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Newsletter 11-02
November 2010

Section 2. Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework

Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework

U.S. Agency for International Development

Printed with permission from USAID

To increase the effectiveness of stability operations, the Office of Military Affairs-U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created the tactical conflict assessment and planning framework (TCAPF). The TCAPF was designed to assist civilian and military personnel in identifying the root causes of instability, developing activities to mitigate the causes, and evaluating the effectiveness of the activities in fostering stability at the tactical level (provincial or local). The TCAPF should be used to create local stabilization plans and provide data for the international conflict assessment framework, which has a strategic and operational-level (country or regional) focus.

Graphic showing USAID and DOD components of tactical conflict assessment and planning framework - TCAPF


ANSF: Afghanistan National Security Forces
ASF: Army Special Forces
DOD: Department of Defense
GIRoA: Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

IED: Improvised explosive device
ISAF: International Security Assistance Force
NGO: Nongovernmental organization

Figure 2-1

Conceptual Framework

Various U.S. government entities involved in stability operations have different perspectives on fostering stability. For example, in Afghanistan, USAID focuses primarily on long-term development. Typical metrics include number of children attending school, amount of roads built, percentage of the population with access to health care, and so on. The Department of Defense (DOD) is primarily focused on combat operations. The DOD's their typical metrics include improvised explosive devices (IEDs), troops in contact, number of security forces, and number of insurgents killed. However, none of these metrics tell us whether an area is more or less stable. Since the population is the center of gravity in stability operations, planning and metrics must be focused on the population's view of the situation. The TCAPF helps provide a common understanding of the causes of instability in an area and our effectiveness in mitgating them.

The TCAPF is based on the following four premises:

  • Instability results when factors fostering instability overwhelm the ability of the society or government to mitigate them.
  • Assessment of the local environment is necessary for effective targeting and strategic planning.
  • The population's perceptions must be included when identifying causes of instability.
  • Measures of effectiveness are the only true measures of success.


Instability results when the factors fostering instability overwhelm the ability of the host nation to mitigate them (see Figure 2-2). To understand if there is instability or determine the risk of instability, the following factors must be identified:

  • Grievances.
  • Key actors.
  • Events - windows of vulnerability.

Grievances are factors that can foster instability. They are the result of unmet expectations or the perception that individual or group interests are being threatened. Examples include ethnic or religious tensions, political repression, population pressures, or competition over natural resources. Grievances by themselves do not lead to instability. One billion people earn less than $1 a day. Are they frustrated? Perhaps. Do they all pick up weapons and foster violence? No. Why? Because either they do not have the means to turn their frustrations into violence, or the key actors (government or societal) can mitigate them.

Key actors are people or groups with the means and motivation to transform grievances into instability. In general, these actors gain power or wealth from instability. Drug smugglers or arms traffickers are actors who benefit from instability. Transforming grievances into widespread violence requires a dedicated leadership, organizational capacity, money, and weapons. If key actors lack these resources, they will not be able to foster widespread instability.

Graphic showing diagram of Instability dynamics on a population
Figure 2-2. Instability dynamics

Even when grievances and key actors are present, widespread instability is unlikely unless an event links grievances to the key actors. Events are neutral - they simply occur. How they are prepared for or responded to determines whether an event (e.g., military operations, natural disaster, the death of a key leader, economic shocks, or religious holidays) will become a window of vulnerability or opportunity. As an illustration, an election can foster stability or instability. If an election is perceived as fraudulent, it will foster instability.

Even if grievances, key actors, and events exist, instability is not inevitable. For each of these factors, there are parallel mitigating forces:

  • Resiliencies.
  • Key actors.
  • Events - windows of opportunity.

Resiliencies are societal or governmental capacities that can mitigate the population's grievances. Examples include community organizations, an open political process, and/or accessible and legitimate judicial systems.

Key actors are people or groups with the means and motivation to mitigate grievances and foster stability. Just as certain key actors benefit from instability, other actors benefit from stablity. An example could be a local imam mediating a land dispute between two tribes.

Events can turn into windows of opportunity if prepared for and/or handled correctly. For example, the tsunami in Indonesia changed the relationship between insurgents and the Indonesian government. The international community pressured both parties to work together to provide relief to the population. This cooperation led to a peace agreement that ended a 30-year insurgency.

While understanding these factors is crucial to understanding stability, they do not exist in a vacuum. Their presence or absence must be understood within the context of the local environment. Examples include geography, demography, natural resources, history, and regional or international factors. These factors do not necessarily cause instability, but they can contribute to grievances or provide the means to foster instability. As an illustration, although poverty does not foster conflict, poverty linked to illegitimate government institutions, a growing gap between rich and poor, and access to a global arms market can combine to foster instability. In summary, instability occurs when the causes of instability overwhelm societal or governmental ability to mitigate them.


Effective stability operations require identifying and prioritizing local sources of instability and stability. This means we have to differentiate between needs, priority grievances, and sources of instability.

A need is something that would improve the level of human development. Since most stability operations occur in less developed countries, there will always be a long list of needs. Examples include potable water, educational opportunities, access to health care, infrastructure, security, and justice.

A priority grievance is an issue a significant percentage of locals - not outside experts - identify as a priority for their community. Examples include potable water, educational opportunities, access to health care, infrastructure, security, and justice. Needs can be the same as priority grievances. The distinctions are (1) a matter of who identifies the issue - the population, because it is a real concern for them or an outside "expert" who assesses the situation based on common development models; and (2) whether a significant percentage of the population identifies the issue as a priority.

Sources of instability are usually a small subset of priority grievances. They are sources of instability because they directly undermine support for the government, increase support for spoilers, or disrupt the normal functioning of society. Examples:

  • A conflict between two tribes, with one tribe allying itself with insurgents because the rival tribe controls the local government.
  • Insurgents taking advantage of a priority grievance (land conflicts) to gain/expand influence in the community by convening a sharia court to resolve them.

The TCAPF identifies sources of instability through a process that combines four streams of information - operational, cultural, instability dynamics, and local perceptions. Analysis often reveals that the actual sphere of influence is one or more steps removed from a grievance cited by the community. For example, in one case, locals cited water as a problem, but analysis identified the underlying source of instability as competition between two tribes over a well. In summary, the goal of stability operations is to identify and target the sources of instability (i.e., the issues that undermine support for the government, increase support for spoilers, and disrupt the normal functioning of society). After an area is stable, needs and priority grievances can be addressed through traditional development assistance.

Needs Versus Priority Grievances Versus Sources of Instability

Needs: Things required to improve the level of human development (e.g., health care, education, infrastructure, and security).

Priority grievance: An issue a significant percentage of locals - not outside experts - identify as a priority for their community (e.g., health care, education, infrastructure, and security).

Sources of instability: Issues locals identify that undermine government support, increase support for spoilers, and/or disrupt the normal functions of society (e.g., spoilers manipulate/settle blood feud and corrupt police shakedown of locals.

Figure 2-3

Another key part of assessment is understanding the differences between symptoms and causes. Too often activities target symptoms of instability rather than targeting the underlying causes. While there is always a strong temptation to "do something" or achieve quick results, this is often counterproductive, as activities either satisfy a superficial request or even contribute to increasing instability.

For example, an assessment team in Afghanistan identified a "need" to reopen a local school. The team believed addressing this need would increase support for the government and decrease support for the Taliban. The day after international forces reopened the school, the Taliban sent the teacher a night letter that threatened his life. He left, which forced the school to close. A subsequent investigation revealed anti-government sentiment among the local population because the police tasked with providing security for the school was from another area. The police had established a checkpoint on the road into the village and were demanding bribes from people entering the village. The local populace perceived the school - and the police the government sent to protect it - as the source of instability. Instead of increasing government support by reopening the school, the project increased support for the Taliban. While the assessment team identified a need to reopen the school, it did not identify the source of instability in the area. Thus, the project not only increased instability, it also wasted limited resources, decreased government support, and increased support for the enemy.

The Population

Since counterinsurgency and stability operations are population-centric, popular perceptions must be systematically collected and incorporated into planning and operations. The TCAPF survey uses four simple, standardized questions, which are discussed in the "Collection" section on page 13 to gather popular perceptions.

Measures of effectiveness

The only way to measure whether an area is becoming more or less stable is to use standardized impact indicators. Also called "measures of effect," impact indicators measure the effectiveness of activities against a predetermined objective. To identify impact indicators, ask yourself, "How will I know if the objective has been achieved?" Impact indicators are very different from output measures. Also called "measures of performance," output indicators simply determine if an activity has been implemented. To identify output indicators, ask yourself, "How can I confirm the activity is being implemented or completed?" Impact indicators should be simple, accurate, practical, and not too resource-intensive to collect. The TCAPF uses the following indicators to measure stability:

  • Civilian night road movement
    Rationale: Jingle truck drivers dominate the roads at night. Since their vehicles are usually the source of their livelihoods, they will not knowingly risk moving at night if there is a high risk of IEDs, robbery, etc. Therefore, traffic movement at night suggests the area is stable.
    Information sources: Intelligence, surveillance, or reconnaissance assets and patrol reports.

  • Government legitimacy
    Rationale: If people believe the government is trying to address their concerns, they will be more likely to support the government and not support the insurgents. The population's support of the government decreases the likelihood insurgents will be in an area, suggesting the area is stable.
    Information source: TCAPF Question #3 (see "Collection" section on page 13) - "Who do you believe can solve your problems?"

  • Public security concerns
    Rationale: If people perceive security to be acceptable, this suggests the area is stable.
    Information source: TCAPF Question #4 - "What should be done first to help the village?"

  • Population movement because of insecurity
    Rationale: Since the only tangible asset for most people in developing countries is their land, they will leave it only if their lives are in danger. Therefore, limited population movement away from an area, or conversely people returning to their homes, suggests the area is stable.
    Information source: TCAPF Question #1 - "Has the population of the village changed in the last year?"

  • Enemy-initiated attacks on Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF)
    Rationale: The ANSF is easy to attack. If attacks decrease, this suggests there is less insurgent activity. Less insurgent activity suggests the area is more stable.
    Information source: Intelligence.

  • Afghan civilian casualties
    Rationale: It does not matter if an Afghan civilian is killed by the ANSF, ISAF, or the Taliban. If Afghan civilians are dying from military engagements, this suggests the area is unstable.
    Information source: Intelligence.

  • Intimidation of government officials (assassinations or night letters)
    Rationale: If government officials are assassinated or receiving night letters, this suggests insurgents have a significant presence in the area, making the area unstable.
    Information source: Intelligence.

It is important to note that these indicators must be used together (i.e., they cannot be used in isolation, as various perspectives are required to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the stability situation). It is also worthwhile to note both subjective indicators (based on the population's perceptions) and objective indicators are included.

Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework Process

The TCAPF is an iterative process that focuses on the population as the center of gravity. Organizations using the TCAPF follow a continuous cycle of see - understand - act - measure. The TCAPF has four distinct but interrelated phases (see Figure 2-4):

  • Collection.
  • Analysis.
  • Design.
  • Evaluation.


Collecting information on the causes of instability in an operational area is a two-step process. The first step is gathering operational, cultural, and instability dynamics information. The second step is surveying the local population. The TCAPF survey has four questions:

  • Has the population of the village changed in the last 12 months?
  • What is the greatest problem facing the village? 
  • Who do you believe can solve this problem?
  • What should be done first to help the village?

Has the population of the village changed in the last 12 months? This question is important because people in developing countries usually do not move unless there is a significant reason, as their livelihood and social connections are tied to the land. Moving away or coming back always indicates something significant.

Graphic showing the four phases of TCAPF - collection, analysis, design, monotoring and evaluation
Figure 2-4

What is the biggest problem facing the village? Giving the local populace a way to identify its grievances helps identify the sources of instability. This practice also lessens the likelihood that intervening forces will make incorrect assumptions about what is important to the population. (This question does not ask people what they "need" or "want.")

Who do you believe can solve this problem? This question helps identify individuals or institutions the population believes can solve its problems. Responses may include the host-nation government, a local warlord, insurgents, international forces, or a religious leader. If these actors are pro-government, they can be used to help stabilize an area and develop messages in support of strategic communications activities. This question also provides an indication of the level of support for the host-nation government, a key component of stability.

What should be done first to help the village? This question encourages the local population to identify and prioritize its most important grievances. A key goal of the collection effort is to determine the relationship between symptoms and the underlying causes of instability. Too often we focus on the manifestations of a problem rather than the reasons for it. A case study illustrates this point. A unit in Afghanistan conducted an assessment that did not include the population's perceptions. It identified the lack of security as the main cause of instability in an area. To remedy this situation, the unit helped place an additional detachment of local police in the area. However, since the assessment failed to identify "why" the area was unstable, additional police did not improve stability. A TCAPF assessment revealed that the local police were the cause of the insecurity; the police routinely demanded bribes from the population and/or discriminated against members of other clans in the area. By addressing a symptom of the problem rather than the cause, the "solution" actually increased instability.

In addition to surveying all segments of the population, collectors should also survey key leaders (e.g., traditional leaders, government officials, business leaders, and prominent citizens). These surveys serve as a control mechanism. If the answers provided by key leaders match the responses from the local populace, it is likely the individual understands the causes of instability and can be useful in helping address the causes. However, if the answers do not match those of the rest of the population, these individuals may be either uninformed or part of the problem. The TCAPF survey information is entered into a formatted TCAPF Excel spreadsheet, which allows the information to be easily analyzed to identify and prioritize the most important grievances of the population (see Figure 2-5).

Graphic showing TCAPF survey data, priority grievances, roads, electric power, potobale water, emnployment, education, security
Figure 2-5. TCAPF survey data (priority grievances)


The analysis phase of the TCAPF combines operational, cultural, and instability dynamics with local perceptions to identify and prioritize sources of instability.

  • Operational environment: Information can be gathered with the political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information (PMESII) and area, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events (ASCOPE) tools.
  • Cultural environment: This is not simply a listing of the major tribes. The relationships between groups, their interests and values, traditional authorities and challengers to them, and how the insurgents may be leveraging those groups and relationships also need to be identified.
  • Instability dynamics: These dynamics are societal grievances and resiliencies, the key actors with the means and motivations to foster or mitigate instability, and events that may give those actors opportunities to advance their agendas.
  • Local perceptions: Without the local population's perspective, we will fall into the usual trap of imposing our own assumptions on the situation and spreading our efforts/resources across a wide range of potential grievances. Local perception data helps focus efforts on the population (the center of gravity) and what it thinks is important.

Combining all four streams of information helps to not only identify the population's priority grievances but also whether these grievances are a source of instability (i.e., are they decreasing support for the government, increasing support for spoilers, or interfering with the normal functioning of society). These are the issues upon which we want to focus our efforts.


Having identified the sources of instability, the next step is to design activities to mitigate them. At a minimum, develop activities that measurably fulfill at least two of the following:

  • Increase support for the government. We might come up with a great program, but if it is operated by USAID, it will not necessarily increase government support.
  • Decrease support for individuals or groups fostering instability. For example, you might have an idea for cleaning irrigation channels, but if it is not an issue being exploited by anti-government forces, it is not a stabilization problem.
  • Increase the capability and capacity of the local government and/or society to handle their own problems. This is crucial for the long-term exit strategy.

If a proposed activity meets these three stabilization fundamentals, then the next step is to refine the activity by applying the design principles. These principles are drawn from USAID's development principles. They include:

  • Sustainability.
  • Local ownership.
  • Short- versus long-term results.
  • Leverage/support other government activities, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and host-nation programs.
  • Cultural and political acceptability.
  • Strengthen government accountability and transparency.
  • Flexibility.

To assist with the analysis and design phases, USAID uses the tactical stability matrix (see Figure 2-6). The matrix is simply a left-to-right process that helps ensure the source of instability being addressed is thought through before jumping to implementing activities. In brief, the columns of the tactical stability matrix and their purpose are:

  • Source of instability: A "bumper sticker" title for the source of instability identified.
  • Causes (perceptions): The population's view of the cause of the instability. This information is taken directly from the TCAPF questionnaire as quotes or paraphrased statements from the local populace.
  • Causes (systemic): The root problems or issues that may lie behind the population's statements. This step helps ensure the sources of instability are addressed rather than their symptoms.
  • Objective: A succinct statement of what USAID wants to achieve based on an analysis of the systemic causes of instability.
  • Impact indicators: Measures of effect that tell whether the objective has been accomplished.
  • Impact indicator data sources: Sources of information that track the impact indicators.
  • Activities: Projects linked primarily to systemic causes. In some cases it may also be necessary to address symptoms (perceived causes), if only to help the population see near-term improvements in the situation.
  • Output indicators: Measures of performance that track the implementation of activities and progress towards their completion.
  • Output indicator data sources: Sources of information that help track the output indicators.

The tactical stability matrix and program activities should be the foundations for a local stabilization plan. They are nested within the higher headquarters plan and detail how specific stability tasks will be integrated and synchronized at the tactical level. 

Graphic showing Tactical stability matrix
Figure 2-6. Tactical stability matrix


The TCAPF provides a comprehensive process for evaluating the effectiveness of activites in diminishing the sources of instability and determining if stability in an area is increasing. Activities are evaluated at three levels:

  • Measures of performance: Relate to the output indicators in the tactical stability matrix. These indicators track the progress of an activity and identify when the activity has been completed.
  • Measures of effect: Relate to the impact indicators in the tactical stability matrix. These indicators help determine whether the activity achieved the desired effects. Responses to the TCAPF questionnaire are one potential indicator of effect. For example, if we are successful in addressing the targeted source of instability, we should expect to see fewer people citing this issue as their biggest problem in response to TCAPF Question #2.
  • Overall stability: After a longer period of time, at least three months, the net effect of all activities should be measured to see if they have improved stability in the area of operations.

Evaluation is critical to measuring the effectiveness of activities in fostering stability and helps ensure the views of the population are tracked, compared, and measured over time. 

Benefits of the Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework Process

The TCAPF process helps overcome many of the challenges to successful stability operations by:

  • Providing a common "sight picture" for various agencies and military units, enabling practioners to focus resources on sources of instability.
  • Measuring the impact of USAID activities.
  • Improving their effectiveness through a focus on the center of gravity for counterinsurgency - the population.
  • Empowering tactical units/stability teams by providing them with hard data that can be used for decision making at their levels and that can influence decisions made at higher levels. The process lets the tactical level drive operations as opposed to the typical top-down approach.
  • Providing a simple and integrated assessment, planning, and decision-making process.
  • Identifying strategic communciations messages that actually resonate with the population. The best message is, "We understand your priority problems, and here is what we are doing to address those problems."

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Capturing and implementing best practices and lessons learned are fundamental to adaptive organizations. This behavior is essential in stability operations, where the ability to learn and adapt is the difference between success or failure. The TCAPF leverages this ability to overcome the dynamics of the human dimension where uncertainty, chance, and friction are the norm. Examples of best practices and lessons learned through recent experiences include:

  • Activities and projects must be part of a process to change behavior or perceptions.
  • Indicators provide insight into the effectiveness of activities by determining whether program activities are effective.
  • Measures of effectiveness must include popular perceptions.
  • "Good deeds" cannot substitute for effectively targeted stability program activities.
  • Activities should:
    • Focus on the underlying causes of instability.
    • Focus on crosscutting issues.
    • Identify and support key actors early to set the conditions for subsequent collaboration.
  • Stability activities should not:
    • Mistake "good deeds" for effective action.
    • Address "needs or wants."
    • Attempt to impose "Western" standards.
    • Focus on quantity over quality.

TCAPF Overview


1. United Kingdom (UK) 52nd Brigade (BDE), Helmand, Afghanistan (2007)

2. 4th BDE, 25th Infantry Division (ID), Regional Command (RC) - East, Afghanistan (2009 - 2010)

3. U.S. Marine Corps Marine Expeditionary BDE - A, RC - South, Afghanistan (2009 - 2010)

4. Elements of 4th BDE, 82nd Airborne Division, RC - East and RC - South (2009 - 2010)

5. Elements of 5th BDE, 2nd ID, RC - South, Afghanistan (2009 - 2010)

6. UK 11th BDE, Helmand, Afghanistan (2009 - present)

7. Counterinsurgency Academy, Kabul, Afghanistan (2009 - present)

8. USAID mission, field officers, and implementing partners, Afghanistan (2009 - present)

Figure 2-7


The TCAPF has been successfully used in the field to identify the causes of instability, develop activities to mitigate them, and evaluate the effectiveness of the activities in fostering stability. Since the TCAPF measures the effectiveness of activities and stability across time and space, it is an important tool for conducting successful stability operations.



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