The Afghan Insurgents

Suicide bomber in Baghlan Jadid, April 2009. Photo by William A. Lawrence II

The charts looking at force ratios created by our regression analysis of 83 cases were very much based on insurgent cause, a subject that a lot of counterinsurgency analysts gloss over. The question is whether the insurgency is based upon a central political idea (like nationalism), an overarching idea (an ideology like communism) and a limited developed political thought (a regional or factional insurgency). This very much changes the difficulty of suppressing the insurgency. It also changes the odds of winning. The force levels and sometimes duration of insurgencies were significantly different for these cases. In my book America’s Modern Wars I end up spending three chapters on this subject: Chapter 4: Force Ratios Really Do Matter, Chapter 5: Cause Really is Important and Chapter 6: The Two Together Seem Really Important.

Now, this came up when we were doing our estimate in 2004 of U.S. casualties and the  duration of an insurgency in Iraq (which is in Chapter 1 of my book). In this case we have a country that was maybe 60% Shiite Muslim and an insurgency that was centered around the population of around 20% Sunni Muslim. Was this a regional or factional insurgency? Probably. We built that estimate on only 28 cases (because, you know, research takes time). In those cases that were based upon a central political idea, the insurgents won 75% of the time. In those cases that were based upon a limited political idea, the insurgents did not win in any of those cases. This is a big, and very noticeable difference. It was the one bright spot in my briefings (as people weren’t too excited about my conclusions that we would loose 5,000+ and it would take 10+ years…as that was not what was being promised by our political leaders in 2004).

The challenge is sorting out which applies to Afghanistan. There is no question that when they were fighting the Soviet Union, it was based upon a central political idea (nationalism). The question is, what is this insurgency based upon?

Part of the problem in sorting out what is happening in Afghanistan is that the country’s demographics are very complex. For example 42% of the population is Pashtun, 33% is Tajik, 9% is Hazara (who are usually Shiite Muslims), 9% are Uzbek, 4% Aimek, 3% Trukmen, 2% Baloch and 4% others (source World Factbook, 2013 estimate, courtesy of Wikipedia).

Language is a little better with 80% speaking Dari, which is Persian or Farsi. 47% speak Pashto, the native tongue of Pashtuns. 5% speak English.

The country is usually considered 85-90% Sunni Muslim and 7-15% Shiite Muslim.

A 2018 population estimate for Afghanistan is 31,575,018 (pretty precise for an estimate).

The insurgents tend to also be separated in a bewildering array of groups (as was also the case when they were fighting the Soviet Union). Some of the insurgent groups are:

Taliban: These are the previous rulers of Afghanistan. Was close to Al-Qaeda.

Haqqani Network: Offshoot of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Fidal Mahaz: Splinter group from the Taliban

IEHCA: Splinter group from the Taliban

HIG: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar group, who has been doing this since 1980s. He signed a peace agreement with the Afghan government in 2016.

IMU: Originally an Uzbek movement.

Islamic Jihad Union (IJU): Militant Islamist organization. Split off from IMU. Al-Qaeda affiliate

ETIM: Uyghurs from China.

LeJ: anti-Shiite group

Pakistani Taliban or TTP: Primarily focused on Pakistan

Lel: Primarily focused on Pakistan

ISIL-KP: Islamic state affilliate.


This is a quickly cobbled together list. Some with more expertise are welcome to add or modify this list.

Wikipedia does give strengths for some of these groups. Have no idea how accurate they are:

Taliban: 60,000

Haqqani Network: 4,000-15,000

Fidai Mahaz: 8,000

IEHCA: 3,00-3,500

HIG: 1,500-2,200+

al-Qaeda: 50-100


So….when I was coding the over 100 cases that we now have in our database, it was relatively easy to determine if an insurgency was based upon a central idea, or an overarching idea or was regional or factional. There was very little debate in most cases.

On the other… is a little harder to tell what it should be in this particular case.

Interesting enough, I stumbled across an article last week discussing the same issue:

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Demographics, Insurgency & Counterinsurgency by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. ... Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. ... His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024). ... Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

2 thoughts on “The Afghan Insurgents

  1. Good blog. Well researched with supporting data and analysis.

    IMHO the insurgents are one side of the coin and the other is the credibility of the government we are trying to create in Afghanistan. As I see it the military effort is justified only in so far as it protects the developing government while the work of nation building (e.g. building roads, schools, hospitals etc) goes on. If the central government is seen as corrupt and self serving then this also inspires the insurgents and may in fact be the decisive factor.

    Do you think is is true? If so how do you allow for this in your calculations?

  2. Fighters are cheap: even free, as they dribble in from all over. The current Afghan gov’t could take a lesson here: your 3 types of insurrection really are measures of the “will of the people” to carry on – housing, supplying, etc. the insurgents. Battlefield victories or insurgent body counts really don’t matter. The surviving cadres just lay low in the deep country and absorb replacements dribbling in….how many years has this gone on?

    I’m thinking the road building, school building, and all that has zero impact on winning the people (a generation of Afghans have had this and look where it’s at!). If I were in charge of Afghanistan, I’d look to be flipping Mullahs and adding Mullahs to gradually change the religious drivers of the insurgency – still a long term game however.

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