Good Strategy, Bad Tactics: Ethical Considerations in ROE for Counter-Insurgency Warfare


Stephen Coleman

Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Leadership & Vincent Fairfax Foundation Fellow

School of Humanities and Social Sciences



In recent times, in many countries around the globe, military forces have had to come to grips with the difficulties of waging a counter-insurgency war; battling an elusive enemy in a task made all the more difficult by the fact that these insurgent forces commonly utilise tactics that appear (at the very least) to violate all the accepted rules of warfare. Given how common such a situation is in the world today, it seems to me that it is extremely important for military and political leaders to really understand what it is that they are doing when they engage in counter-insurgency warfare, and in particular for such leaders to understand what would count as winning such a war, and how this might be achieved. My aim in this paper is to explore various aspects of the fighting of both traditional and counter-insurgency wars, in order to better understand the similarities and differences between them, and to draw some conclusions about the sorts of strategies and tactics that ought to be employed by those engaged in counter-insurgency wars if they wish to ultimately achieve victory. In particular I wish to examine how the overall strategy that is being implemented in a particular counter-insurgency war finds its expression in the rules of engagement (ROE) given to the personnel in the front lines of the conflict.


There is no universally accepted definition of insurgency, and thus there is no universally accepted definition of counter-insurgency either, so in order to make it clear what I actually have in mind in this paper it will be necessary to define what I mean by counter-insurgency. For the purposes of this paper, an insurgency will be defined as an armed rebellion against a formally constituted authority (i.e. a government recognised by a formal authority such as the United Nations as the legitimate ruler of a country) by forces that do not represent a foreign government and do not represent some other formally constituted rebelling authority.[1] Following from this definition of insurgency, a counter-insurgency war will be defined as actions taken by military or government paramilitary forces against such insurgents. This definition does of course capture a wide range of situations, from operations against large and well-organised forces through to operations against very small and loosely organised terrorist cells, but this is simply a reality when discussing counter-insurgency operations, and does not invalidate the arguments made in this paper. While I will refer to the conflicts that I am discussing as insurgencies, and the operations to deal with the insurgents as counter-insurgency operations, many other terms might also be used; in recent times, for example, the term asymmetric war is often used to describe exactly the types of situations that I am discussing here.

Counter-Insurgency War – What Counts as “Winning”?

Given how common insurgency and counter-insurgency are in the modern world, and especially given the fact that the world’s only remaining superpower, the United States, has been involved in so many counter-insurgency operations in recent years, it is remarkable that there has been so little discussion of what counts as winning a counter-insurgency war. When people think of victory in a war, they are accustomed to thinking about things like the World War Two victory of the Allies over the Axis powers, where the military victory itself is accompanied by parades and the signing of surrender documents. Indeed it is clearly this sort of situation that President Bush had in mind when he proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” in his famous May 1st 2003 speech. Yet this sort of victory can perhaps only be achieved in a conventional war between states, and not in counter-insurgency wars; winning a victory like this in a counter-insurgency war would seem to require the total destruction of any and all enemy forces, which is, given the very nature of the conflict, a virtual impossibility. Those who think of victory in only these terms can thus be excused for believing that it is impossible for military forces to actually win a counter-insurgency war.


A more nuanced view can be found in a recent paper published by Israeli reserve Major-General Yaakov Amidror, which proposes three levels of victory which might be achieved by military forces in a counter-insurgency war.[2] Amidror labels these three levels as follows;


  1. Total Victory; where the insurgent organisations and guerrilla groups and their demands are totally removed from the political and global map.
  2. Temporary Victory; where the root ideological differences which caused the insurgency remain, but where the insurgent and guerrilla organisations have lost either the will or the ability to continue to fight, and years of relative tranquillity are the result.
  3. Sufficient Victory; a victory that achieves a “repressed quiet”, which can only be preserved by the investment of continual effort by the counter-insurgent force. The insurgent groups are not destroyed but are contained to the extent that they are capable of only a minimal level of violence.[3]


Amidror draws an important distinction in his discussion, between violent/military conflict (i.e. the insurgency itself) and ideological conflict (i.e. the cause of the insurgency). He notes that it is the inability of the military to deal with the ideological conflict that has led some people to assert that there is no military solution to an insurgency,[4] however his claim is that it is the business of the military to deal with the violence of the insurgency and the business of their political masters to deal with the ideological conflict and to reach a political solution which (hopefully) deals with the root causes of the insurgency. A similar view has also been expressed by others who have been directly involved in counter-insurgency operations. Retired Indian Major General Ranjit Nadkarni, formerly General Officer commanding the special counter-insurgency force in the Kashmir, has suggested that an insurgency cannot be defeated by military force alone. He argues that the aim of military counter-insurgency operations is to reduce the overall level of violence to a point where a political solution to the problems which gave rise to the insurgency becomes possible.[5]


Since total victory is likely to be so difficult to achieve, if military and political counter-insurgency efforts are directed solely at achieving such a victory (as seems to often be the case) then they are likely to fail in any and all cases where the strategies necessary for achieving a total victory differ from those for achieving a temporary or sufficient victory.

Strategies in Fighting a Counter-Insurgency War

A quick overview of the literature on successful counter-insurgency wars suggests that there are very few strategies that have been employed historically which have led to a military victory over an insurgency.[6] Of interest here are the three most frequently discussed strategies which I shall call the Extreme Ruthlessness model, the Pin-Point Accuracy model, and the Drain the Sea model.


The aim of the Extreme Ruthlessness strategy is to act in such a violent and barbaric manner that no one is willing to support an insurgency for fear of what the consequences might be. Martin Van Creveld suggests that if such a strategy is to be employed, then one must act in a manner similar to that advocated by Machiavelli; suddenly, openly and decisively.[7] When the decision is made to strike, it must be terrifying; given this fact it is better to kill too many people than too few, for killing too few people will mean that another strike must be made, and that will lessen the impact of the first strike.[8] In order to maximise the effectiveness of such a strike, it must then be publicised, without regret or excuse, so as to make it the best possible demonstration to the population of the consequences of supporting an insurgency. “In other words, the true objective of your strike is not to kill people per se. Rather, it is to display your ruthlessness and your willingness to go to any lengths to achieve your objective.”[9] The Extreme Ruthlessness strategy is exemplified by the actions of the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in dealing with the insurgency of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Having identified the city of Hama as the centre of the insurgency (not a difficult task given that the city had proclaimed itself as free city) al-Assad dispatched massive military force to attack the city, including shelling the centre of the city for weeks with heavy artillery. Estimates of the death toll ranged from 10 000 – 25 000 people, mostly civilians, and including many women and children. When interviewed, al-Assad exaggerated the number of deaths to increase its deterrent effect; he also promoted the officers in charge of the operation which left no one in any doubt about his approval of the way the assault was carried out. Such a strategy is an effective way of dealing with an insurgency, but obviously it is not the sort of strategy that any modern democracy could seriously consider using.


The Pin-Point Accuracy strategy of counter-insurgency aims to ensure that violence is kept to a minimum, that the only people hurt by the counter-insurgency efforts are the actual insurgents, and that the problem of insurgency is treated, as much as humanly possible, as a criminal matter, rather than a military matter. Van Creveld suggests that in order for such a method to succeed, the counter-insurgency forces must have extremely good intelligence, and above all must be highly professional and disciplined so as to ensure that they will exercise discrimination and restraint.[10] By exercising extreme self-control the counter-insurgency forces attempt to ensure that they do not alienate members of the local population, and thus that they do not increase the local community’s support for the insurgents. When insurgents are cornered they are taken into custody if at all possible, and then tried through the usual criminal processes. By acting in this way, the counter-insurgents can also come to be seen as the protectors of the community, rather than a threat to them. This strategy was used by the British Army in dealing with “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland; a conflict that Van Creveld claims is the only case in the last hundred years or so where the counter-insurgency forces of a democracy prevailed over an insurgency.[11]


The Drain the Sea strategy takes its name from a quote attributed to Chairman Mao, who suggested that in order to be successful a guerrilla must be able to move through the people like a fish through the water.[12] The main idea of the strategy is to prevent this sort of movement by identifying the sections of the local population that are likely to support the insurgency and then relocating them to places where they can be closely watched or controlled, and thus where any insurgent activity among them will be easy to spot. Those insurgents who remain after the supporting population has been relocated will be much easier to locate and deal with due to their isolation. Those who support this sort of strategy point to its implementation by the British in the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese were forcibly relocated into “New Villages”. In most cases these villages were newly constructed and were surrounded by barbed wire, police posts, and floodlit areas, the purpose of which was both to keep the inhabitants in and the guerrillas out. The relocation was coupled with strict coercive policies (which would generally be considered unacceptable today) which were intended to keep the settlers in the New Villages under control. Many claim that it was this strategy which allowed the British to defeat the insurgency, though others point out that the end result of this supposed victory was a complete withdrawal of the British and the establishment of an independent state, albeit not a state in which the former insurgents played any dominant political role.[13]


Even if the Drain the Sea strategy as used in Malaysia is considered to be a successful counter-insurgency technique, it should be noted that there were several factors, possibly unique to that situation, which allowed the technique to be fully implemented. One important factor was that the insurgency owed most of its support to the ethnic Chinese population in Malaysia who, being relatively easily identifiable, were able to be singled out for relocation. Another important factor was the relatively high standard of living in the New Villages, often much higher than what the relocated persons had previously been used to, which tended to sooth some of the resentment at resettlement, as did the fact that the relocated persons were given money and ownership of the land on which they lived. US attempts to institute a similar policy in Vietnam, under the Strategic Villages program, were of course a dramatic failure.

Winning a Traditional War

When considering how one ought to fight and win a counter-insurgency war, it is interesting to consider how one fights and wins a conventional war. In fighting conventional wars, it is usual to attempt to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy’s military machine, the theory being that if the enemy is unable to fight then the war will be won. Obviously there are cases where wars have ended due to the total, or near total, destruction of the military apparatus of one side; the defeat of Germany at the end of World War Two probably falls into this category. However most wars do not end this way, even wars where there is a clear victor and vanquished. 


Consider the following passage from Carl Von Clausewitz’s classic work, On War;


The losses in a battle consist more in killed and wounded; those after the battle, more in artillery taken and prisoners. The first the conqueror shares with the conquered, more or less, but the second not; and for that reason they usually only take place on one side of the conflict, at least, they are considerably in excess on one side.[14]


Clausewitz recognised that you could not tell who won a battle by counting up the number of bodies on each side, but noted that it was possible, at least in the vast majority of cases, to tell who won a battle by seeing who took more prisoners and captured more artillery pieces. Clausewitz characterised combat as the measuring of the physical and moral strengths of two opponents, which explains why the winning side will almost certainly capture more prisoners and artillery; those on the losing side of the battle have lost the will to fight, and thus surrender (becoming prisoners) or run away, abandoning their heavy equipment (i.e. artillery) in the process.


In the same way that you cannot determine the winner of a battle by examining who took more casualties, you cannot determine the winner of a war in this way either. If the loser of a war was the side who suffered more deaths, then we would have to conclude that the Allies lost both World Wars, but this is obviously not the case. It could be claimed, I suppose, that what is really important is not the total number of casualties, but the number as a proportion of the total strength of the military force on each side, but again this will not provide an accurate answer to the question of who won a war. A good case in point here is the war in Vietnam, which the U.S.A. clearly lost, yet the number of North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong killed, as a percentage of the overall fighting force, was vastly higher than the percentage of US personnel killed in the conflict.


All this discussion simply serves to illustrate a simple point; while some wars end because one side has essentially lost the capacity to continue to make war, this is rare. In most cases wars end because one side or the other (or in some cases, both) decides that it is no longer worth fighting. Of course there are many reasons why such a decision might be made. It may be that one side has lost the will to fight, or that they feel their interests will be better served by not continuing to fight. Or there may be threats issued by other stronger parties who are not yet involved in the conflict, or it may be that continuing to fight is seen to be counter-productive, or even, perhaps in cases where the war has been fought over some item or possession of particular value, that the very reason for fighting has been destroyed in the conflict.


The fact that most wars are won, not by destroying the enemy’s ability to fight, but rather by convincing the enemy, in one way or another, that it is no longer worth fighting, has repercussions on both the strategy and tactics of war. Destroying the enemy’s ability to continue to fight will usually assist in convincing the enemy that it is no longer worth fighting, but it is usually only a means to an end; if for some reason it happened to be the case in a particular conflict that continuing to destroy the enemy’s war materiel would actually increase the enemy’s desire to continue fighting, then a wise commander would be advised to change their strategy. Equally, if the tactics that are used to destroy the enemy’s ability to continue the war have the effect of actually increasing their desire to continue to fight, then a wise commander would be advised to seek different tactics.

Winning a Counter-Insurgency War – Revisited

Returning to the issue of counter-insurgency war, I would argue that insurgency/counter-insurgency wars are won for the same reasons that conventional wars are won; that one side has, for whatever reason, lost the desire to continue fighting. This being the case, it is logical to conclude that the only counter-insurgency strategies that have any chance of being successful are those that aim to convince the insurgents that it is not worth fighting. Having mentioned some counter-insurgency strategies that have been effective, the next question to consider is why those strategies have actually succeeded. I should note however, that since a modern democracy could really only contemplate using two of the three strategies I mentioned earlier, in the discussion that follows I will ignore the Extreme Ruthlessness strategy.


Yaakov Amidror suggests 6 basic conditions that he claims are necessary, though not sufficient, for a military operation to be successful in defeating terrorism, points that I would suggest can be applied to counter-insurgency more generally. The six conditions are;


  1. A political decision to defeat the insurgency, including willingness to bear the political cost of a military offensive.
  2. Acquiring control of the territory in which and from which the insurgents operate.
  3. Relevant intelligence.
  4. Isolating the territory within which the counter-insurgent fighting takes place (i.e. attempting to ensure that there is no safe haven to which insurgents may return to rest and recover, and cutting off their access to external expertise, weapons, and financial backing).
  5. Multi-dimensional cooperation between intelligence and operations.
  6. Separating the civilian population from the insurgents.[15]


Most of these conditions are self-explanatory, but number 6 does require some explanation, since Amidror does not mean that insurgents must be physically separated from the civilian population (though I suspect that he would think this was desirable if it was possible). Amidror claims that there are three levels of separation that can be identified. The first (which I will refer to as 6.1) is simply that the military must ensure that innocent civilians are not harmed by military counter-insurgency actions, or where this is not possible to limit this harm as much as is practically possible.[16] The second level of separation (6.2) is achieved when a wedge is driven between the civilian population and the insurgents; i.e. when assisting the insurgent forces begins to appear contrary to the overall interests of the civilian population.[17] The third level of separation (6.3) is achieved when the local population actively assists military counter-insurgency operations or even enters into active combat against the insurgents.[18] Amidror suggest that if the first two levels of separation are achieved, then an insurgency will be unable to grow, and if the third level is achieved then the conditions are in place for total victory against the insurgency.


When examining Amidror’s six conditions it seems obvious that some are heavily dependant on others; for example, one cannot have cooperation between intelligence and operations (5) without relevant intelligence (3) and it will also be difficult to achieve separation of the civilian population from the insurgents at any level (6) without control over the territory (2). Other conditions, while not dependant on each other, are closely related; so it will be much easier to obtain relevant intelligence (3) if one has control over the territory (2), and if one has managed to separate the insurgents from the population at level two (6.2) or three (6.3).


Returning to the successful counter-insurgency strategies that were mentioned before, the Pin-Point Accuracy strategy and the Drain the Sea strategy, and examining them with an eye both on Amidror’s conditions and on the general criteria for winning a war – convincing your opponent that it is no longer worth fighting – an interesting point emerges. The fundamental aim of both of the successful counter-insurgency strategies is to isolate the insurgents by separating them from the civilian population, thus simultaneously reducing the resources available to the insurgents and making them easier to identify. The Drain the Sea strategy aims to prevent civilian casualties (6.1) through physical separation, followed hopefully by some sort of psychological separation (6.2) while Pin-Point Accuracy places avoidance of civilian casualties (6.1) as its highest aim, and if this can be achieved and maintained then it seems likely that psychological separation (6.2) will follow. Amidror’s necessary conditions for a successful military counter-insurgency campaign also point to the same strategy; controlling the territory and isolating the insurgents from support from outside the country will do little to assist military counter-insurgency operations if the insurgents continue to receive substantial active support from within the local population.


A good way of defeating the enemy in a conventional war is to isolate them; cut them off from any allies and prevent them from obtaining the necessary supplies. It is hardly surprising that the same ideas should apply in counter-insurgency wars, albeit tweaked somewhat in line with the different environment. In counter-insurgency wars preventing the enemy from obtaining the necessary resources to continue the fight is primarily about convincing the local population, those who give explicit or tacit support to the insurgents, that the war should not be fought. As Amidror notes, achieving real separation between the local population and the insurgents (6.3) is essential if any lasting victory is to be possible.[19] In a conventional war it is rare for victory to be achieved without inflicting substantial damage to the enemy’s military machine, but as the eventual success of British counter-insurgency efforts in Northern Ireland proved, this does not have to be the case in a counter-insurgency war. Van Creveld quotes from a discussion he had with a British General, Paddy Waters, who was about to take over as the commander of forces in Northern Ireland. According to Van Creveld, General Waters said that “His objective was not to smash the IRA by killing as many terrorists as possible; instead, as long as his term of duty lasted, his mission was to make sure that as few people as possible on either side were killed.”[20] Over the entire course of the counter-insurgency war in Northern Ireland, only about 300 terrorists were killed,[21] hardly enough, one would think, to expect that the British could possibly have won the war. Yet the British were victorious there because they were successful in their attempts to isolate the insurgents from the local population.


If, as Ranjit Nadkarni suggests, the aim of military counter-insurgency operations is to reduce the overall level of violence to a point where a political solution to the problems which gave rise to the insurgency becomes possible, then it is obvious that some sort of negotiations are going to take place in the future. If the counter-insurgency wishes to negotiate a solution that is in any way favourable to them, then they will need to keep levels of support for the insurgency as low as possible, which means separating the insurgents from the population on as many levels as possible.


Consider the situation from the perspective of a member of some local population, living in an area where an insurgency has begun. It is probable that the insurgency has originally been mounted as a result of some grievance against the government, a grievance that members of the local population might be expected to share. Thus there is already likely to be some level of support for the insurgency. The insurgents rely, at least to a large degree on terrorist tactics, which do put members of the local population at some risk, so this might lower the level of support for the insurgency. But if counter-insurgency forces, who in theory are supposed to be the protectors of the local population, kill or injure substantial numbers of people in attempting to target the insurgents, then the counter-insurgency forces will be seen as just as much of a threat to the local population as the tactics of the insurgents are. If the insurgency is successful then the local population is likely to gain something, and so of course the population will tend to support the insurgency. But consider the situation if the counter-insurgency forces are extremely careful that their actions do not kill or injure any members of the local population, even in cases where this means that the military operations kill or capture less insurgents than would otherwise be the case. The counter-insurgency forces are thus making clear their attempt to achieve first level separation of the population from the insurgents (6.1). The insurgents might now come to be seen as more of a risk to the population than the counter-insurgency forces are, and the interests of the local population might now start to seem at odds with the tactics of the insurgency, creating a further level of separation (6.2). Members of the local population have to feel that they have something to lose from supporting the insurgency if this sort of separation is to be achieved. If continuing a violent insurgency starts to become less popular amongst the members of the local population, then the insurgency itself might now start to see its violent tactics as counter-productive.


It has sometimes been claimed that when insurgents hide amongst a civilian population, and then civilians are killed as collateral damage in a military operation aimed at those insurgents, that these deaths are not the fault of the counter-insurgency forces, but rather can be blamed on the insurgents who put the civilians at risk in the first place by hiding among them. Whether this is actually true or not (I personally think the claim is highly debatable) it should be obvious, given what I has said here, that the civilian deaths can only aid the insurgents, no matter whose “fault” those deaths might be thought to be.


Examining the dozens of counter-insurgency wars that have been fought since World War 2, it seems clear that the surest way to increase support for the insurgency is for the counter-insurgency troops to kill substantial numbers of innocent civilians, even if this is only as a result of collateral damage from an attack on a legitimate military target. Every civilian killed by counter-insurgency forces, whether accidentally or not, whether as legitimate collateral damage or not, represents a victory for the insurgents. Thus when counter-insurgency forces kill substantially more civilians than insurgents, as has usually been the case at least in operations since World War 2,[22] they are almost invariably garnering support for the insurgent cause, and in fact acting in a manner likely to ensure their own defeat.


Having discussed the sort of strategy that seems to be necessary if one is to be victorious in a counter-insurgency war, I now wish to examine the tactical aspect of such a conflict, and see what effect, if any, these strategic considerations might have on the counter-insurgency soldier on the street.

Tactics and ROE in Modern Counter-Insurgency Wars

In modern times it appears to be the case that, at least to a large degree, the tactics that have been used in conventional war are the ones used in counter-insurgency wars; seek out the enemy and do as much damage as possible to the enemy while sustaining as little damage as possible yourself. Troops engaged in counter-insurgency conflicts in many parts of the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, travel in armoured vehicles and are backed up by guided missiles and air power. When the enemy is located, then combat is initiated, and the main constraints on the manner in which the combat will be conducted are the usual considerations of the law of armed conflict and the related ethical considerations of discrimination and proportionality. These principle ethical considerations find their simplest expression in the rules of engagement (ROE) issued to the troops charged with fighting these counter-insurgency wars. Those given the task of formulating these ROE – in effect determining the manner in which such wars are conducted – face many considerations; the most important of which is usually considered to be the desire to protect one’s own troops from harm.


In effect the ROE are the “grunt’s eye view” of the overall strategy of the war. So if there are certain structures which must be preserved for strategic reasons then the ROE will reflect this strategic necessity, and restrict the sorts of operations that can be conducted in the vicinity of such structures. This sort of situation is certainly not restricted to counter-insurgency operations, for even in conventional wars there can be strategically important buildings or facilities that might be discussed in the ROE. In might be the case, for example, that in a particular war the control of oil supplies is absolutely essential for both sides, and thus that troops might be restricted in the types of weapons they are permitted to use during an attempt to capture an oil well or a refinery, in order to attempt to ensure that the facility is not overly damaged during the engagement. If particular strategically important people or structures are mentioned in the ROE for counter-insurgency operations it is common for these to be of less strictly military importance, and instead be of importance to the local population, however this does not alter their strategic significance, especially for the low level soldier who knows that his ROE rule out certain actions with regard to these people or structures. The leaked ROE for operations in Iraq, for example, specifically discuss operation involving religious structures (such as mosques) and persons of local religious importance (such as clerics and imams).[23] These same ROE also make it clear that while all reasonable attempts should be made to avoid collateral damage, the usual (i.e. conventional war) criteria of discrimination and proportionality apply, and thus significant collateral damage is acceptable if this is seen by the on ground commander as necessary in order to protect his troops. In fact these ROE specifically state that “Commanders have the inherent authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take all appropriate action in self defense of their units and other US Forces and Coalition Forces.”[24] Thus while attempts should be made to avoid civilian casualties if this is possible, such casualties are certainly not ruled out by the ROE, and the section quoted above suggests that commanders are actually obliged to protect their troops by any means necessary, even if this will cause significant collateral damage.


I have argued in this paper that the only strategy that a democratic country can hope to use in order to achieve victory (of any sort) in a counter-insurgency war will be a strategy that separates the insurgents from the local population. The most basic level at which this separation must be achieved is for counter-insurgency forces to ensure that innocent civilians do not become victims of harm during operation aimed at insurgents (6.1), even in cases where the harm caused to these civilians might be thought to be legitimate collateral damage from a military operation. In other words, the ROE that would normally apply to combat operations are not suitable for counter-insurgency operations because they do not go far enough in protecting members of the local population from military actions. In fact I would argue that the ROE for front-line troops in counter-insurgency wars need to be so strict in preventing collateral damage that they are virtually equivalent to the regulations that cover the use of force by domestic police officers in the counter-insurgency troops’ home country.


Those given the task of formulating ROE for counter-insurgency operations, in effect determining the manner in which such wars are conducted, face a problem however, since stricter ROE may decrease the likelihood of collateral damage amongst the local population but tend to increase the likelihood of casualties amongst one’s own troops.


Quite a lot of people, both military and civilian, have written about the situation faced by US troops in Iraq, and argued that the ROE are too restrictive and thus threaten the lives of US personnel.[25] Some certainly argue that protection of military personnel is the first priority of a commander, and thus would strenuously argue against ROE that might be thought to place troops in more danger. However, I think there are some important problems with this view. In the first place, it should be obvious that the highest duty of a military commander is not to protect his or her troops; while this is important it certainly is less important than other things, like the duty to serve the state. More importantly in this context is the fact that achievement of the mission is more important than the protection of the lives of the personnel under one’s command; if this were not the case, then military personnel would never be sent on missions where there was a danger of death. So if the mission of troops is to protect the lives of civilians, even at the cost of the lives of some military personnel, then this simply has to be accepted as part of the cost of being involved in a counter-insurgency war. I rather suspect that this is where Amidror’s first condition, the political decision to defeat the insurgency and the willingness to bear the political cost of a military offensive, really starts to bite. It was once suggested to me, by an extremely distinguished retired British General,[26] that force protection is idiocy in disguise. If the mission is important enough for troops to be sent on in the first place, then it should be important enough for troops to die for. If the mission is not important enough for troops to die for, then they should never be sent out in the first place; the best force protection is to stay at home. In the context of a counter-insurgency war what this really means is that if the war is worth fighting in the first place, then it is worth winning, and this requires implementation of a strategy that will work, despite the likely cost in military lives. If the war is not worth the cost of those lives, then it should not be fought in the first place. It should also be noted that where counter-insurgencies have been defeated, it has never been a quick process; the Malayan Emergency lasted more than a decade and The Troubles in Northern Ireland more than two decades. Any politician deciding to begin a counter-insurgency war would do well to remember that such a war simply cannot be won quickly, at least not by any strategy that would considered acceptable to a modern democracy.

Ethics, Civilians and ROE

Before ending this discussion I would like to make a few final comments about the ethical issues surrounding ROE and the relative levels of protection which ought to be afforded to civilians and to military personnel. While much of the argument of this paper has been couched in strategic terms, it is certainly not the case that the arguments presented here fly in the face of traditional ethical theory. In fact I would argue that traditional understandings of the universality of ethics would lend support to the suggestion I have put forward in this paper; that military personnel ought to go out of their way to protect innocent civilians, even if this places the military personnel in greater danger. The killing of an innocent person is always a bad thing, whether that person is a civilian or a member of the military. The big difference between them however, is that a member of the military has voluntarily entered into an occupation that carries a level of risk, and has been trained and deployed with that risk in mind. Conducting counter-insurgency operations using ROE that allow for significant collateral damage in the name of reducing casualties amongst the military personnel of the nation engaged in counter-insurgency operations is effectively saying that it is acceptable for a person who has knowing entered a risky occupation to lower the risk to themselves by dramatically increasing the risk to innocent parties who happen to be nearby.


A great many things that seem to be considered acceptable conduct by military personnel operating on foreign soil would certainly not be considered acceptable conduct in relevantly similar circumstances in their home countries. I believe that there is no ethical basis for any argument that would suggest that collateral damage that would be completely unacceptable were it to occur in Atlanta is acceptable if it occurs in Baghdad (in relevantly similar circumstances) simply because the civilian casualties are Iraqis rather than Americans.


In this paper I have discussed the sorts of strategy that would have to be implemented in order for a counter-insurgency war to be won, and what this would mean for the ordinary soldier on the street fighting such a war. My position is that counter-insurgency wars are won in the same manner as conventional wars; because one side or the other (or in some cases, both) decides that it is no longer worth fighting. Usually this will mean separating the insurgents from the local population, on as many levels as possible, and convincing that population, those who give explicit or tacit support to the insurgents, that the war should not be fought, and thus preventing the insurgents from obtaining the necessary resources to continue the fight. In this context, every civilian killed by counter-insurgency forces, whether accidentally or not, whether as legitimate collateral damage or not, represents a victory for the insurgents.


This strategy of protecting the local population from harm, even at the risk of one’s own troops, needs to be expressed clearly in the ROE for the counter-insurgency war. The ROE that would normally apply to combat operations are not suitable for counter-insurgency operations because they do not go far enough in protecting members of the local population from military actions. However, this sort of strategy is likely to be controversial since it will almost inevitably place the counter-insurgency troops at greater risk. In simple terms, strict ROE might be seen as good strategy but bad tactics, increasing the chance of winning a counter-insurgency war but decreasing the chance of winning individual battles within it.



[1] Under this definition, most but not all, rebellions will count as insurgencies. The American Civil War, for example, can be categorised as a rebellion, but is not an insurgency under this definition, since the forces of the Confederate Army represented a formally constituted rebelling authority.

[2] “Winning Counterinsurgency War: The Israeli Experience”, a paper in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs “Strategic Perspectives” series. Sourced from

[3] Ibid. pp. 7-10.

[4] Ibid. p. 9.

[5] Forum discussion in the undergraduate course “Terrorism and International Violence”, UNSW@ADFA, Canberra, Australia, June 2008.

[6] There may well be essentially political strategies which lead to political, rather than military victory over an insurgency, but discussion of such strategies is not the focus of this paper.

[7] The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq (New York: Ballantine, 2006) pp. 241-5.

[8] Ibid. pp. 241-2.

[9] Ibid. p. 243.

[10] Ibid. p. 231-5.

[11] Ibid. pp. 229-35.

[12] See Jeff Grey “Australia’s Counterinsurgencies: A Brief History” Australian Army Journal 5(2008)17-26. p. 21.

[13] Van Creveld, The Changing Face of War p. 221.

[14] On War, Chapter IV.

[15] “Winning Counterinsurgency War”, p. 15. Amidror discusses these points strictly in relation to terrorism and counterterrorism, but I have presented them as they apply to counter-insurgency more generally.

[16] Ibid. p. 26.

[17] Ibid. pp. 26-7.

[18] Ibid. p. 27.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Changing Face of War p 235.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] ROE sourced from Accessed 14th Jan, 2009.

[24] Ibid. p. E-1-6, emphasis added.

[25] See for example the many articles at and other blogs and articles linked from that site.

[26] Personal discussion with General Sir Rupert Smith (Retd), UNSW@ADFA, May 2006.