The debate over Afghanistan strategy since Obama's troop increase last year may not have produced any solutions yet, but it has produced plenty of think tank reports purporting to have them. One of the most recent is a new RAND Corporation study that makes bold claims about victory in counterinsurgency. The authors of the study argue that debates over COIN are usually "based on common sense, a general sense of history, or but one or two detailed historical cases." Policymakers and military officers are desperate for solid research that can help them evaluate the menu of strategic options, but the best they can expect is advice based on analogies or selective readings of history. To remedy this situation, the authors set out to perform a thorough analysis based on "extensive data collection, rigorous analysis, and empirical testing."
It's a laudable enough goal -- but for all their claims to superior rigor, the authors fail to live up to it. They make a series of basic methodological mistakes that throw doubt on their conclusions. Most importantly, they confuse cause and effect.
The authors identify fifteen "good" practices and twelve "bad" ones and conclude that success will occur as long as COIN forces implement more good practices than bad. In other words, there is a universally applicable checklist for victory. The authors are unequivocal about the meaning of their analysis of 30 past conflicts: "These data show that, regardless of distinctiveness in the narrative and without exception, COIN forces that realize preponderantly more good than bad practices win, and those that do not lose."
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