New Counterinsurgency Assessment Methods Are Needed to Better Inform Policymakers

For Release

May 3, 2012

The U.S. Department of Defense will receive more detailed, transparent and credible assessments of its counterinsurgency campaigns by replacing its top-down approach with a bottom-up method driven by contextual, narrative reporting provided by commanders on the ground, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

The study finds that "contextual assessment"—which replaces standardized and aggregated quantitative metrics with a nested mix of qualitative and quantitative data and commanders' input from the battalion to the theater level—is a superior way to gauge the success or failure of COIN operations. Indeed, in late 2011 after the study was completed the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan began developing and implementing an improved COIN assessment methodology.

"There is no panacea to assess complex COIN campaigns—all assessments of complex operations are necessarily incomplete, inaccurate and subjective to varying degrees," said Ben Connable, the study's author and an international policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Effective assessment depends on the ability to deliver context and nuance, which senior-level decisionmakers need to truly understand military campaigns."

The study examines the complexity of the counterinsurgency operational environment, reviews case studies of COIN assessment in context, explores critical weaknesses in the current assessment process, and offers recommendations for improvement and assessment alternatives.

Connable said assessment methods that rely on centrally directed data collection and quantitative methods at the expense of context do not yield transparent or credible reports and thus fail to provide the necessary context policymakers need to make their strategic decisions. He finds there is a general agreement among military leaders that information and data in counterinsurgency assessment materials are inaccurate and incomplete.

Contextual assessment, Connable says, is a better framework for assessing counterinsurgency operations because it better aligns the assessment process with doctrine. Moreover, it can add to the improvements already made by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan by building layers of crucial accounts and data from the battalion to the theater level.

One critical difference between existing assessment procedures and contextual assessment is the contributions from commanders on the ground.

"A commander's point of view is a critical element of holistic operational COIN assessment," Connable said. "A commander's eye for the battlefield is indispensable not only for sound decisionmaking in combat, but also for helping to assess what has happened and what might happen in a complex counterinsurgency environment."

Among the report's key recommendations for those involved in counterinsurgency campaign analysis:

  • Campaign assessment should be both transparent and credible. Collection and reporting requirements for assessment should be carefully considered in light of the demands and risk they may leverage on subordinate units. Assessment reports should reflect layered, contextual reporting that builds toward an in-depth theater assessment that can then be summarized for senior-level decisionmakers.

  • Conduct a thorough review of joint and service assessment doctrine for complex operations, and find ways to better align an improved assessment process with interagency partners. Assessment should be part of professional military education and training.

  • Incorporate all-source methodology as used by the intelligence community into the campaign assessment process. All-source intelligence methodology provides a good framework for assessment and could be used to both improve and structure campaign assessment reports.

The study, "Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in Counterinsurgency," is available at

The research was sponsored by the Department of Defense and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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