Monday, April 23, 2018

Essay: The Paradox of Counter-Insurgency

By: Wilfred Greaves, Ph.D.,  The Mackenzie Institute 
Original Essay Found Here - Pages 10-13

The Challenges of Staying the Course and Maintaining the Commitment. 

During Op Athena, on 5 November 2009, Corporal Suzanna Long from the Canadian Police Monitoring Team interacts with Afghan children during a presence patrol in the Dand District. DND photo IS2009-3062-07 by Master Corporal Angela Abbey
More than 15 years after Western states first occupied Afghanistan, 13 years since the American-led invasion of Iraq, and at a time when Canada’s new Liberal government is assessing which complex UN peacekeeping mission it will contribute troops to, it is appropriate to reflect on the lessons learned in one of the most common recent forms of conflict: counterinsurgency operations (COIN). In particular, the limited strategic success of recent Western military interventions, considerable causality rates among allied militaries, and alleged violations of international humanitarian law as a result of substantial civilian casualties suggest that an appraisal of COIN doctrine is required.

The concept of military necessity is central to this appraisal because it determines what conduct by combatants is permissible towards civilians caught in areas of conflict. The test of military necessity is vital for determining whether civilian casualties, however tragic, conform to the laws of war. The challenge is that unconventional military operations such as COIN invert certain classical war-fighting principles, resulting in a paradoxical meaning of military necessity. The goal of a successful COIN is to provide physical security for the civilian population since only by winning popular support and denying it to the enemy can COIN succeed.[1] In this sense, minimizing civilian casualties from both insurgent and counterinsurgent activities is vital for the ultimate success of the mission. But operational success is only one necessary component for victory. The SWORD model of COIN, for example, identifies seven strategic dimensions that must be won for counter-insurgency to succeed. One of these is “the war to stay the course and maintain commitment” (or the ‘war at home’), namely the need for domestic support for the deployment of troops conducting a COIN mission.[2] Counter-insurgency missions take years to succeed, if not decades, because they require nothing less than the creation of legitimate political institutions and the political, economic, social, and ideological isolation of the insurgent enemy. Any factor that reduces domestic support for the mission will likely harm the mission’s longevity since political leaders are less likely to maintain long-term military commitments if they are unpopular or otherwise costly for politicians to support. These two criteria for success – civiliancentred considerations for the use of force and maintenance of domestic support for the mission – result in a paradox for determining military necessity in counter-insurgency operations. Placing the physical security of civilians at the centre of military decisionmaking requires exposing counter-insurgent soldiers to greater risk of harm. However, increased friendly casualties are likely to result in a loss of domestic support which also undermines the mission’s ultimate prospect of success. The heightened risks assumed by counter-insurgents, therefore, have negative implications for a successful outcome, given that relatively small numbers of counter-insurgent casualties can translate into significant changes in domestic support. The maintenance of domestic support thus becomes a necessary military objective in itself, complicating the doctrinal emphasis on shifting risk from civilians to counter-insurgents. The result is the paradoxical conclusion that minimizing civilian casualties and maintaining domestic support by minimizing counter-insurgent casualties are both militarily necessary for successful COIN.

Military Necessity and International Humanitarian Law International humanitarian law (IHL) doesn’t seek to prevent war, but to curb war’s worst excesses by moderating combatants’ conduct so that it conforms to a shared standard of ‘civilized’ warfare. Going back to the industrialization of war in the 1800s, “the principle has been more and more acknowledged that the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honour as much as the exigencies of war will admit.”[3] Between the mid-19th century and the First World War, IHL experienced a proliferation of treaties and statements which sought to restrict the use of military force only to that which was necessary for victory, such as the First Geneva Convention of 1864, the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868, and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Weapons such as soft-nosed bullets, explosive projectiles, or chemical and biological weapons that inflicted additional pain and suffering became prohibited. This established the precedent that there are restrictions on the conduct of war defined by generally agreed upon standards for military actions.

The modern conception of military necessity draws meaning not just from material considerations of what is necessary to win a war, but also from moral justifications of which actions are acceptable in the pursuit of victory. [4] It is, in effect, a question of legitimacy: are the military methods employed legitimate given the objective they are used to pursue? In this way, ‘necessary’ is a euphemism for ‘permissible’, based on how significant a combatant considers a military objective to be. In practice, the difficulty rests in the inherently subjective determination of which actions qualify as militarily necessary (and are thus permissible), and which do not.

The Geneva Conventions, for instance, do not precisely define ‘military necessity’, but instead offer a two-part explanation that informs the contemporary practices of many states. Legitimate military objectives are “limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose, or use make an effective contribution to military action, and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”[5] While explicitly stating that attacks deliberately targeting civilians are prohibited,[6] the Geneva Conventions also indicate that civilian casualties do not constitute a violation of international law, so long as the number is not “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[7] Military necessity, therefore, is based on a reasonable determination of the strategic importance of an objective and the calculation of an acceptable rate of civilian casualties relative to accomplishing it. As such, it defines the threshold for determining proportionality in combat, and distinguishes legitimate military actions from war crimes.

Because of its inherent subjectivity and the high stakes for soldiers and commanders involved in combat, military necessity has often been interpreted very widely. Policymakers, senior officers, and military bureaucracies have extended what is considered militarily necessary to include their preferred objectives, often by referring to broad strategic goals rather than discrete tactical ones.[8] This allows for the conceptual stretching of military necessity to include a variety of military actions and activities.[9] It also enables the concept to be adapted to reflect important changes in the nature of war, the legality and culpability of military and civilian officials, and the distinct victory conditions for waging a counterinsurgency.

Contemporary COIN Doctrine Contemporary counter-insurgency doctrine embraces the necessity of placing civilians at the centre of military operations. Perhaps the clearest example is the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2007, which states: “The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace. Without a secure environment, no permanent reforms can be implemented and disorder spreads”.[10] The Canadian Armed Forces also produced a counter-insurgency manual that drew on lessons learned in Afghanistan, though it was never published. [11] Though more equivocal than its American counterpart, it agreed that “the overall effect sought in a counter-insurgency is not the death or capture of insurgents, but more importantly, the provision of security to the population.”[12] As statements of military doctrine, these manuals underscore the extent to which success in COIN rests on the provision of human security for the receiving population, not with kinetic operations against the enemy.

According to Harvard University’s Sarah Sewall, who wrote the U.S. manual’s introduction and now serves as an Under-Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, “the civilian population is the center of gravity – the deciding factor in the struggle… The real battle is for civilian support for, or acquiescence to, the counterinsurgents and host nation government.”[13] Any action that alienates the local population is thus counterproductive to the counter-insurgents’ long-term goals, no matter how many enemy fighters are killed in the process. As a result, any civilian casualties benefit the insurgents, regardless of whom those civilians are killed by. If killed by intervening troops, support is lost among the local population, and if killed by insurgents, it demonstrates the inability of counter-insurgents to keep the population safe.

This undermines the conventional notion implicit in the concept of military necessity; that some civilian casualties may be acceptable because any civilian casualties are detrimental to the counter-insurgents’ goal of winning local support. The strategic onus to minimize civilian casualties rests squarely on counter-insurgents.

Effective COIN thus contradicts the tactics by which Western states have preferred to fight their recent wars.[14] Although international principles of legitimate military intervention expressly mandate that “force protection cannot become the principal objective,”[15] it was nonetheless a principle of Western combat operations for decades.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq altered this way of war by committing many Western states to the extensive use of ground forces for close combat and COIN operations, in which force protection was counterproductive for winning hearts and minds. This makes counterinsurgents less able to combat insurgents among the population, and suggests to the receiving populace that the counter-insurgents are unprepared to confront the same dangers the people have no choice but to face.[16] COIN doctrine underscores the futility of force protection as a guiding operational principle, since providing security to the civilian population requires that counter-insurgents accept greater danger by performing activities such as foot patrols, establishing forward operating posts, engaging with communities, and maintaining a visible public presence. COIN doctrine thus requires re-balancing the risks borne by soldiers and civilians.

COIN doctrine especially challenges the practice of “risk transfer”, which by “defying virtually every theory of counterinsurgency, military officials have pursued force protection even at the expense of mission accomplishment.”[17] The relationship between risk to soldiers and risk to civilians is zero-sum: less risk for one group entails more risk for the other. Risk transfer from soldiers to civilians has been practiced for decades, but is neither a natural nor inevitable aspect of modern combat.[18] On the contrary, “to a large degree, modern strategists fix the levels of risk that combatants and non-combatants face. Civilian casualties flow from policy preferences in predictable ways.”[19] It is therefore possible to redistribute the relative risks faced by civilians and counterinsurgents in order to support the objective of winning local support.

Contemporary COIN doctrine thus inverts the military calculus of valuing most the lives of one’s own soldiers and pursuing enemy fighters as the primary objective of military operations. This calculus does not – indeed, cannot – apply in COIN because the insurgent enemy is not easily distinguishable from the general population. Even if they were, the principal objective of counter-insurgency operations is not ‘defeating’ a conventional enemy. Precisely because the enemy can readily draw reinforcements and material support from the civilian population, is why securing public support is the primary objective. This imposes numerous operational, legal and political challenges upon states fighting counter-insurgencies, and alters the assessment of which actions will likely contribute to strategic success.

However, COIN doctrine is further complicated by the fact that success requires more than just tactical victory on the ground. It requires a popular perception that the intervening counter-insurgents are committed to defeating the insurgency over the long-term.[20] In the case of democracies fighting insurgencies, this commitment and how it is perceived by people in the receiving country can be affected by popular opinion at home. Since elected officials are often responsive to public pressure, and politicians, not generals, ultimately decide whether to sustain or abandon a military mission, maintaining domestic support is as equally important to the long-term prospects of success for a counter-insurgency as gaining local support. Problematically, domestic support can be undermined by casualty-aversion in the general public.

Although it is difficult to determine the effect of military casualties on democratic policy-making, casualties can awaken voters to the costs of a military engagement and incite resistance to the foreign deployment of troops, particularly if the mission is perceived as non-essential. “The further a particular war or military operation is removed from core national interests, the more the populace will be averse to casualties andthe more decision-makers will seek to avoid them.”[21] While circumstances vary, the long duration and elective nature of foreign counterinsurgents’ decision to intervene renders COIN more susceptible to public opinion than other types of military involvement. The consequence is that decision-makers need to minimize casualties in order to limit domestic opposition to the deployment of troops abroad.

The result of these competing imperatives is a paradox for effective COIN strategy. On the one hand, cothe unter-insurgency doctrine requires the intervener to accept more casualties in order to minimize the cost to civilians and maintain popular support in the receiving country. Higher numbers of friendly casualties can weaken domestic support for the mission, contributing to a stronger possibility of withdrawal without accomplishing the mission’s objectives. Such a withdrawal must be considered a strategic failure, and is an undesirable outcome for the counter-insurgents. On the other hand, an emphasis on force protection in order to mitigate domestic casualty aversion comes at the cost of civilian lives that decrease support for the mission in the receiving country. Given the nature of counter-insurgency, losing the civilian ‘centre of gravity’ is, by definition, likely to result in strategic failure. In both cases, it appears that this paradox constrains the ability of democracies to succeed at COIN.

This paradox raises the question of how to balance risks to foreign civilians in order to satisfy one aspect of counter-insurgency doctrine versus those to one’s own troops to satisfy another. Protecting civilians and protecting one’s own soldiers may both be militarily necessary for successful counterinsurgency, but can they be effectively reconciled? Ultimately, the concept of military necessity suggests that international humanitarian law provides an inadequate set of tools to guide military practice in counterinsurgency. In part, this is due to the inherent limitations of international law, since “the legal framework for regulating war does not contemplate asymmetric warfare waged by non-state actors and thus fails to regulate perhaps the dominant form of warfare for the 21st century.”[22] It is also due to the nature of counter-insurgency warfare itself, and the dual yet duelling objectives it demands of counterinsurgents. The provision of security for civilians is the ultimate objective of counter-insurgency, since only this will garner the local legitimacy that is “the single most important internal dimension of a [counter-insurgency] war.”[23] But as shown by recent examples of COIN operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-insurgency requires some kinetic activities against the enemy. This exposes counter-insurgents and can weaken domestic support, prompting an early withdrawal or compromising the ultimate objectives. The paradox thus exists at the highest level of COIN doctrine. The competing imperatives of successful counter-insurgency indicate that decisions over the appropriate distribution of risk between soldiers and civilians must be reconciled through some standard other than international humanitarian law.


Wilfrid Greaves holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, where he is an Instructor at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice. His research focuses on Arctic security, natural resource extraction and climate change, Canadian foreign policy, and human security in complex peace operations. Examples of his recent work have been published in the following journals: Security Dialogue, Polar Record, and Critical Studies on Security.


[1] Max G. Manwaring and John T. Fishel, “Insurgency and Coun - terinsurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 3, no. 3 (Winter 1992).

[2] Nils French, “Learning from the Seven Soviet Wars: Lessons for Canada in Afghanistan,” The Canadian Army Journal 10, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 36.

[3] Francis Lieber quoted in David Bosco, “Moral Principle vs. Military Necessity,” The American Scholar 77, no.1 (Winter 2008). Accessed at - ple-vs-military-necessity/.

[4] Ibid, 51.1-51.2.

[5] Nobuo Hayashi, “Requirements of Military Necessity in Interna - tional Humanitarian Law and International Criminal Law,” Boston University International Law Journal 28, no. 39 (2010): 41-140.

[6] ICRC, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 Au - gust 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), of 8 June 1977 (Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1996), section 52.2.

[7] Ibid, 51.2.

[8] Ibid, 51.5b. [9] Eyal Benvenisti, “Human Dignity in Combat: The Duty to Spare Enemy Civilians,” Israel Law Review 39, no. 2 (2006): 95-96; Thom - as W. Smith, “Protecting Civilians, or Soldiers? Humanitarian Law and the Economy of Risk in Iraq,” International Studies Perspectives 9, no.2 (2008): 147.

[10] See, for example, Aaron Belkin, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Is the Gay Ban Based on Military Necessity?” Parameters 33, no. 2 (2003).

[11] United States Department of the Army, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 42.

[12] DND, DRAFT: Counter-insurgency Operations Manual (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2007), 12. Commissioned in 2005 by then Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, a draft version of the ‘counter-insurgency operations manual’ was released to the public in 2007. However, DND subsequently announced that it did not intend to release the document for publication or use by the Canadian Forces.

[13] Sarah Sewall, “Introduction to the University of Chicago Press Edition: A Radical Field Manual,” The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xxv.

[14] Antulio J. Echevarria, Towards an American Way of War (Carl - isle: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2004), 9.

[15] ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: Interna - tional Development Research Centre, 2001), viii. United States Department of the Army, 48.

[16] Hugh Smith, “What Cost Will Democracies Bear? A Review of Popular Theories of Casualty Aversion,” Armed Forces and Society 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 145.

[17] Smith, 146. See also Echevarria 2004, Reisman 2007, and Shaw 2005.

[18] Manwaring and Fishel, 281-284.

[19] Smith 2005, 492. For a more detailed discussion of this phe - nomenon in the context of Canada’s involvement in the Afghan war, see Peter Loewen and Daniel Rubenson, “Canadian War Deaths in Afghanistan: Costly Policies and Support for Incumbents,” Working Paper (2012). Available at - search_files/war_deaths_vfinal%20.pdf.

[20] Manwaring and Fishel, 281-284.

[21] Smith 2005, 492. For a more detailed discussion of this phe - nomenon in the context of Canada’s involvement in the Afghan war, see Peter Loewen and Daniel Rubenson, “Canadian War Deaths in Afghanistan: Costly Policies and Support for Incumbents,” Working Paper (2012). Available at - search_files/war_deaths_vfinal%20.pdf.

[22] William C. Banks, quoted in Bosco 2008.

[23] Manwaring and Fishel, 285

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