Pentagon map belies Taliban's sphere
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The Pentagon was still trying to spin its report on the war in
Afghanistan issued last week as holding out hope because the instability had
leveled off, even as some news outlets were noting that it documents the
continued expansion of Taliban capabilities and operations.
The most significant revelation in the report, however, is that General Stanley
McChrystal and the United States-North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO)
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) joint command now acknowledge
officially that the Taliban insurgents dominate a vast contiguous zone of
heavily populated territory across southern Afghanistan that McChrystal regards
as the most critical area in the country.
The report admits that the population in key districts across most
southern provinces is sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgents.
The contiguous zone of Taliban political power stretches all the way across the
13 provinces from Farah province in the far west of the country through Helmand
and Kandahar to Wardak, Logar, Paktia and Khost provinces west and south of
The extent of Taliban political power in southern Afghanistan, which had not
been acknowledged previously by ISAF, is documented in a map showing an
"overall assessment of key districts" as of March 18.
The map shows for the first time the location and political and security status
of 121 districts chosen late last year by planners on McChrystal's ISAF joint
staff as the most important for a strategy of weakening the Taliban gains.
The contiguous Taliban zone includes but is not limited to 58 of the 121 key
districts, of which seven have populations assessed as "supporting" the
Taliban, 25 with populations "sympathetic" to the Taliban and 21 with
populations that are "neutral".
Only five of the districts within that zone are shown as having populations
that are "sympathetic to" the Afghan government and none that are "supporting"
The degree of Taliban political dominance in the south is partly obscured,
however, by an obvious effort to portray the attitudes of the population in
Helmand and Kandahar provinces more favorably than is reflected in reports from
Eight of the "neutral" districts shown on the map are in Helmand province,
where it has acknowledged in the past that the population was largely
sympathetic to the Taliban.
The districts of Nad Ali, in which Marjah is located, Naw Zad, Lashkar Gah and
Sangin are all shown as having "neutral" populations, even though it has been
well documented that the populations of those heavily opium poppy-growing
districts had turned decisively against the government and foreign troops over
government eradication efforts and the abusive behavior of police associated
with local warlords.
The population of Nad Ali had been shown in an assessment in late December as
being supportive of the Taliban. Naw Zad and Sangin districts, on the other
hand, had been assessed as "neutral" in December.
A report by The Guardian's Jon Boone last week quoted a recent British visitor
to Sangin as remarking on the "intense hatred of people who hate everything you
stand for" he had felt from people there.
McChrystal's staff apparently defined these as "neutral" so as to include
populations in districts where US and NATO forces have carried out operations
aimed at clearing the Taliban and are now the subject of attempts to change
their political views.
Earlier this year, however, an ISAF official familiar with the assessment on
which the command was basing its plans clearly included those same districts
among those in which the Taliban were regarded as having gotten popular
support. The official told Inter Press Service in an interview in late January,
"We have a system of 80 districts where Taliban influence is strongest, where
people support the Taliban for whatever reason."
That set of 80 districts that are the most pro-Taliban in the country is the
same set of 80 "Key Terrain districts" defined in the new Pentagon report as
"areas the control of (and support from which) provides a marked advantage to
either the Government of Afghanistan or the insurgents”.
The ISAF official also said that "about one-fourth" of the 80 districts in
which the Taliban had the strongest support would be in the "contiguous
security zone" that ISAF was planning to establish in Helmand and Kandahar
provinces this year. That coincides with the 19 districts in those two
provinces that are shown on the December 24 assessment map as "neutral",
"sympathetic" or "supportive" of the Taliban.
If the districts labeled on the map as "neutral" are understood to be
pro-Taliban as well, the districts in all three categories form an almost
unbroken chain of territory with populations leaning toward the Taliban across
the full length of the Pashtun south.
The 80 districts described by the ISAF official in January as providing the
strongest support to the Taliban apparently included only those pro-Taliban
districts that had the largest population and were closest to the major lines
of communications. The list does not include a large number of other districts
in several Pashtun provinces of the south where the Taliban insurgents
predominate but which are farther from the major roads.
The evidence of a coherent Taliban zone of political control in the new
Pentagon assessment is consistent with an Afghan National Security Forces
(ANSF) Provincial/District Threat Assessment as of April 23, 2009, which was
reported by BBC last August. An ANSF security map reflecting the ASNF
assessment showed almost every district in the Pashtun south except for Nimruz
province as being either "high risk" or Taliban-controlled.
Although McChrystal seemed to reject the idea that the Taliban had broad
political support in his initial assessment last August, an "integrated
campaign plan" jointly agreed by McChrystal and the US ambassador, Karl
Eikenberry, that same month hinted strongly at such support in Pashtun areas.
The campaign plan document concluded, "Key groups have become nostalgic for the
security and justice Taliban rule provided."
McChrystal's announcement earlier this year that ISAF would establish a
"contiguous security zone" which would include the bulk of the population of
Helmand and Kandahar provinces may have been a response to the recognition that
the Taliban had formed its own zone of political dominance in southern
However, given recent evidence that foreign troops have been unable to clear
insurgents from Marjah, and that local leaders and elders in Kandahar are
opposing US military operations in and around the city, that objective now
appears to be well beyond the reach of US and NATO troops.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.