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Assessing Counterinsurgency and Stabilization Missions

Jason H. Campbell, Michael E. O’Hanlon, and Jeremy Shapiro


How to tell if a counterinsurgency campaign is being won? Sizing the force correctly for a stabilization mission is a key ingredient—and it has been the subject of much discussion in the modern American debate. But in fact, there is no exact formula for sizing forces. Even if there were, getting the numbers right would hardly ensure success. Troops might not perform optimally if poorly prepared for the mission; the security environment might pose too many daunting challenges for even properly sized and trained forces to contend with; the politics of the country in question might not evolve in a favorable direction due to the actions of internal or external spoilers. So to know if we are being successful, we must also track and study results on the ground.

In conventional warfare, identifying the momentum of battle is a fairly straightforward undertaking. Predicting ultimate outcomes is still very difficult, but determining who is “ahead” at a given moment is usually feasible. Movement of the front lines, attrition rates, industrial production of war materiel, and logistical sustainability of forces in the field provide fairly obvious standards by which to assess trends. But counterinsurgency and stabilization operations—like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan—are different, and more complex. They also appear to be the future of warfare. How do we measure progress in such situations?

This question is crucially important. Only by tracking progress can we know whether a strategy is working. And only by examining a range of indicators can we determine how to adjust a strategy that may require improvement. For example, a counterinsurgency effort in which violence is the central challenge facing a country will presumably imply different policy responses than for a mission in which economic stagnation, or poor quality of life for citizens, or political paralysis in a nation’s government, presents the chief dilemma. In many cases all such problems will present themselves, and all must be addressed at some level—but it is unrealistic to think that all can receive equally rigorous and well-resourced responses. Priorities must be set; metrics can help in determining what they should be.

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