorly defined and categorized, and cannot be meaningfully updated now that the State Department has cancelled the START database effort.

In summary, the official views on the course of the fighting data are mixed, uncertain, and increasingly politicized. They do, however, make it clear that the Taliban remains a major force, and they do raise critical question about whether the Afghan Government can survive any major cuts in U.S. military aid, train and assist efforts, and combat support if there is no peace settlement. At the same time, they raise equal question about the ability to implement any peace settlement without some form of continuing U.S. presence, aid, and security guarantees to keep the Taliban from taking over. There are far too many similarities to a similar period in the Vietnam War when the ARVN at least appeared to be far stronger before a peace settlement—and a U.S. withdrawal—than the ANSF appears to be today.

The Other Sides of the War

It should also be stressed that this study only examines one element of the current situation in Afghanistan. The other aspects are addressed in far more detail in two other Burke Chair reports:

In brief, the following additional issues must be considered:

A Failed Civil Side of the War

Afghanistan is a “failed state” whose civil structure is poorly prepared for either peace or for continuing the war. The civil side has long presented critical problems in terms of leadership, stability, and meaningful efforts to meet the needs of the Afghan people, and there is little prospect that this situation will change. Afghan politics are both corrupt and deeply divided. An election was held for the Afghan Legislature in October 2018, but then did not take office until April 2019. SIGAR estimates that it remains as divided and ineffective as in the past.

A Presidential election will be held in September 2018, but none of the 18 candidates have high popularity on a national basis or inspire broad confidence – including the current President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. If one candidate does not receive 50% of the vote, another election must be held later in November.

The government is widely ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, and the World Bank ranks it as one of the world’s least effective governments. SIGAR notes that local government is particularly weak and corrupt, and that actual governance is often dominated by the Taliban.

The CIA, IMF, and World Bank all rank the Afghan economy as failing to meet popular needs, corrupt, subject to critical employment shortfalls, and as having exception poverty. The only major export is narcotics. At the same time, SIGAR reporting makes it all too clear that U.S and international aid efforts have had only a limited real-world impact on poverty, employment, and the other elements of civil stability.

U.S. Economic Support Funding for the civil side of the war has dropped from well over $3 billion a year to $500 million in FY2018, and the U.S. is the largest contributor to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It is not clear, however, that the U.S. has any clear plan to help the Afghan Government deal with its civil problems after a peace settlement or address Afghanistan’s needs if a peace settlement fails.

A Military Side Indefinitely Dependent on U.S. and Resolute Support Aid and Assistance

Afghanistan is making some progress in creating more effective military forces, but that progress is fragile at best and largely affects the Afghan National Army (ANA)—which is taking high casualties and has recently begun to lose personnel by desertion. SIGAR’s July 30, 2019 report to Congress warns that serious cuts are taking place in total ANA manning, and OSD, LIG, and SIGAR reports all warn that the Army’s offensive and counteroffensive capability is heavily dependent on a small number of elite, over-stressed units which are, in turn, dependent on support from U.S. elite ground troops, Security Force Assistance Brigade or their equivalent, and U.S. combat air support and IS&R capabilities.

The Afghan Air Force cannot come close to providing the kind of air support provided by AFCENT, and current plans will not provide such capabilities at any point in the future. Aside from, one Special Mission unit, they also lack anything like the precision strike and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities of U.S. manned and remotely piloted aircraft. These are critical shortfalls, given the ANA’s current dependence on combat air support.

The Afghan Police have only one brigade-equivalent of effective, elite paramilitary forces. Most, police and local security forces lack the ability to fight effectively as a paramilitary force. The overall mix of such Ministry of the Interior forces is poorly structured and corrupt, casualties are high, and these weaknesses are compounded by widespread corruption in the courts and legal system, and Districts where there are no effective courts or actual governance.

In broad terms, Afghan forces are years away from being able to stand on their own, and is now critically dependent on U.S. and allied support in terms of military aid funds, train and assist personnel, direct combat support, and U.S. air power.

U.S Funding and Combat Support

There is no way to cost the future U.S. role in Afghanistan in either peace of war. This will not be possible until and unless, the U.S. actually provides some transparency as to its peace plan and some agreement is reached upon such a plan with the Taliban—or the U.S. has decided whether to stay or withdraw if a peace plan fails.

It is also important to note that the U.S. has still never published a credible cost of the estimate of the war that shows what expenses are actually included, and how they are allocated. Three Administrations, and some 18 years’ worth of Congresses, have all failed to provide such data. SIGAR’s July 31, 2019 report did, however, report the figures provided in the DOD, Cost of War Monthly Report, for Total War-related Obligations by Year Incurred, data as of March 31, 2019. The total was $755.7 billion for the war, and $120.7 billion for reconstruction, for a total of $876.4 billion. (pp. 41-45)

This is an immense amount of money for the entire period from FY2002 through FY2019, but it needs to be kept in careful perspective. The cost per year has dropped from a peak of $111 billion in FY2012 to $19 billion in FY2019. The cost of providing security guarantees for a peace settlement could be much lower, and it seems uncertain that the cost of continuing the war would be much higher. The bulk of the $19 billion in the FY2019 budget also goes to paying for U.S. forces and presence. SIGAR reports an estimate of $.68 billion in civil and military aid to Afghanistan in FY2019. (p. 43).

SIGAR does not provide any estimate of the cost of air support to Afghan forces, but it does report a comparatively limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan: (pp. 71-72)

According to DOD, as of June 2019, approximately 14,000 U.S. military personnel were serving as part of the U.S. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan, the same number reported for over a year. An additional 10,648 U.S. citizens who serve as contractors are also in Afghanistan as of July 2019. Of the 14,000 U.S. military personnel, 8,475 are assigned to the NATO RS mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces, unchanged since last quarter.105 The remaining U.S. military personnel serve in support roles, train the Afghan special forces, or conduct air and counterterror operations.

As of June 2019, the RS mission included 8,673 military personnel from NATO allies and non-NATO partner nations, bringing the current total of RS military personnel to 17,148 (a 114-person increase since last quarter). The United States continues to contribute the most troops to the RS mission, followed by Germany (1,300 personnel) and the United Kingdom (1,100).

The U.S. has also made real progress in providing a more effective train and assist mission. Again, drawing on the SIGAR report, (p.72)

DOD reported in June that General Austin Scott Miller, Commander of RS and USFOR-A, rolled out a new operational design for the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan over the last six months. The new design reportedly streamlines U.S. operations in the country by synchronizing U.S. counterterrorism capabilities with increased ANDSF operations and focused RS Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA) efforts to the “point of need.” DOD said this model has “restored the Coalition’s tactical initiative and put heavy pressure on the Taliban . . . to generate strong incentives for them to engage in meaningful negotiations with the U.S. and Afghan governments.” DOD also said the new operational design and current U.S. military footprint are the “most efficient use of small numbers and resources to generate combat power and battlefield effects since the opening year of the war in Afghanistan.” DOD reiterated that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is conditions-based, with commanders on the ground continually evaluating conditions and making recommendations on appropriate force levels.

As for current casualty levels, every U.S. loss counts, but SIGAR notes that the casualty levels are now far lower than in the past. (p. 73)

According to DOD, five U.S. military personnel were killed and 35 were wounded in action (WIA) in Afghanistan this reporting period (April 17 to July 15, 2019). As of July 15, 2019, a total of 72 U.S. military personnel has died in Afghanistan (53 from hostilities and 19 in non-hostile circum- stances) and 427 military personnel were WIA since the start of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel on January 1, 2015. Since the beginning of U.S. operations in Afghanistan in October 2001, 2,419 U.S. military personnel have died (1,898 from hostilities and 521 in non-hostile circumstances) and 20,530 have been WIA.

Some reporting on the war has focused on the total cost of the war from FY2002 onwards. Other reporting has sharply exaggerated probable future casualties. It should be recognized that future costs for security a peace could be relatively limited by any past standard, and that sustaining the Afghan war effort might also be affordable if it could be made more effective in civil and military terms.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy