The war effort in Afghanistan has received its report card and been informed that it could do better.

The RAND Corporation has created a scorecard of counter-insurgency derived from factors contributing to victory or defeat in 30 wars against insurgent groups. From the 1978 struggle in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas (a loss - the capital fell to them the following year) to Turkey’s fight against the PKK Kurdish separatists (chalked up as a win, which could be news to the PKK, still armed to the teeth and lurking in northern Iraq), analysts have studied counter-insurgency conflicts and come up with two lists.

One list is of positive indicators in a struggle against an insurgency, including “the majority of the population in the area of conflict supported or favored” the counter-insurgency force. The other is a list of negative factors, such as the population regarding the force as occupiers. The scorecard works by deciding how many of the positives a conflict has, and subtracting from that the number of negatives.

A panel of anonymous experts, including serving soldiers, decided that the coalition forces had eight points in their favor (such as, they are making fighting more expensive for the Taliban, for instance) and 4.5 bad ones (such as, Afghan authorities are still aiding some insurgents). Stars and Stripes, which also did a report on the RAND scorecard, has a nice illustration of the Afghan reckoning here.

The overall score os 3.5, not as bad as the -4 awarded to the Liberian government and its allies’ losing strategy as they attempted to resist an insurgency led by warlord Charles Taylor. But not as good as the +5 that allowed Croatian forces gradually to defeat Serb rebels, the lowest-scoring win on the chart.

The report says that this gives “some support for optimism, but not unreserved optimism.” It also makes some suggestions for improvement going forward, such as trying to increase popular support for coalition forces. The importance of successful transfers of secured areas to Afghan control is also stressed.

The report suggests that the coalition forces are teetering between success and failure, but even the author, Christoher Paul, concedes that the time may have passed.

“In fairness,” he said, “many of the things that I emphasize as absent are things that the [U.S.-led coalition force] have been trying to do for a while – improving governance, reducing corruption.”

But success has been limited, and Paul feels that an assessment needs be made. “If there is reason to believe that government reform is happening, then it might be reason to stay and support that,” he said. “If it’s not happening then it might make sense to cut your losses.”

Michael O’Hanlon, author of Toughing it out in Afghanistan , said that the broad idea of the report, drawing conclusions from a variety of conflicts, was a sound one. But he thought that rather than teetering between success and failure, the Afghan mission was more mired between the two.

“The report puts it as if we’re in the ninth innings of a baseball game, and it could go either way,” he said. “I think of it more as a tug of war that no-one’s winning and where it could take years to see a conclusive end.”

The range of likely improvement or deterioration was small, he added, although he pointed out that withdrawal is not scheduled for completion until 2014, and improvements, particularly in governance, could still be made.

“Rather than feeling like we’re already out the door, we can focus on the things we can improve on,” O’Hanlon said.