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Phil Walter's Five Rules for Counterinsurgency from a U.S. Perspective

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Phil Walter's Five Rules for Counterinsurgency from a U.S. Perspective

Phil Walter

On December 19, 2018, United States President Donald Trump ordered the withdraw of U.S. military personnel from Syria[1].  On December 21, 2018, Trump also ordered the withdraw of approximately half of the 14,000 military personnel currently deployed to Afghanistan[2].  The optimist in me hopes that Trump's decisions mark the beginning of the end of 17 years of wars that pursued unachievable political objectives, were conducted in a manner counter to the U.S. preference for and competency in state-on-state warfare, and were an unjust[3] expenditure of lives and treasure.  The pessimist in me wonders if Trump will follow through on these decisions.

As I am prone to do, and in order to be as useful to the reader as possible, I have distilled all my thoughts related to counterinsurgency in the five rules below. Please note that these are not guidlines, not principles, but rules[4]. As such, adherence to these rules is not optional, unless you desire to fail. My greatest hope is that the U.S. does not engage in counterinsurgency ever again and thus my five rules are never needed.  My long experience tells me that the U.S. will absolutely engage in counterinsurgency again and I hope my five rules below can be of value whenever that time comes.       

1.  Don't do counterinsurgency.  Better to let the insurgents win and then engage their newly-formed country in state-on-state warfare, a U.S. strength, than to play the game the insurgent prefers.

2.  If you choose to engage in counterinsurgency, your local partner must be credible in the eyes of the population.  If your local partner is not credible in the eyes of the population, your efforts will only delay the inevitable insurgent victory and waste your blood and treasure in the process.

3.  The credible local partner must give the population something to fight for more than something to fight against. 

4.  The control exerted by your forces and that of the credible local partner must utilize the highest levels of discretion and be done in a way that is compatible with the culture.

5.  Deny safe haven by removing all borders from all maps associated with the counterinsurgency campaign and pursuing the insurgents wherever they may be.

End Notes

[1] DeYoung, K. (2018, December 19). Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria startles aides and allies. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from

[2] Lamothe, D., Dawsey, J., Ryan, M., & Sonne, P. (2018, December 21). Trump orders major military withdrawal from Afghanistan as Mattis departs. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from

[3] Johnson, J. T. (2017, June 15). Just War Theory (Encyclopedia Britannica). Retrieved December 27, 2018, from

[4] Definition of "Rule". (n.d.). Retrieved from

Categories: counterinsurgency - COIN

About the Author(s)

Phil Walter is the founder of Divergent Options.  Phil has served in the infantry, the United States Intelligence Community, and in strategy, policy, and program analyst roles.  All of his written works and podcasts, which do not contain information of an official nature, can be found at


If we are going to discuss "counterinsurgency from a U.S. perspective," then I suggest we must do so as follows: 

a.  From the perspective of discrediting, undermining and eliminating the alternative (i.e., the non-modern western) ways of life, ways of governance, values, attitudes and beliefs of other states and societies,  

b.  From the perspective of preventing others (for example, the communists and/or the Islamists) from installing THEIR alternative non-western ways of life, ways of governance and values, attitudes, etc., in these and other locales.  And

c.  From the perspective of installing, in the place of these, only OUR OWN modern western way of life, way of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs throughout the world.  

Note that in the "counterinsurgency from a U.S. perspective" that I offer here, one should be able to clearly see, understand and explain to others:

a.  Not only our counterinsurgency efforts in the Old Cold War and since then.  But, indeed,

b.  The actual drive and focus of U.S./Western grand strategy since at least the end of World War II?

(Accordingly, with my information above as our guide, how now do we see our author above's "Five Rules of Counterinsurgency From a U.S. Perspective?")


Sun, 01/13/2019 - 12:43am

The part of strategy in guerrilla war that the US has forgotten is that without supplies, guerrillas die. Guerrillas don't have the luxury of growing food or manufacturing ammunition for themselves.  They're on the run.  Rangers in the American Colonies originally got their name because they ranged through Indian territory and attacked Indian farming villages, which were the base of Indian supplies.  The US beat the Plains Indians by almost exterminating the American buffalo, which the Plains Indians used for food, clothing and shelter.  Hunting the American buffalo to extinction was an intentional strategy originally proposed by General William T. Sherman.  It was carried out ruthlessly, and it worked exactly as planned.  The Plains Indians moved onto reservations because they had nothing to eat.

As a former Air Force Systems Analyst Officer (1972-1976), the part of Vietnam that I remember is that in 11 days of unrestricted bombing and air dropped mines, Operation Linebacker II put all of North Vietnam's ports out of business.  This cut off all supplies, because the Red Chinese skimmed 90% plus of what was shipped overland.  If Linebacker II had been launched in 1965 instead of December, 1972, it would have saved a lot of lives and made Counter Insurgency (COIN) a lot more effective, a lot earlier.  We lost in Vietnam because between 1973 and 1975 Congress cut aid to South Vietnam by 75% and outlawed US air strikes anywhere in Southeast Asia.  Congress and the American people lost patience with the Vietnam War.  If we had bombed in 1965 and kept bombing, we would not have had Congress outlaw air strikes after we had won in 1967 or 1968.

Recently, we have watched ISIS go from strong to dead because we eliminated their source of income, oil sales, by bombing their tanker trucks, oil fields and oil handling facilities.  I don't mean to make light of the combat efforts it took to eliminate ISIS, but I do want to point out that ISIS was far less formidable broke than they were when they were rich.  Eliminating their financial resources made them far easier to defeat.

Which brings us to Afghanistan.  The Taliban runs on opium sales.  Everybody knows it.  To eliminate the Taliban, we need to eliminate their opium sales.  We can either legalize opium world wide, which would lower the value of the opium sold, or we can destroy all Taliban opium exports coming out of Afghanistan.  Since legalizing opium is highly unlikely, the only alternative is destroying all opium exports.  Anything less and we still have a rich Taliban who can hire soldiers and pay for food, guns and ammo.  We haven't done this because Afghanistan's main foreign exchange earning export is illegal opium sales.  However, unless we do something about Taliban opium, the best outcome we can hope for in Afghanistan is a steady state of what the Israelis call "mowing the lawn."  We can use air power and special forces to limit the Taliban to controlling 40% of Afghanistan.  We can't win in Afghanistan unless the Taliban can't sell their opium to finance operations. 

To defeat the Taliban, we would have to eradicate opium systematically, using air power, in all areas the Taliban controls or even partially controls.  If the Taliban controls your poppy field, the US will destroy your crop.  If you want to keep your crop, keep the Taliban out of your area.  Otherwise, the US puts napalm on your poppies.  Displaced farmers will move to areas under government control.  There will be no people, and no money, for the Taliban to use to support their operations.  At that point, COIN (COunter INsurgency operations) will work a whole lot better.

100% agree Bill M. Reality usually makes "rules" irrelevant. In a perfect world I wouldn't do COIN in a country that doesn't have a functioning government either... but until politicians start following someone's "rules"- then I guess we'll have to figure out how to do what we're asked...   

I don't find the recommendations realistic. I certainly agree if it is internal manner, then we shouldn't intervene and more often than not we don't.  If it is an insurgency that an adversary of the U.S. supports, and it gives that adversary a position of advantage then it may be wise to conduct foreign internal defense operations to support the government. There are very few times that a government is considered legitimate by the entire population. We overstate legitimacy, and it is the focus on legitimacy that too often leads to policy aims that are unattainable. Fighting for or against both provide motivation, one is not superior to the other. We like to dispense with the war paradigm when countering insurgencies, but insurgencies are wars and force more than any other factor will determine their outcome. I agree that the use of military should be as surgical as practical and applied in a way to compel a decision.  Hard to do if we violate cultural norms, which will simply harden resistance.  Denying safe havens and sanctuaries remains critical, yet we still tie our hands in this regard and pay the price with forever wars. 

At the end of the day we must accept unpleasant realities.

"Counterinsurgency success requires the use of force against civilians and the accommodation of rival elites, sometimes including those responsible for horrific acts. By contrast, good governance reforms are unnecessary and often unattainable. Before intervening to support client states’ counterinsurgency efforts, Western policymakers should assess the value of keeping client elites in power compared to the high moral and human costs of a successful counterinsurgency campaign."

Jeff Goodson

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 10:27am


There were 181 insurgencies between the end of World War II and 2015.  Of those, 143 have concluded.  The government won 36%, insurgents won 35%, and 29% were a draw.  The other 38 are still ongoing. 

I would argue that a far more realistic rule for counterinsurgency operations is this:  Before engaging in counterinsurgency, read Seth Jones' 2017 book "Waging Insurgent Warfare."  Then read it again.  Absorb what it has to say.  Then proceed.