The Lie of Attrition, or We Have No Idea Who’s Out There

by Joshua Foust on 2/10/2011 · 3 comments

The Afghan Ministry of Defense just made a startling announcement:

The strength of Taliban insurgents and other anti-government elements estimated to be between 25,000 to 35,000 in the militancy-hit Afghanistan, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said on Wednesday.

If this sounds odd, that’s because in 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal took over ISAF command in Kabul, he estimated there were about 25,000 Taliban fighting in the country. And if that sounds weird, too, let’s not forget Ahmed Rashid’s September 11, 2001 article for the Telegraph, in which he estimated 25,000 Taliban troops in charge of Afghanistan at the time of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s assassination.

Meanwhile, the number of Coalition troops in Afghanistan has increased from 0 at the time of Rashid’s article to about 450,000 by July of this year, when numbers will peak and start to decline under the initial “drawdown.” And the estimated number of Taliban fighters out there hasn’t changed one bit. There are no comfortable conclusions to draw from this. Either:

  • We have no idea who’s out there, or in what numbers;
  • The Afghan MOD is lying to justify its expensive troop subsidies;
  • An enormous, expensive build-up in troops has not noticeably diminished the numbers of Taliban (or, in a worst case scenario, created 10,000 more);
  • There was initial success in diminishing the Taliban, but their numbers have grown; or
  • The Taliban are recruiting new people far more quickly than we can reconcile or kill off.

Not a single one of these conclusions bodes well for the war’s prospects.

Update: Steve Hynd sent along this story, from last month. Blockquote:

A massive effort by US and NATO forces — including offensives in the insurgent heartland and targeted assassinations of rebel leaders — has failed to dent Taliban numerical strength over the past year, according to military and diplomatic officials.

A NATO official said this week that the alliance estimates the current number of insurgent fighters at up to 25,000, confirming figures provided earlier by several military officers and diplomats.

Naturally, this was still evidence of progress, momentum, breaking the enemy’s back, and whatever else have you. Sigh.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

DC February 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm

No one ever really defines what they mean by ‘Taliban’ either. Is it just full time insurgents who buy into the ideology and political aims of the Taliban leadership? Does it include the 14 year old kid who digs in IEDs with no real concept of why he’s doing what he’s doing? What about the opium smugglers who assist with facilitation as it ties in nicely with their main trade?

RScott February 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Joshua,
I think you have it right with #1: We have no idea of who is out there. And it relates to DC above: who are they? Certainly not some homogeneous, monolithic, disciplined unit, which would be impossible for the Pashtuns. And they are certainly growing, through belief, indoctrination, dissatisfaction with local government, non-acceptance of another foreign military occupational force (that apparently plan to stay indefinitely), revenge for killed relatives, etc etc. No, we have no idea.

Grant February 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Considering that most insurgent groups (even factoring in part time fighters) never manage to break past 10,000 either we really aren’t doing too well or they’re using bad math.

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