Official estimates of the Afghan Taliban’s manpower are wildly off the mark and the Taliban is likely as strong now as it was at the start of the Afghan war in 2001.
The US government is significantly underestimating the size of the Taliban, experts tell TRT World, which has around three times as many fighters as official estimates say, along with tens of thousands of support personnel.
The Taliban has been gaining territory and is now stronger than ever since the start of the war. Its manpower has also been expanding. Estimates given by US officials have risen from 20,000 fighters a few years ago to 60,000 in 2018.
But this figure is “far too low” says Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a visiting professor at King’s College London who has conducted various research projects on the Taliban and is now authoring a book on the history of the group since 2001.
Giustozzi’s latest figures show that the Taliban has around 150,000 fighters, of which 60,000 are full-time fighters and the rest part-time local militia, and reserves based in Pakistan.
These numbers include the Haqqani Network, which broke from the Taliban in 2007 but rejoined in 2015. Fighters also go away on leave for months at a time.
The Taliban has approximately 50,000 support personnel involved in intelligence, logistics, propaganda, justice and other aspects of civilian administration. The Taliban now operates a shadow government in large parts of rural Afghanistan where it provides services, collects taxes and conducts law-enforcement.
All in all, the Taliban’s size likely exceeds 200,000, making it the largest insurgency in the world. But Giustozzi noted that, of the 150,000 fighters, the local militias are becoming redundant because they rarely fight outside their villages and “these remote rural areas have been lost by the government.”
Full-time mobile fighters are “what matter from a strategic point of view”, he says, because they are “more professional”, deployed around the country to attack cities and government checkpoints.
Those trying to measure the Taliban’s manpower face the problem that official data is limited, while numbers fluctuate as part-time fighters join and leave. However, Giustozzi devised an elaborate methodology to estimate the group’s size. He and his team conducted multiple interviews of individual Taliban at different times and places to prevent the possibility they would collude to inflate statistics.
His findings contrast sharply with recent US military estimates. A 2018 Department of Defense Inspector General report contained estimates that the Taliban had a maximum of 40,000 fighters (including the Haqqanis).
The Long War Journal, which tracks the Afghan conflict, found these figures to be “wildly unrealistic given the level and intensity of fighting in Afghanistan, as well as the number of Taliban casualties claimed by Afghan security forces.”
According to LWJ’s analysis, the size of the Taliban is “likely to number well over 100,000 fighters”.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells TRT World that Giustozzi’s figure of 150,000 fighters was a “reasonable estimate”.
According to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a security analyst and Taliban expert, official US figures are “wide of the mark”. Borhan Osman of the International Crisis Group told TRT World that the Taliban’s size is “well beyond 60,000 fighters”. The BBC’s Dawood Azami stated that a figure of 200,000 (including support personnel) “makes sense”.
Neither the US-led NATO Resolute Support mission nor the Afghan government responded to TRT World’s request for comment.
Despite its fearsome reputation, the Haqqani Network does not account for a large percentage of Taliban manpower. The Haqqanis say they have 13,000 active fighters, according to Giustozzi. But the Network has “shrunk significantly” in recent years, according to Borhan Osman, as a result of aggressive US actions and declining Pakistani support.
Pakistan has long been accused of harbouring Taliban fighters, and the group continues to recruit among its sizeable population of Afghan refugees. But the Taliban increasingly recruits fighters from inside Afghanistan as its territorial control grows, Borhan Osman tells TRT World.
Moreover, the Taliban has formed a relationship with its old foe, Iran, where Taliban fighters have apparently received funds, arms, and training.
Giustozzi says that the group is recruiting fighters among Afghan refugees inside Iran, according to Taliban sources and Afghan intelligence. He maintains that the mass expulsion and departure of refugees from Iran and Pakistan has not dented Taliban recruitment.
The Taliban, already vast, is increasing its manpower. The core fighting units were “expanding”, Giustozzi said. Osman says that the Taliban has been growing continuously throughout the war to become the “massive organisation” it is today. Rahimullah Yusufzai said the Taliban were “growing in size” and “growing in confidence about their strength.”
There is also a contingent of foreign fighters aligned with the Taliban, according to Giustozzi. These fighters mainly hail from Pakistani militant groups like the Lashkar e Taiba. A Taliban commander stated late last year that there were 2000-3000 foreign fighters. But Giustozzi believes the number is higher in fighting season.
The growing strength of the Taliban is in stark contrast to the deterioration of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which have suffered heavy casualties and desertions. The ANDSF has been losing more people than it can recruit and may struggle to sustain its military effort against an adversary that continues to expand.
However, the Taliban’s strength cannot be measured solely in terms of troop numbers, according to Barnett Rubin, a former senior official in the US State Department who is now a professor at New York University.
“The Taliban is not an armed group but a political organization, whose organisational capacities and legitimacy enable it to recruit armed men,” Rubin tells TRT World.
“Viewing the struggle in Afghanistan through a military lens is a recipe for losing, and, indeed, we are not winning,” he said.
The lack of a military solution to the war has been belatedly acknowledged by the Trump administration, which – after a failed troop surge intended to roll back the insurgency – is now pursuing a negotiated settlement. Direct talks between US and Taliban officials commenced last year and are still ongoing, with another meeting planned this month.
A Taliban spokesperson did not respond to TRT World’s requests for comment.
Rupert Stone is a Berlin-based freelance journalist working on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.)