Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted many of the difficulties the United States would face as it continues to look for a solution to its problems in Afghanistan. In addition to those many struggles, a new BBC study suggests that the Taliban continue to be pervasive in many parts of the country.
The prognosis for a settlement to the longest-running war in U.S. history is looking poor. On Jan. 31, the BBC released a significant study on the extent of militant presence and control over Afghanistan. According to the BBC, the Taliban have full control over 14 districts and an open presence in 263 more. In other words, jihadist insurgents are now active in 70 percent of Afghanistan's 398 districts.
The comprehensive survey, which took months to prepare, largely supports previous assessments on the presence of Taliban and Islamic State militants in the country. Most of the key differences between the BBC report and other estimates are due to differing definitions of what it means to have influence over a region. And last year, the Taliban assessed that it controlled, contested or had a presence in 259 Afghan districts.
Because the United States no longer publicly releases data on district or population control, independent reports have become all the more important. Unfortunately for U.S. ambitions to resolve the war in Afghanistan, the new data highlight a steady deterioration. Though the Afghan government controlled 72 percent of districts in November 2015, that number decreased to 57 percent by August 2017. The U.S. military has shown a preference to measure the influence of insurgents by noting the population they control, but the vast majority of the Afghan population lives under central government rule.
The United States was already aware that its strategy for Afghanistan was not making progress. But as that strategy continues to be modified — through increased airstrikes, pressure on Pakistan or troop increases — it will need to address the factors highlighted in the BBC report. Defeating the Taliban — or at least forcing them to the negotiating table — means not only preventing them from gaining more territory, but also pushing them out of the sparsely populated countryside they control.