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Research Questions

  1. Which factors that have previously been identified as key contributors to success (or defeat) in insurgencies since World War II were present or absent in Afghanistan as of early 2013, 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 counterinsurgency (COIN) effort in Afghanistan 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, particularly as coalition forces prepare to withdraw in 2014 and responsibility is turned over to the Afghan government and security forces?

The RAND report Paths to Victory: Lessons from Modern Insurgencies added 41 new cases to a previously studied set of 30 insurgencies, examining the 71 insurgencies begun and completed worldwide between World War II and 2008 to analyze correlates of success in counterinsurgency (COIN). A key finding of this research was that a case's score on a scorecard of 15 equally weighted good and 11 equally weighted bad COIN factors and practices perfectly discriminated the outcomes of the cases analyzed. That is, the balance of good and bad factors and practices correlated with either a COIN win (insurgency loss) or a COIN loss (insurgency win) in the overall case. Using the scorecard approach as its foundation, a RAND study sought to apply the findings to the case of Afghanistan in early 2013. The effort involved an expert elicitation, or Delphi exercise, in which experts were asked to make "worst-case" assessments of the factors to complete the scorecard for ongoing operations in Afghanistan. The consensus results revealed that early 2013 Afghanistan ranks among the historical COIN winners, but its score is equal to those of the lowest-scoring historical wins. This tenuous position points to several areas in need of improvement, but particularly the need to disrupt the flow of insurgent support and the need for the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to better demonstrate their commitment and motivation. Afghanistan in early 2011 scored in the middle of the historical record in terms of COIN wins and losses, suggesting an overall improvement in COIN progress in that conflict by early 2013. However, conditions may change as coalition forces prepare to hand over responsibility for the country's security to the Afghan government and Afghan security forces in 2014.

Key Findings

Although Afghanistan in Early 2013 Scored Among Historical Winners in an Expert Elicitation Exercise, There Is Cause for Concern

  • On a scorecard of 15 good counterinsurgency (COIN) factors and 11 bad factors based on the historical record of insurgencies started and completed between World War II and 2008, Afghanistan's current balance of +2 — identified through an expert elicitation (Delphi) exercise — places it among the historical winners. Its score of eight positive factors is strong relative to winning COIN forces, but it is a point of concern that its score of six bad factors exceeds that of any of these winners.
  • The expert panel expressed the additional concern that the Afghan government and security forces may not be able to maintain several of the good practices found to be present in early 2013 after the withdrawal of coalition forces. The panel also found it concerning that several of the good COIN factors appeared to be present primarily in urban or uncontested regions and not consistently throughout the country.

There Were Two Critical Areas for Improvement in Afghanistan as of Early 2013

  • The scorecard results suggest that the COIN effort in Afghanistan is underperforming in terms of disrupting the flow of support to the insurgents.
  • The experts in the Delphi exercise concluded that the Afghan government and security forces need to do more to demonstrate (and improve) their commitment and motivation in fighting the insurgency and stabilizing the country.


  • As they prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan, coalition forces will do best to focus on increasing Afghan capacity in the two areas most in need of improvement: disrupting the flow of insurgent support and encouraging the commitment and motivation of indigenous forces.
  • Force planners should strive to increase the likelihood of success in Afghanistan by focusing on diminishing the number of bad factors from the COIN scorecard while also seeking to add critical missing good factors.
  • 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. The results of any scorecard elicitation should be considered as input for planning and not a substitute for strategic thought.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored b OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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