Category Estimating Insurgent Force Size

Presentations from HAAC – Group Discussion: Could We Have Won the War in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2021?

The fourth event of the second day in the Pike & Gallows Conference room was a group discussion on whether we could have won the war in Afghanistan. I opened the discussion with a brief 12-slide presentation, built from my original presentation that morning. It is here: Could We Have Won

We then went into a general discussion around the conference room. I have not checked to see if we got a good video of that.

Anyhow, part of the reason that I added that to the program is that first: I think it actually does need to be discussed. Second, I have thought about blogging about that in depth, although I am spread so thin right now that I have held off doing so. I have not seen anyone else seriously discussing this.

The first presentation of the day was my monstrosity, Iraq, Data, Hypotheses and Afghanistan (which I later turned into the book America’s Modern Wars): NIC Compilation 3.1

The second presentation of the day was Lessons Learned from Haiti 1915-1934 by Dr. Christopher Davis of UNCG: History as an Enemy and Instructor

The third presentation of the day was Estimating War Deaths (in Iraq) by Dr. Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway University of London: Iraq Deaths


We had a total of 30 presentations given at the first Historical Analysis Annual Conference (HAAC). We have the briefing slides from most of these presentations. Over the next few weeks, we are going to present the briefing slides on this blog, maybe twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursday). In all cases, this is done with the permission of the briefer. We may later also post the videos of the presentations, but these are clearly going to have to go to another medium ( We will announce when and if these are posted.

The briefings will be posted in the order given at the conference. The conference schedule is here: Schedule for the Historical Analysis Annual Conference (HAAC), 27-29 September 2022 – update 16 | Mystics & Statistics (

The nine presentations given on the first day are all here: Presentations from HAAC – Air Combat Analysis on the Eastern Front in 1944-45 | Mystics & Statistics (

Presentations from HAAC – Iraq, Data, Hypotheses and Afghanistan

Attached is the first presentation for the second day of the conference. It was an old presentation that I gave at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) back in 2008. It was still relevant: NIC Compilation 3.1. Most of this is discussed in my book America’s Modern Wars.


We had a total of 30 presentations given at the first Historical Analysis Annual Conference (HAAC). We have the briefing slides from most of these presentations. Over the next few weeks, we are going to present the briefing slides on this blog, maybe twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursday). In all cases, this is done with the permission of the briefer. We may later also post the videos of the presentations, but these are clearly going to have to go to another medium ( We will announce when and if these are posted.

The briefings will be posted in the order given at the conference. The conference schedule is here: Schedule for the Historical Analysis Annual Conference (HAAC), 27-29 September 2022 – update 16 | Mystics & Statistics (

The nine presentations given on the first day are all here: Presentations from HAAC – Air Combat Analysis on the Eastern Front in 1944-45 | Mystics & Statistics (

The Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 – part 2

And then there is this article: Troop-to-Task: A Russian Invasion of Ukraine

What catches my attention about this article is the discussion of whether “troop-to-task” ratios, also known as tie-down ratios, sometimes also known as force ratios; should be measured based upon population or based upon insurgent strength.

To quote from his article: “Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, American analysts and military officials referred to a 20:1,000 (2%) troop-to-population ratio for successful counterinsurgency.”

He also notes: “These troop-to-population security ratios are notoriously unreliable and have weak empirical basis for planning.” 

That is more polite than how I refer to them in private. I did discuss this subject on pages 70-71 of my book America’s Modern Wars.

He then states: “Another popular way to analyze troop requirements in through troop–to-insurgent ratios.”

Popular? I have not seen anyone do this in recent times. I do have a book published on the subject (America’s Modern Wars). Perhaps I am missing out on something that is going on in the basement of the Pentagon. 

He does note that “This approach falls apart at step one: Counting insurgents.”

I have a chapter on the subject (Chapter 11: Estimating Insurgent Force Size, pages 115-120). It is possible. It is not perfect or easy; but doing something vague and difficult is better than doing something that is conceptually flawed. To date, I have not seen anyone else do anything further on estimating insurgents. My work was a tentative first cut on the subject. My customers were completely uninterested in this analysis, and nothing further was done. Clearly something further needs to be done. I think that is better than doing something that is conceptually flawed.

I have discussed this before on this blog and in my book: America’s Modern Wars. My discussion of the previous RAND work on the subject is on pages 70-71. It includes the following table from our work:

If anyone can tell me from that table where a 2% figure could come from, have at it.

Listed below are a collection of four relevant blog posts on the subject (there are some 1,288 posts on this blog). We do have categories like “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency,” “Force Ratios” and “Estimating Insurgent Force Size” this blog. We have done a few posts on the subject.

Needless to say, I think that basing the “troop-to-task” ratios on population is at best marginally relevant. For example, the troop-to-task ratio for Vietnam was 88.4. We did not win that one. On the other hand, when the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) with its two dozen members, raised hell in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 1970s, doing a political assassination, kidnapping Patty Hearst, and robbing banks, we took care of it using the LA police. We did not need to deploy 2% of the population of the United States (estimated at 213 million in 1974) to deal with the SLA. We did not need to raise over 4 million troops to suppress this insurgency. 

I do think the size of the insurgency is relevant.



Related posts:

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency | Mystics & Statistics (

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency II | Mystics & Statistics (

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency III | Mystics & Statistics (

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency IV | Mystics & Statistics (

and many, many others….

So What Does My Book Say About Afghanistan? – part 5

Unexploded Ordinance from the police station in the city of Baghlan, 30 miles south of Kunduz (photo by William A. Lawrence II, 1 April 2009)

Continuing the discussion on Afghanistan drawn from fragments of text from pages 260-262 of America’s Modern Wars:

The 2013 figure of 20,093 incidents a year does argue for a significant insurgency force. If we use a conservative figure of 333 incidents per thousand insurgents, then we are looking at more than 60,000 full-time and part-time insurgents. The number of security incidences has declined slightly since 2011. This would indicate that either we are slowly bringing the insurgency under control or that they are simply waiting until the U.S. leaves before they get more serious. Still, the level of violence is higher than it was in 2009, before the surge started, and the level of violence in 2013 is not significantly less than it was in 2011…. It certainly appears we are a long way from getting the situation under control, and leaves open the question as to what will happen once the United States completes its withdrawal.

We still do not know for sure if Afghanistan is a regional or factional insurgency or whether it is broadly based. But if it is a regional or factional insurgency, then according to our regression model, we should be winning. Yet we only appear to be winning during the surge…

…[skipped several paragraphs]

With the insurgency able to threaten and kill more civilians, the government riddled with corruption and bribery, opium poppy cultivation expanding in the areas currently being fought over, and large numbers of people displaced and continuing to be displaced, this all paints a picture of an insurgency that is not only not under control, but is actually expanding its influence.

If this is a broadly based insurgency then at the current force levels our chances of winning still appear to be low. To push the ratios up to a level where we have a good chance of winning it would require another 100,000 or more troops (almost certainly from the U.S.)  plus the commitment of time and losses for several more years while it is turned around. In effect, we would have to go back to the force levels we have in 2010.

…[skipped several paragraphs]

If our model is correct and the insurgency is indeed broadly based, then it is going to take more than time to defeat it. It is going to take more force than we currently have. Theoretically this can come from the Afghan Army, but they do need to be raised, trained, motivated, and made effective. 

If this insurgency is broadly based, then the surge we did up to 100,000 U.S. troops in 2010 and the building up of the Afghan army was probably good enough to turn the tide. The fact that incidents appear to have declined in 2012 indicates that this may have been working, but incidents are back up for 2013. The problem is if the insurgency is broadly based, then those surge forces needed to stay in place for the next ten years, with the expected continued losses and expenses. [bolding added for this post]


(to be continued) 


So What Does My Book Say About Afghanistan? – part 4

New police recruits, 28 June 2008 (photo and legend by William A. Lawrence II)

Continuing the discussion on Afghanistan drawn from fragments of text from pages 258-260 of America’s Modern Wars:

We received no substantive response to our briefing and meanwhile the war in Afghanistan continued. Finally in early 2009, we wrote an unpublished op-ed piece that said in part:

Right now, in Afghanistan we have very roughly 30,000 U.S. troops, 30,000 other international troops, 60,000 operational Afghani Army troops and maybe 60,000 active Afghani Police. The effectiveness of the Afghani army and police are open to debate, but the police have been losing almost 1,000 people a year…

This argues, regardless of everything else currently going on, that U.S. needs to to add between 30,000 and 60,000 troops Afghanistan. Anything less is too little to give us the best chance of a favorable outcome. At 60,000 more, this pushes the force ratio back to a more comfortable 3.75-to-1 ratio even if there is 32,000 insurgents and one does not count the Afghani army or police.

This is assuming that we fully understand the nature of the Afghan insurgency. If this insurgency is much more broadly based (i.e. based upon nationalism), then we are looking at even higher force levels required….

Therefore, we recommend pushing U.S. force levels up another 60,000 more for this next year while continuing to aggressively search for a political solution and while continuing to develop the Afghani National Army and the Afghani Police. If this increase and a potential political solution noticeably changes the conditions on the ground, then this has worked. If not, then in the long run we will want to back out of any major ground commitment in Afghanistan sooner rather than later.


In the interim, the Obama administration came up with its own response to the developing Afghan crisis, which was its own surge. Under this plan, announced in December 2009, another 30,000 or so troops were added as part of a surge, having reached the peak of the surge in the later half of 2010. They then set a withdrawal date of the middle of 2011, which they were unable to achieve.

So, more than five years after we wrote the February 2009 unpublished op-ed piece, does it still stand up? In the Report of Secretary-General of the United Nations for March 2014, they record that as of mid-January 2014 there were 145,199 Afghan National Police and 193,427 Afghan National Army soldiers. The “surge targets” were 152,000 and 195,000 respectively. So, this is between 193,427 to 338,626 counterinsurgent (depending on how you count police). This is certainly enough strength to counteract a force of 20,000 insurgents.

The U.S. force is drawing down and is disengaged from any active combat role as of 2015. The force peaked from about 100,000 in 2010 [meaning we added 70,000 U.S. troops] down to 66,000 as of start of 2013. Over the course of 2013, 34,000 of thee troops were to be withdrawn, with the U.S. involvement to end sometime in 2015. The coalition forces have already mostly left. As such, this Afghan force of over 300,000 troops and police is the primary counterinsurgent force for the future. It is certainly a much more impressive force than the 114,066 that we tried to prosecute the war with back in 2006.

On the other hand, the level of violence continued to rise during the buildup of the Afghan Army. This can be show with the reporting of the U.N. Department of Safety and Security (UNDAS) of security incidences in Afghanistan:

                                      Security               Incidences

Period                           Incidences          Per Month

2008                                8,893                     741

2009                              11,524                     960

2010                              19,403                  1,617

2011                              22,903                  1,909

Jan-July 2012              10,109                  1,431

16 Aug – 15 Nov 2012    4,639                  1,546

16 Nov – 15 Feb 2013    3,783                  1,261

2013                             20,093                  1,674


(to be continued) 

So What Does My Book Say About Afghanistan? – part 3

The old and the new, Soviet tank park next to the Dyncorp compound near Kunduz, 4 May 2008 (photo by William A. Lawrence II).

Picking the discussion up from fragments of text from pages 256 – 258 of America’s Modern Wars:

…if we use the figure of 250 incidents [per thousand], then we are looking at an estimated insurgent strength as high as 26,384 [in December 2008]. This is still based upon a performance that may have been better than what the insurgents were doing in Iraq! We are probably looking at an insurgent force strength that is greater than 20,000 and had been that way for the three years of 2006 to 2008.  

…Looking once again at our logit regression model, if the insurgency is regional or factional, then the counterinsurgency has a 93.1 to 96.8 percent chance of winning. If the insurgency is broadly based (national) then the counterinsurgency has a 28.9 to 48.1 percent chance of winning.

…So again we are back to the same two questions that we face[d] in Iraq, what is the size of the insurgency and is it a regional or factional insurgency.

In a December 2008 briefing [at NIC] I posed that question after presenting this data. I then asked the room full of analysts whether the insurgency in Afghanistan [was] regional or factional, or was it broadly based. I was concerned that it might be broadly based because:

  1. The insurgents came from the majority tribe in Afghanistan, the Pashtun…
  2. It appears that the open source estimate of insurgent strength was again low.
  3. It appears that things were getting worse.

At the time of that briefing, we had 110,790 troops there. The Dupuy Institute estimated insurgent strength between 15,000 and 25,000, with us leaning towards the higher figure. So if the insurgency was a regional or factional insurgency, then even at a force ratio of 4.43 to 1 (assuming 25,000 insurgents), we had an 84 percent chance of winning. Yet, it did not appear that we were winning. [bolding added for this post]

So, the question went around the table, and two or three people there strongly opined that it was clearly a regional or factional insurgency. There was certitude in the voices. I was not sure, but was not ready to argue it at the time.

The danger is that if the insurgency is broadly based, and there were indeed something like 25,000 insurgents, then at a 4.43 to 1 force ratio, then according to our logit regression model, the chance of the blue side winning was only 14 percent. To push the odds up to a more reasonable level of 80 percent would mean that we needed a force ratio of more like 15.5 to 1, meaning an additional 276,710 troops, and most likely the majority of them would have to come from America! Needless to say, as the U.S. was hesitant to build up to 160,000 troops in Iraq, then such a number for Afghanistan was going to be difficult to sell.

We received no substantive response to our briefing and meanwhile the war in Afghanistan continued…

(to be continued) 

So What Does My Book Say About Afghanistan? – part 2

Soviet Hind helicopter carcass used as a monument near Kunduz, 4 May 2008 (photo by William A. Lawrence II).

So the opening paragraph of my chapter (see page 253 of America’s Modern Wars) on Afghanistan says (after the infamous George W. Bush quote):

Afghanistan is an unusual case, as the central government (controlled by the Taliban) was overthrown in 2001 by the U.S. and their Afghan allies, with the U.S. allied with and helping the anti-Taliban insurgents! This U.S. then installed a new government and a new insurgency developed against this U.S. supported government. Still, the insurgency appeared to lie fallow until 2005, when the incidents and violence began cycling upwards and finally exploding into a full scale insurgency in 2009 that now appears to be difficult to control.

I then describe the process in some depth, concluding on page 255:

This left the U.S. and allies in 2006 with 114,066 counterinsurgents facing allegedly only 2,000 to 5,000 insurgents and suffering 65 U.S. killed in action (as opposed to killed from all causes, 65 coalition killed in action, 63 Afghan Army and a rather significant 412 [Afghan] police. Were the counterinsurgents loosing control of the war at that point, only securing those spots they most cared about, and handing over control of the rest ot the country to the insurgents? That appears to be the case.

From there, the war tipped rapidly out of control, with 2007 seeing 83 U.S. killed in action, 99 coalition troops killed in action, 385 Afghan Army and a stunning figure of 925 police killed. The following year was no better, with 133 U.S. killed in action, 125 coalition killed in action, 226 Afghan Army and 880 police killed. The years of 2009 and 2010 have only been worse.

So, what happened and how did the U.S. loose control of the situation? Unfortunately, The Dupuy Institute was not doing any work on the subject at the time. But, we do note to start with that the estimates of insurgent strength again appear low, as was the case with Iraq. In 2006 it was estimated that the insurgents had between 2,000 and 5,000 troops. The U.S. and coalition forces also claimed to have killed 600 insurgents and captured 1,200 more. This is pretty significant casualties if the insurgency only had 2,000 fighters. One wonders how so few guerillas managed to keep the insurgency going with such losses.

By 1 January 2008 the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had upped its estimate to between 7,000 and 20,000 guerillas, which is much better, but when one considers that the guerillas had been doing over 6,000 incidents a year since 2006, it appears that the public estimates were still catching up with the reality on the ground.

In December 2008 we flagged this concern about guerilla force size in a briefing we gave. We noted that the incidents in Afghanistan were on the rise.  

(to be continued)


So, is it 25,000?

I hate to keep harping on this…..but I do believe in reasonable estimates of opposing forces strength and losses. I am not sure we are doing that.

  1. The U.S. claimed in August that there were 19,000 – 25,000 ISIL:Islamic State strength estimates
    1. I don’t believe I have seen strength estimates from before this time that is more than 25,000: Global Security
    2. About half were in Iraq.
  2. The U.S. now claims there are 12,000 to 15,000 ISIL: white-house-isis-down-to-12000-15000-battle-ready-fighters
    1. This includes 3,000 to 5,000 in Mosul: War updates
  3. The U.S. claims were have killed 50,000 in the last two years: Over 50000 killed
    1. Including 25,000 in the last 11 months: pentagon-counts-isil-dead-refuses-discuss-them
    2. 25,000 – 50,000 = 15,000…meaning they recruited 40,000 new fighters in the last two years?
  4. The U.S. claims were have attrited 75% of ISIL: US-Officials-Say-ISIS-Has-12-000
    1. 15,00 times 4 = 60,000…meaning working backwards this was the ISIL strength….or this includes the 40,000 new recruits added to a strength originally equal to 25,000? This math actually works, if you accept the figure of 40,000 new recruits.
    2. Of course, this is exterminating and replacing the entire ISIL force each year for two years in a row. Can’t really recall the historical president for this.
  5. The UK estimates we have killed 25,000 ISIL: uk-us-number-isis-fighters-killed
    1. This seems more reasonable.

Of course, part of the problem is that ISIL and every other insurgency movement out there does not consists only of full-time fighters. For example (see America’s Modern Wars: Chapter 11: “Estimating Insurgent Force Size”), looking at some the insurgent strength estimates from Vietnam, Cabanas (Mexico) and Shining Path (Peru), we came up with some rules of thumb for determining the mix of insurgents (see page 120):

  1. Full-time insurgents make up 10 to 20% of the force.
  2. Full-time and part-time insurgents are 20 to 50% of the force.
  3. Casual insurgents are 40 to 80% of the force.

This was based on a very limited selection of marginal data and of course, may not be relevant to ISIL, as they have developed a more conventional-like force structure. But, it does bring up the issue that most insurgencies are not only full-time committed fighters, but lots of people that only sometimes active (often regional), and a large collection of people that are only occasionally active (and may become inactive if things are not going well). Also, many of the insurgents are “support personnel” vice fighters. It is an issue that I don’t believe I have seen anyone else attempt to deal with analytically. Our efforts were only preliminary.

Over 50,000 killed

OK…latest estimate from DOD is that they have killed over 50,000 ISIL fighters over the last two years: Body count = 50K+

Here is my post on the subject in August when the count was a mere 45,000: some-back-of-the-envelope-calculations

I don’t think I have much more to add to this without getting very sarcastic. Note that they refer to it as a “conservative estimate.”  Something does not add up somewhere (either their loss estimates are way too high or their force size estimates have been way too low).

War Updates

We are not a news site or current affairs site (because it takes too much time)……but…a few things of note in the middle east:

  1. Mosul has still not fallen. Offensive started 17 October….we were on the outskirts of Mosul by the beginning of November, and now in a grind that some said would take 6 to 8 weeks. So far, it appears to be taking longer than that. We are claiming that 2,000 ISIL fighters have been killed or wounded. 2000-Islamic-State-militants-killed-or-injured-in-Mosul-offensive and us-says-2-000-is-fighters-killed-gravely-wounded-in-mosul
  2. The Syrians appear to be pushing hard to take all of Aleppo before the new U.S. president arrives in office. I suspect this is an attempt to get a negotiating advantage in light of what they perceive to be Trump’s attitudes towards Russia and Syria. According to this report, they have at least 85% of the city: thousands-flee-heavy-aleppo-fighting.
  3. ISIL has retaken Palmyra. latest-syria-says-98-percent-east-aleppo-retaken and recaptures-palmyra

The odd claim is the one made in the second article of this link, where Russia Foreign Minister Lavrov claims about the taking of Palmyra by ISIL that: “…it has been staged to give a respite to bandits in eastern Aleppo.” Of course, one person’s freedom fighters is another person’s bandits.

To take a quote from the first article from Lt. General Townsend: “‘At the start of the campaign, we estimated somewhere between at the low end 3,500, at the high end, about 6,000. By our calculations we think we have killed or badly wounded over 2,000. So if you do the math, that’s still 3,000-5,000’ militants remaining in Mosul, Townsend said.”

We assume he is talking 2,000 killed or seriously enough injured to no be able to return to action in the next couple of months….so, maybe 1,000 killed and 1,000 seriously wounded (kind of grabbing numbers out of thin air here). So, total losses are 4,000 – 6,000 if you count all wounded? That is kind of the entire opposing force.

Then there is the estimates that coalition has lost 14,000 killed and wounded since the start of the offensive (see our post at: Casualties in Iraq (November)). Does that mean that trained conventional counterinsurgency forces are losing something like 2.3-to-1 fighting the insurgents. That would be significant if that was the case.

Something if off somewhere in these various numbers. I not sure which number not to believe (although the estimate of insurgent strength has traditionally always been way too low).