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Research Questions

  1. Which factors that have been identified as key contributors to success (or defeat) in insurgencies since World War II were present or absent in Afghanistan as of early 2015, according to a panel of experts?
  2. Where was there disagreement among the panel of experts on the presence or absence of these factors?
  3. Where did the COIN effort in Afghanistan in 2015 rank in comparison with historical wins and losses?
  4. In what areas will the COIN effort in Afghanistan need to improve to be on a more likely path to success, and what is the most promising path to ending the conflict?

Previous RAND research examined 71 insurgencies begun and completed worldwide between World War II and 2010 to analyze correlates of success in counterinsurgency (COIN). A key finding was that a case's score on a scorecard of 15 equally weighted good and 11 equally weighted bad COIN factors and practices corresponded perfectly with the outcomes of the cases analyzed. That is, the balance of good and bad factors and practices was always positive when the outcome was a COIN win (insurgent loss) and always negative when the outcome was a COIN loss (insurgent win). Using the scorecard approach as its foundation, a RAND study sought to apply the findings to the case of Afghanistan in 2015. The effort involved an expert elicitation in which experts were asked to make "worst-case" assessments of the factors to complete the scorecard for ongoing operations in Afghanistan. It was the third Afghanistan-focused exercise conducted with the scorecard, allowing rough comparisons with scores assigned by expert panels in 2011 and 2013. The 2015 consensus results indicated that Afghanistan continues to have a positive score, though its score is tied with the lowest-scoring historical wins. Two factors remained absent in Afghanistan in 2015 but essential to success in historical COIN campaigns: disrupting flows of tangible support to the insurgents and a demonstration (and improvement) of commitment and motivation on the part of the Afghan National Security Forces, the primary COIN force since the coalition drawdown. Despite some potentially positive developments resulting from the 2014 election of a new government in Afghanistan, it appears that the most promising end to the conflict will be a negotiated settlement in which the Afghan government makes some concessions to the insurgents and in which external powers, including the United States and Pakistan, help broker a satisfactory power-sharing agreement that brings greater stability to the country.

Key Findings

Although Afghanistan in 2015 Scored Among Historical COIN Winners in an Expert Elicitation Exercise, There Were Notable and Persistent Shortfalls

  • On a scorecard of 15 good COIN factors and 11 bad factors based on the historical record of insurgencies started and completed between World War II and 2010, Afghanistan's current balance of +2—identified through an expert elicitation exercise—places it among the historical winners. Its score of 7.5 positive factors is strong relative to winning COIN forces, but its score of 5.5 bad factors exceeds that of any of these winners.
  • The expert panel found that two factors that were critical to historical COIN success remained absent in 2015: disrupting flows of tangible support to the insurgents and a demonstration (and improvement) of commitment and motivation on the part of the Afghan National Security Forces. The experts were also concerned that several good factors appeared present only in certain regions of the country.

A Negotiated Settlement Is the Most Promising Path to Resolving the Conflict in Afghanistan

  • The scorecard results suggest that the Afghan government and security forces could maintain a stalemate, the first step to a negotiated settlement in conflicts that ended this way.
  • With support from external powers on both sides of the conflict, a power-sharing agreement that gives the Taliban insurgency a legitimate voice in the political process may offer the best chance to bring stability to the country and drive a wedge between the Taliban and the threat posed by international terrorist groups.


  • With the transition of responsibility for COIN operations to Afghan security forces, the United States should continue to both bolster Afghan COIN capabilities to maintain the current stalemate and improve the prospects for a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and Taliban leadership.
  • In pursuit of both these goals, U.S. military efforts should focus on reducing corruption and improving professionalism among the Afghan security forces.
  • U.S. diplomatic strategy should seek to eliminate insurgent safe havens in Pakistan to cut off tangible support to these fighters and should put pressure on insurgents' other external supporters to facilitate negotiations between the two sides of the conflict.
  • Although the counterinsurgency scorecard perfectly discriminates among wins and losses in historical conflicts, that does not guarantee its ability to predict the outcome of current and future conflicts. Likewise, while it is possible to trace a historical path toward a negotiated settlement in an insurgency, many variables must align in the case of Afghanistan. The results of any scorecard elicitation should be considered as input for planning and not a substitute for strategic thought.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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