NIGHTWATCH Special Report: Afghanistan Taliban Numbers

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29 November 2010

Special Report: October in Afghanistan

Findings: The number of clashes in October in the NightWatch data base, which contains exclusively open source reports on fighting, remained elevated, at 701. The Taliban “victory” offensive continues. NightWatch estimates this number represents a fourth to a half of the actual total, but it includes the most noteworthy fighting actions during the month.

Phi Beta Iota: What this report does not point out is the relative cost difference between allied operations and Taliban operations.  Allied operations are costing $50 million for EACH Taliban member killed (while birth rate is double the death rate), whereas the cost to the Taliban of each allied body is close to zero.  When combined with the equally humongous spread between the total sustainment cost of NATO operations (billions per week) and the cost to the Taliban of standing pat (nothing), the strategic imbalance is quite clear.

Balance of Nightwatch Report with Graphic & Table Below

The highlight of the month was the relative calm in Kabul and Parwan Provinces in central Afghanistan. That contrasted sharply with a surge of attacks in Kandahar, the setting for the latest Coalition offensive.

The Taliban exhibited several tactical innovations, compared to earlier years. Most noticeable was an increase in direct fire attacks against Coalition bases. The Taliban also exercised greater care in selecting targets. Most of the time they avoided civilians, except for assassinations of “spies” and suicide attacks in Kandahar, which were calculated to achieve maximum casualties and terror effects. Finally, the Taliban shifted into different districts, compared to a year ago. Most shifts were not an expansion of the fighting from consolidated districts, but avoidance of increased Coalition operations.

The number of provinces infected by the Taliban remained steady at 30 of 34, the same number as in October 2009. Fighting in October 2010 was less concentrated in the 12 southern and eastern provinces, reflecting the Taliban breakout in 2009 into the Pashtun enclaves of northern Afghanistan. The number of provinces that experienced daily clashes dropped to 10 compared to 14 a year ago and 12 in 2008

The number of districts reporting engagements was 193, out of 400. From spring to early winter 2009, the Taliban sustained operations in 200 districts or half the districts of Afghanistan.

The Taliban remain mostly Pashtun. Their operational areas are coextensive with Pashtun-dominated districts, whether in the south or the north. In that sense, they have peaked.

NATO forces remain essential for the survival of the government in Kabul, but they are not numerous nor present enough to make permanent the improvements their operations make in the local security situation. Afghan forces, especially the Afghan National Army cannot operate without NATO support and do not bear the brunt of fighting.

Outlook: Taliban and other anti-government fighters will begin to go to winter quarters in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. The fighting will decline during the winter, but in the core provinces of the Pashtun south, weather should not be a factor.

Based on Taliban public statements, attacks will remain focused on disruption of the overland truck lifeline for Afghan and NATO forces, ambushes of Coalition patrols and assassinations. IEDs will continue as a favorite weapon, depending on outside supplies.

Taliban cannot defeat NATO forces, but NATO forces cannot defeat Taliban, especially without combat air support. Taliban will continue to display more boldness in attacks as long as NATO restricts its use of air power, which is a game changer. The promise of more air support and the introduction of main battle tanks in support of the Marines in Helmand should destroy the Taliban's momentum locally, if consistently applied.

The government in Kabul will remain dependent on NATO forces for its survival for an indefinite period.

Technical note: The special report series on Afghanistan is based exclusively on open source reporting. The data is a sample, but one that has proven reasonably reliable as a guide to Readers about the trends in and status of the security situation during the past four years. The numbers are only valid in the context of this report.

The gaps in monthly coverage are a reflection of sourcing problems.

Monthly Fighting Data

The graph below shows the trend of fighting during the past three years. Most analysts assess the Taliban began their bid to return to power in Kabul in 2006. The graph indicates that they doubled their capacity for clashes every year until 2009 and then grew more slowly or remained steady.

Last year, the NATO command reported anti-government forces engaged in 700 security incidents on election day, 20 August 2009. That effort was a single day high that the Taliban have never repeated. Across the country, the daily average in October 2010 was about 25 clashes.

Month Clashes 2008 Clashes 2009 Clashes 2010
January 66 282
February 60 301
March 107 782 368
April 199 357
May 222 658 501
June 314 818
July 319
August 330
September 266
October 314 626 701
November 441
December 292
Total 2930 2884




Analysis of the Provinces

The table below shows the trend of violence for the core provinces of the insurgency. In the NightWatch sample, a core province is one in which the Taliban sustained at least one clash every two days.

The red color signifies the provinces with the worst security conditions. The yellow highlighted provinces are those in which security conditions deteriorated or remained serious. Green shows improvement or relative quiet.

One finding from the chart is that three provinces that NightWatch included in the core in 2009 no longer qualify for inclusion. Coalition operations in these provinces appear responsible for this change. Overall, 16 of the 34 provinces account for up to 90 per cent of the fighting, virtually unchanged from the 2008 average.

Core Provinces of the Insurgency

Province Total


2008 Average Clashes October 2008 Clashes October 2009 Clashes October



Ghazni 321 Attack every day 43 24 60
Helmand 391 Attack every day; 2 per day twice a month 45 65 132
Kabul 109 Attack every 3 days 8 22 8
Kandahar 316 Attack every day 24 100 87
Khost 198 Attack every other day 13 38 37
Konar 122 Attack every 3 days 11 71 33
Logar 129 Attack every 3 days 21 13 12
Nangarhar 76 Attack every 4 days 2 32 25
Paktika 115 Attack every 3 days 9 20 49
Paktia 160 Attack every 3 days 14 12 28
Zabol 124 Attack every 3 days 11 25 14
Farah 120 Attack every 3 days 13 6 16
Oruzgan 96 Attack every four days 14 8 7
Konduz 54 Attack once a week 9 22 22
Badghis 60 Attack once a week 7 12 12
Baghlan 26 Two attacks per month 3 6 19
Herat 97 Attack every three days 12 19 26
Takhar 9 Attack less than once a month 1 4 17
Maydan Wardak 97 Attack every three days 23 42 29
Total 2620

(89% of total clashes)

194 per month 311

(99% of total clashes)


(85% of total clashes)


(90% of total clashes)

The provinces that showed the sharpest deterioration in October 2010 are in the Pashtun heartland, namely, Ghazni, Helmand, Paktia, Paktika and Kandahar. The Taliban have been trying to capture Kandahar for two years and have not succeeded.

The Taliban remained unable to secure their heartland, but they remained strong enough to prevent Coalition forces from establishing security on behalf of the government.

Every province under stress and the districts within the provinces have unique story lines built around tribal feuds, warlord depredations, land ownership patterns and changes, religious zealotry and traditional practices, including smuggling and banditry. Cumulatively, these behaviors result in armed insurrection against the Kabul government and outside military forces. Separately, the result is that no single set of solutions works to stabilize them, either for a Taliban government or for the Coalition backed leadership.

In Helmand, the increase in NATO operations during the year is accountable for the increase in clashes. The Taliban succeeded in forcing NATO to retrench in Konar Province in 2009, but the Taliban have failed to exploit NATO setbacks in 2010. In Konduz Province in the North, they have not been strong enough to consolidate the new front they opened two years ago, except in Chahar Darah District, which is predominantly Pashtun.

The most important change since 2009 is the addition of Takhar and Baghlan Provinces to the list of core provinces. Both are northern provinces that have been the targets of Taliban expansion energies.

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