Small Wars Journal

Moral Dilemmas in Counterinsurgency

I've gotten lots of feedback on this National Public Radio (Future Iraqi Advisers Face Hard Lessons) piece that ran this week in which Steve Inskeep and I discussed the moral dilemmas that often confront counterinsurgents. Situations like the one described below are why one of the paradoxes of counterinsurgency is that "Sometimes the best action is to do nothing" and why we put a chapter on ethics and leadership in COIN into Field Manual 3-24.

From the NPR article:

Lt. Col. John Nagl wrote a book about fighting insurgents called Learning to

Eat Soup with a Knife.

He remembers working closely with an Iraqi police chief who provided

valuable intelligence. Then, he learned that the man he had trusted was supporting the enemy -- "providing weapons, ammunition, body armor to the insurgents in Fallujah who were then fighting the Marines. And against some of my soldiers."

Nagl said he found himself "faced with a horrible dilemma."

"What do I do to this police chief who has clearly risked his life to help

us? Every time I think about it, I wonder if I did the right thing. But ultimately what I decided to do was -- nothing. My assessment was that for Ishmael to stay alive this is the minimum he had to do -- this is the minimum tax he had to pay to the insurgents."

Part One of the NPR series: Training the Trainers at Fort Riley.