Small Wars Journal

Do Civilian Casualties Cause Counterinsurgents to Fail?

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 4:43pm

Do Civilian Casualties Cause Counterinsurgents to Fail? By Patrick Burke - War is Boring

The Netflix movie War Machine paints counterinsurgency wars as impossible.

All of them.

“The thing about counterinsurgency is that it doesn’t really work,” the film’s narrator says. “We tried it in Vietnam. That went well. The British and the French gave it a shot, trying to hang on to their crumbling empires. It just hasn’t worked. To me, it would seem kind of simple why. You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.”

The film suggests a simple logic to back this message. A counterinsurgent must win over the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population in order to win the war.

However, a counterinsurgent that kills civilians in the course of defeating insurgents can never win “hearts and minds.” Thus, because defeating insurgents hiding among civilians almost always results in civilian casualties, counterinsurgency is impossible.

We could brush this assertion off as “just Hollywood.” However, one of the most critical influences on counterinsurgency doctrine, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, holds a similar view. With one crucial caveat, of course.

FM 3-24 argues that excessive civilian casualties will cripple counterinsurgency operations, possibly to the point of failure. This is especially the case when the counterinsurgent doesn’t seek popular support by implementing public works projects and rendering other forms of aid, according to the manual.

Still, FM 3-24 is not clear on what exactly constitutes “excessive civilian casualties.” The manual’s authors would likely deem civilian casualties as excessive if a ground unit had the option of using more discriminate firepower to kill the enemy but chose otherwise…

Read on.


Bill C.

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 5:53pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Parents, like governments, must do things (such as impose "change") that (a) while not being popular with their children/their populations and, indeed, (b) being difficult for these such children/these such populations to understand, accept or achieve, are (c) routinely required to ensure these childrens'/these populations' -- and in fact the family/the state as a whole's -- very survival.

(From the perspective of a state's survival, for example, these such imposed and unpopular "changes" -- whether emanating from within or outside of the state -- might be those such changes that are necessary for transformation of the state more along "modern" political, economic, social and/or value lines; i.e., along lines more consistent with survival and prosperity of all states and societies in the modern world.)

Thus, in my version of COL Jones's example above, it is the children/the populations -- and not as it were the parents/the governments -- that (a) are being short-sighted, (b) have refused to make reasonable (and indeed critically necessary) adjustments and who, thus, (c) are slow to have/have actually refused to evolve.

(From the perspective of the state's survival, again for example, this such rebellion by the population -- against the necessary requirements of political, economic, social and/or value "modernization and development" change -- this such rebellion, due to its potential catastrophic consequences [minus these necessary changes, the state is undermined, overcome and/or actually ceases to exist] to be seen by the government in -- understandably -- "traitorous" terms?)

"Radical ideologies," in the context I have outlined above, thus to be seen as those ideologies which suggest that (a) these "changes," demanded by the parents/the governments, are, in fact, not necessary. And/or which suggest that (b) "changes" -- which go in the exact opposite direction of where the parents/the governments want to go -- are actually what is required.

(From the state's survival perspective again, these such "radical ideologies" to be seen, thus, as those that, respectively, suggest [a] that the current -- clearly outdated -- political, economic, social and/or value norms/models are best suited; this, to provide for the survival and prosperity of the state in the modern world. And/or which suggest [b] that actually even earlier -- and/or "pre-modern" -- political, economic, social and/or value models/norms are what is required; this, to provide for the state's prosperity and survival going forward.)

So now, if I have been able to put CERTAIN parents/governments, and indeed their actions, on a more proper footing (i.e., as relates to "good" rather than "bad" governance) -- and likewise have been able to put CERTAIN "insurgents" also in their correct place (to wit: as relates to "bad" rather than "good" actors/actions), how then do we see (as relates, now obviously, only to governments and their populations) "war" -- and indeed the "killing of civilians"/"civilian casualties" -- in this exact context?

(Necessary, as history appears to indicate, or not?)

Bill C.

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 5:03pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Given COL Jones' thoughts immediately above -- and given his emphasis on "strategy" noted there -- let us consider some familiar examples, such as:

a. The Old Cold War of yesterday; wherein, the strategic goal of the U.S./the West was the "containment and roll back of communism." And,

b. The post-Cold War era of today; wherein, the strategic goal of the U.S./the West has been to "advance market-democracy."

Thus, IT HAS BEEN WITHIN THESE STRATEGIC CONTEXTS, might we agree, that (paraphrasing COL Jones now) "there was a mixture of both revolutionary challenge to the governments we created and protected (specifically, to achieve our strategic goals noted at "a" and "b" immediately above); and resistance insurgency against our presence and efforts to force these governments onto said populations."

Thus, from the strategic perspective I offer here -- and as relates to one or both of the strategic examples/goals I have provided above -- what would seem to be of importance:

a. Is not so much whether insurgencies become manifest and/or are resolved. But, rather,

b. Whether, in spite of same, the strategic goals of the U.S./the West were/are realized. (Again: "containment and roll back of communism" in the Old Cold War; "advancement of market-democracy" in the post-Cold War era.)

Thus, by placing his emphasis on "resolving/curing insurgencies" (or, in fact, preventing same from even becoming manifest in the first place) -- and not as it were on "achieving the strategic objectives of the U.S./the West" (a concept which ACCEPTS that the undermining of governments, the production of insurgencies, the killing of civilians and instability generally will be the order of the day?), has COL Jones gone off track/has he lost the proper focus?

This such proper focus, thus and accordingly, needing to be on:

a. Not preventing and/or curing insurgencies (the accommodations necessary within such a process often placing one's strategic objective in a subordinate, and thus often unattainable, position?). But, rather,

b. On achieving the strategic objective (thus, a more-"realist"/more-"realistic" approach -- which accepts that various nefarious acts and consequences may need to be undertaken and tolerated in the short-term; this, to achieve one's more long-term strategic goals?).

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 3:18pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Notice that the examples in the article where violence works are not revolutionary insurgencies (illegal democracy internal to single system of governance). Rather, they are resistance insurgencies, which is a form/continuation of warfare by a population of one system of governance against the occupying forces of some distinctly separate system of governance.

In most place the US muddles about, there is a mix of both revolutionary challenge to the governments we create and protect; and resistance insurgency against our presence and efforts to force these governments onto said population. These blended conflicts are the norm, and if the distinction of the two very different forms of conflict are not recognized and accounted for at the strategic level, then the campaign to address them will surely end in disaster at the tactical level. To be clear, the US strategies do not account for this critical distinction, and the resulted are self-evident.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 3:06pm

FM 3-24 is a manual about COIN that is built upon a deeply flawed understanding of insurgency. Because it sees revolution, and therefore COIN, as a form of war, even the "population-centric" aspects apply war theory in a manner that dooms the guide to being an approach to suppression of the symptoms of insurgency at best.

The key thing to remember in a revolutionary insurgency is that everyone not in the government is a civilian.

So, by definition, EVERYONE opposing the government is a civilian. What this means is that no matter what, a COIN campaign is going to be directed at civilians and civilians will be killed by state action. While some harsh action against civilians is likely necessary, it is indeed counterproductive to achieving a true resolution to an insurgency.

Consider a traditional family of four living in a 3-bedroom suburban ranch style home as the smallest version of a "state." It has distinct population groups, a governing body, a security mechanism, and distinct sovereign territory. If parents who are slow to evolve along with their rapidly evolving populations retain an 8PM bedtime as their children become late teens, and refuse to make reasonable adjustments to that time when asked, they are creating conditions of insurgency in those two teenage populations.

So junior acts illegally to ignore or force a change of the time and stays out until 11PM. The parents enforce the rule of law against Jr. with economic sanctions and other reasonable punishments to no avail. So they escalate to corporal punishment and impose a universal curfew of 6 PM onto the entire population of both kids. The conditions of insurgency grow in response, even as there appears to be "stability" due to a lack of infractions. Jr. takes his routine punishments as he plots his chance to end this reign of terror; but when daughter is being punished as well as collateral damage of the COIN campaign.

By 18 she is a stripper and Jr. has blown off college to become a Marine; both radicalized, one by the ideology of her biker boyfriend, and the other by the ideology of a recruiter in blue pants and a khaki shirt. This is not war, this is simply illegal democracy at work where effective legal mechanism of democracy are denied.

A COIN campaign that was based on an understanding of revolution would have recognized from the beginning that poor governance was the primary driver of this rebellion and been built around a central theme of seeking reasonable accommodations and ensuring the population felt they had effective legal mechanisms to engage their parents on these types of issues. Enforcement would focus on perceived justice over blackletter adherence to the rule of law, and punishments would have been narrowly tailored to the actual perpetrator. Overtime the conditions of insurgency would subside, reconciliation occur, and a form of natural stability would prevail. This is not war either, this is simply good governance at work.

And of course, the radical ideologies that corrupted this this tragic young pair would have fallen on deaf ears had governance been on their toes from the outset.

Governments, from parents to princes, love to blame some outside force for the instability in their kingdoms, and to wage war against peace when instability ensues. While it is a strategy that once could achieve suppression at reasonable costs, but now only serves to make the situation worse. If we are still arguing about civilian casualties then we really missed the main point to begin with. They are all civilians, and this isn't war.


Tue, 08/01/2017 - 4:13pm

In reply to by Bill C.

The first thing is to stop considering the post-WWII restoration of Germany and Japan as "nation-building". Granted, there were some detail changes mandated within the post-war governments, and the cost of rebuilding both countries' economic infrastructure was enormous, but the basic social and political institutions already existed. Moreover, neither country suffered through a post-war insurgency -- certainly the Allies feared one, especially in Germany, but it never happened.

So eliminating those examples, I can think of only two successfully concluded counter-insurgencies in U.S. history. The first was in the Philippines, after the Spanish-American War...while the Huks and the Moros were never completely subjugated, they were held in enough check for a functioning Filipino government to stand up and take over...more or less.

The other was the incremental defeat of multiple American Indian tribes during the 19th century. Certainly those campaigns were successful in destroying the Indians' social fabrics, and a pretty good portion of their economy...whether the subsequent reestablishment of tribes as American protectorates (sort of) and gradual acclimation into American society (sort of) counts as "nation-building" is debatable.

So: If we change the question -- as it appears we need to do based on our discussions below --

From: "Do Civilian Casualties Cause Counter-Insurgencies to Fail?

To: "Do Civilian Casualties Cause Nation-Building to Fail?"

What then is our answer?

Herein -- and in consideration of our successful "nation-building" efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II -- and our less-successful/unsuccessful efforts elsewhere since then (as noted in my Rand Corporation study linked below), let us consider, re: such nation-building projects, that:

a. If you have engaged in "limited war" -- and thus are now engaged in a "counter-insurgency" -- then you have already screwed up. Why?

b. Because, as the Rand Corporation study appears to indicate:

1. Your nation-building effort should have been undertaken via a "total war" effort (as with Germany and Japan). And

2. Your follow-on efforts, likewise, should have been undertaken via a "total commitment (also as per Germany and Japan. "

The fact of "civilian casualties," thus, not to be considered an issue in these matters; this, given that -- in such "total war"/"total commitment" cases -- "civilian casualties," from the get-go, are expected to be exceptionally high?

(From COL [ret.] Gian Gentile: "The new American way of war commits the US military to campaigns of counterinsurgency and nation-building in the world’s troubled spots. In essence it is total war — how else can one understand it any differently when COIN experts talk about American power “changing entire societies” — but it is a total war without the commensurate total support of will and resources from the American people. This strategic mismatch might prove catastrophic in the years ahead if the United States cannot figure out how to align means with ends in a successful strategy. The new American way of war perverts and thus prevents us from doing so.

Goggle: Gentile's "A Strategy of Tactics: Population-Centric COIN and the Army, Parameters, August 2009, see the conclusion at Page 15.)

J Harlan

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 10:22pm

Nation building fails because people don't like being told what to do by armed foreigners. What self respecting American would cooperate with a foreign occupier if the occupier improved schools or roads? Hopefully none. Why would Afghans or Iraqis be different? Divide and conquer may get some cooperation for a while by playing one group off the others. "For a while" is relative and modern Americans don't have the patience for this the British and French of previous centuries had.

Having picked your "good guys" they'll invariably rob and defraud you at will while they plot their escape (assuming your endurance has limits) to Dubai or London.

Is there a way to make third world countries "join the modern world"? Not in the short term, rarely in the long and certainly not by an armed occupation. If a state wants to modernize etc it can- but at it's own pace not based on the needs of USAID or DOD officials to produce clever power points.

Bill C.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 4:43pm

In reply to by J Harlan

J. Harlan said above:

"If the counter-insurgents aren't foreigners (and have no place to go if they get tired unlike the west) they can stop doing whatever got the insurgency going in the first place- exorbitant taxes, stealing land, religious persecution etc.- and wind the insurgency down without resort to terror. ...

The lesson for the modern "counter-insurgent" is to leave foreigners alone and encourage the host government be less corrupt, unfair or whatever else its doing to set off a large enough number of people to be a significant problem."

But what if:

a. The counter-insurgents ARE foreigners, whose raison detre is to achieve "modernization and development" of the outlying states and societies of the world; this, for example, more along the alien and profane political, economic, social and/or value lines of these foreign nations? (In this regard, think along communist such lines back-in-the-day and along modern western lines today.) Herein,

b. These such foreign invading/intervening nations simply using their installed and/or supported friendly host nation governments to help them (the foreign invading/intervening nations) achieve their such -- outlying states and societies -- "modernization and development" goals?

And what if THIS (foreign attempts at "modernization and development" of other countries) -- and not as it were normal/natural/commonplace native activities (exorbitant taxes, stealing land, etc.) -- is the actual "cause" that has:

1. "Set off a large enough number of people to be a significant problem" and

2. Kept these insurgencies (think, for example, in the Greater Middle East today as a whole) (a) going forward for such a long time and, this, (b) despite significant -- and indeed long term -- "limited" foreign power efforts to favorable resolve same?

In circumstances such as these; wherein, the "root cause" of the insurgency:

a. IS NOT commonplace and accepted "native" circumstances (exorbitant taxes, etc.) but, rather,

b. IS novel and intolerable "foreign" circumstances (attempts at "modernization and development" -- by a foreign invading/intervening power);

In circumstances such as these, will the counter-insurgent, in fact, not have to "terrorize the occupied people into submission?"

This, given the fact that "the war which the people of these states and societies have embarked upon;" this actually IS a "war against outsiders?"

Thus, the "lesson for modern counter-insurgents" (such as GEN Petraeus, who adopted the counterinsurgency methods that he did because he felt that they best suited/supported the "modernization and development" mission/cause that he had been given?) is to understand that:

a. Attempting to "modernize and develop" other states and societies; this, more along the alien and profane political, economic, social and/or value lines of a foreign invading/intervening power;

b. That this is often a process that cannot be achieved by half measures -- such as via "soft power" -- and/or via counter-insurgencies which, otherwise, do not resort to terror?

Thus, the bottom line question here being -- not whether civilian casualties cause counterinsurgents/ counterinsurgencies to fail -- but rather -- whether civilian casualties cause "modernization and development" [i.e., "nation-building?"] to fail?

(Thus, to ask: Do we agree with the following from the first quoted paragraph of our article above: "You can’t build a nation at gunpoint?" As to this specific question, to consider the following from the Rand Corporation:

J Harlan

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 7:28pm

FM 3-24 was simply product differentiation by David Petraeus. He needed an option to tie his wagon to and what had worked in the past- concentration camps, mass killing, intentional famine etc obviously wouldn't sell. He settled for largely French theories- that hadn't worked when tried- and British myth.

Unless you terrorize an occupied people into submission they will almost always continue to fight back against outsiders.

If the counter-insurgents aren't foreigners (and have no place to go if they get tired unlike the west) they can stop doing whatever got the insurgency going in the first place- exorbitant taxes, stealing land, religious persecution etc.- and wind the insurgency down without resort to terror. That's if the guerillas aren't just an arm of a conventional force- i.e. Vietnam, and then the war will end on the battlefield not in villages.

The lesson for the modern "counter-insurgent" is to leave foreigners alone and encourage the host government to be less corrupt, unfair or whatever else it's doing to set off a large enough number of people to be a significant problem. Then it becomes a local police problem. Latin America seems to have good examples of this process. It's worth a try in Iraq and Afghanistan.