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How many Taliban are there?

November 8, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Afghan and ISAF authorities suggest that there are as many as 35,000 Afghan Taliban fighters currently operating.  Ten years ago the figure was in the very low thousands.  The number of Taliban remains very unclear.  Although the figure has undoubtedly increased over the last ten years, analysis of the politics behind the figure – how and why the assessment is used – deserves consideration as well.

This is a cheap (and highly under-researched) shot, only because I saw a tweet yesterday claiming that the Afghan government (Interior Ministry, I think) said that their estimate of the number of Afghan Taliban was up to 35,000.

I conducted a very crude “stats through the ages” search through the internet to see how the assessments may have evolved over the years and came up with the following:

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August 2012, Daily Telegraph

British commanders refuse to say how many men the Taliban has under arms but some estimates suggest that the number could be as high as 35,000

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February 2011, Tolo News

Azimi: 35,000 Taliban “just a guess”…

There are approximately 35,000 Taliban militants all over Afghanistan, Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday.

“We estimate the number of Taliban insurgents at 25 to 35,000, but this is not established and is just a guess,” said Gen. Azimi.

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February 2010, The Guardian

NATO unofficially estimates that the number of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has grown from fewer than 400 in 2004 to about 25,000 last year and nearly 30,000 now.

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January 2010, Daily Telegraph

On the eve of today’s summit in London on the future of Afghanistan, sources told The Daily Telegraph that they hoped to be able to “reintegrate” half the estimated 25,000 Taliban fighters with promises of new jobs.

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Associated Press, October 2009

The Taliban rebels are estimated to number no more than 25,000…while there may be as many as 25,000 Taliban, it is not a monolithic group like an army, with a clear chain of command that has to be confronted soldier for soldier. Instead, it is a scattered and diverse mix of insurgents, some more ideologically motivated than others.

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Washington Post, June 2008

Troop numbers are low compared with the size of the insurgency, which includes many part-time fighters. There are an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, plus an estimated 1,000 each for the insurgent groups led by Siraj Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, according to ISAF intelligence.

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The Economist, October 2007

The number of Taliban fighters lies between 6,000 and 20,000.

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The Guardian, July 2006

British and Nato officials recently put the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan at between 1,000 and 2,000

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Common Dreams blog, August 2005

The Taliban is now a disparate assemblage of radical groups estimated to number several thousand, far fewer than when it was in power before November 2001.

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Washington Post, June 2005

The Taliban forces, estimated at anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 fighters, cannot hold territory against U.S. forces.

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Analysis and Outlook

My obvious immediate points might be:

  • The significant problems of definition aside, the trend of Taliban fighter numbers has almost certainly been upwards since 2002/2003 – whether it has gone from 1,000 to the 35,000 that is currently given by various security agencies, I have no idea.  It could be.
  • We should also try and factor or at least acknowledge other insurgent groups (and their potentially very inter-twined relationships with the Afghan Taliban): HIG, Haqqani, Al Qaeda, IMU, LeT, Pakistani Taliban…
  • It remains extremely difficult to produce a figure like this with any confidence.  I suspect some groups might be running with these figures simply to imply that they know what they are talking about.
  • The figure is politically very dangerous and misleading – what does it really, actually, mean?
  • The figure is at risk of being used and abused for a range of political and security agendas – the country is being overrun, the country needs to have x security personnel (on a basis of counter-insurgency analyst z’s security ratio of x troops to quell y insurgents)
  • Once you start producing this figure, you are halfway down the road to also having to produce a figure to the question “how many have been killed?” and well on the way to assessing Afghanistan’s prospects in terms of  military solutions.  Good luck with that one…
  • The Taliban as a “non-monolithic onion” – ie different groups, different layers of support and varying timeframes of engagement: fighters; part-time fighters; fence-sitters; supporters; intelligence gathers; logistical supporters; some in Afghanistan; some in Pakistan.  Even tribal groups fighting for similar causes.
  • The figures arrived at may be mostly made up (Azimi’s “just a guess”) but have major political significance, for all their potentially high levels of inaccuracy.  They are there more often than not to make a political/security point rather than present informed analysis.

I think the angles that most interest me now about this “how many Taliban are there?” question is not so much the number arrived at, or even the analytical rigour applied, it is about why a given group feels the need to come up with a figure in the first place and how the figure will be used politically.

Next week: “How many Taliban have been killed?”…

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