According to an in-depth investigation conducted by BBC News reporters in late 2017, the Taliban fully control four percent of Afghanistan’s districts and “have an active and open physical presence” in 66 percent of the remaining ones. They found that roughly half of the Afghan people “are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.”
These findings should give pause to observers who believe that the United States is, or will presently be, poised to turn the tide in Afghanistan enduringly. There are currently fourteen thousand U.S. troops stationed there, up from 8,500 when President Trump took office, and the Army is recommending that the president authorize the deployment of an additional one thousand troops. For much of 2011, by comparison, there were nearly one hundred thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan. While that earlier surge did reduce the Taliban’s control and extend that of the Afghan government, neither trend lasted. It is difficult to see how the present force would be able to accomplish what one nearly seven times as large could not; it would be unlikely to have more than marginal impact, and even then for only as long as the deployment was sustained.
The United States has now been at war in Afghanistan for over sixteen years, at a cost of over $1 trillion; Atlantic Senior Editor Krishnadev Calamur noted last month that the Taliban “now controls . . . more territory than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion”; and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported this past November that both the level of opium production and the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached record highs in 2017.