Small Wars Journal

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

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 8:56am

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