No Enforcement of Rule of Law, No Tactical Defeat of the Insurgents

The Danish Army has been involved in protracted counterinsurgency campaigns now in both Iraq and Afghanistan with battalion-size units operating at the tactical level within a wider coalition frame. Despite the lack of a national doctrine for this type of operation, these units have sought to defeat insurgents while also engaging local communities, coordinating with government structures and supporting host nation security forces. The tactical successes have been many; however, the strategic effects have at times remained in a stalemate, as proper government authorities have failed to reach the areas that coalition and host nation forces have paid a high price securing.

Over the past year, politicians have become increasingly focused on Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Afghanistan and on supporting Afghan security forces in running their own operations. This change in priorities has significantly transformed both organisation and operations at the tactical level. Initially, our troops were organised to conduct their own operations, but now they are being organised towards supporting the host nation. It is a positive development and perhaps the only way towards concluding this kind of mission. But while acknowledging that this has been a continuous learning process, one may still wonder if perhaps this focus should be installed from the initial phase of any such mission and if it should be given more attention in our doctrine for the tactical-level units. Still, even the doctrine of our alliance partners is unclear on the military role in SSR and particularly when it comes to the lower tactical levels in the initial phases of the mission.

This article gives a brief introduction to the principles of insurgency and counterinsurgency to highlight the main characteristics and challenges for those readers unfamiliar with the details of them. It argues that merely securing areas with our troops will not be enough to defeat an insurgency locally, but that it is necessary to install law and order under the host nation government’s authority. Since law and order is often considered part of an SSR process, this article will discuss the difference between SSR and Security Sector Stabilisation (SSS). It argues that whereas the tactical-level units must have a very firm focus on establishing initial security through SSS activities, their role in SSR is more limited if not non-existent in the first stages of a mission. Finally, it will discuss briefly how the tactical-level units should integrate the SSS activities in operations as part of the step-by-step framework popularly known as clear-hold-build. It argues that if the capacity to install law and order locally is missing, the tactical-level units will have to provide the rule of law functions itself or accept that only the clear-phase can be conducted, otherwise it will risk undermining its own credibility and the authority of the local government.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency: Getting the priorities straight

Nato doctrine defines insurgency as ‘the actions of an organised, often ideologically motivated, group or movement that seeks to effect or prevent political change of a governing authority within a region, focused on persuading or coercing the population through the use of violence and subversion’. Insurgents seek to undermine the authority of the government while reinforcing the legitimacy of the insurgency. They do this both through persuasion and coercion of the local population to gain their support. Violence is a means to destabilise a country, causing the authorities to either collapse or overreact, and thereby reducing its popular support. Violence can also be used against the population, coercing it to remain neutral or provide support for the insurgents.[2]

This definition leads to the assumption that if only the core grievances[3] for the insurgency can be removed, then, theoretically, the insurgency will lose its cause and cease to exist. Addressing core grievances, however, is beyond the scope of any military operation. Military units have a supporting role in the comprehensive effort of addressing core grievances, but we need to keep in mind that military doctrine and operations are focused on defeating insurgents. Like any other army, insurgents are dependent on resources to sustain their operations. They can draw upon transnational support from interests groups abroad, and the local population can provide them with material and financial support, recruits, shelter, and intelligence. The population can provide this willingly, but as the definition suggests, it is often achieved through violence and subversion. The military focus in operations therefore becomes to deny the insurgents this support by isolating them from the population and making it difficult for them to threaten the local population. In the 1950s Malayan counterinsurgency campaign, British forces literally isolated the population from the insurgents by installing the threatened population in villages surrounded by barbed wire and a small garrison of police and military to protect them. Army and Special Forces then conducted patrols in the jungle in order to defeat the insurgents in what would otherwise have been their safe haven[4]. Turning villages into gated communities in today’s counterinsurgency scenarios, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, is probably an impossible task. The idea, however, remains the same: Establish law and order in the populated areas and provide human security while striking the insurgents in their safe havens.

Nato, UK and US doctrines all emphasize in their principles for counterinsurgency the political primacy and need for legitimacy, the unity and coordination of the military and civilian effort, the isolation of the insurgents, and that security under the rule of law is essential[5]. To restate this in simple terms, a counterinsurgency campaign must at all levels isolate the insurgents from the population and their resource bases while addressing the core grievances that drive the insurgency. A key element in this, which directly involves the tactical-level units, is to establish law and order under the authority of the local government.

Security Sector Reform and Security Sector Stabilisation: First things first

According to the OECD, SSR is defined as ‘seeking to increase partner countries’ ability to meet the range of security needs within their societies in a manner consistent with democratic norms and sound principles of governance, transparency and the rule of law. SSR includes, but extends well beyond, the narrower focus of more traditional security assistance on defence, intelligence and policing.’[6] SSR is, in other words, not merely a matter of building or downsizing a military or police force – it is about political reform. It is about ensuring that the state upholds law and order on its own territory efficiently, that it is financially sustainable and in accordance with good governance principles as well as the needs and beliefs of the civil society for whom it is there to protect. It includes the legislative, judicial and executive powers, and therefore not only police or military, but also government bodies, courts, prisons, private security companies, and civil society bodies.

SSR can be particularly critical to consolidate the peace and stability in a post-conflict state. Over the past decade SSR has received increased attention in both Iraq and Afghanistan as it is believed to address both the security issue as well as the core grievances. However, development and reform of state institutions as well as the strengthening of the relationship between state institutions and civil society require a certain level of security. In the article “A Model for Security Sector Stabilisation in Counterinsurgency Operations: Case Afghanistan”, P.D. Thruelsen argues that because SSR was not originally developed as an element in stabilising a state undergoing an insurgency, but is used for exactly that, the short-term objectives of establishing security can endanger the long-term process of actual and sustainable reform. In a counterinsurgency campaign the need for security initially becomes a matter of expanding, training, and equipping the state’s security forces. Thruelsen therefore argues that ‘the baseline will ultimately have to be Security Sector Stabilisation (SSS) as precondition for complete SSR implementation’. He further argues that conflicting interests between providing security rapidly and reforming institutions while involving civil society will complicate the implementation, often resulting in fragile and stand-alone solutions[7]. It is therefore necessary to make a clear distinction between SSR and SSS, as the military role is significantly different in the two. For the tactical-level units in a counterinsurgency campaign it becomes a matter of Security Sector Stabilisation, not Reform.

The military role in security sector reform and stabilisation: The problems down in the mud

Nato, UK, and US doctrines for counterinsurgency all emphasize the need for developing the host-nation’s security forces and all make reference to the principles of SSR and SSS. The American field manual on counterinsurgency has a chapter devoted to this theme under the title “Developing Host Nation Security Forces”, which states the purpose clearly with this quotation: ‘Helping others to help themselves is critical to winning the long war’[8]. All doctrines have a clear focus on building, training, equipping, and mentoring or advising the host nation’s military and police. The doctrines are focused on creating more forces that can fight insurgents, but they remain unclear of what our tactical-level units are to do in order to ensure either the short-term stabilisation or the long-term reformation, or both. Increasing the total level and the efficiency of the security forces is a very good start, but not necessarily enough to isolate the insurgents from the population’s active or tacit support, nor reduce the core grievances.

This is perhaps the crux of the problem that tactical-level units have been facing in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Battalion or company sized units occupy new areas and defeat all insurgents opposing them.  Bases are built, regular patrolling commenced, and liaison is established with the local community. If not already there, host nation military units or police arrive later and join the patrolling. There are, however, no other government or state bodies present in the area, and the civil society therefore continues to function on its traditional principles. After a while, the insurgents become fully aware of our unit’s operational patterns, and occasionally they harass patrols and checkpoints in order to inflict losses. The insurgents prove to the local population that they can oppose the security forces, and the attrition makes our troops and homelands weary and impatient. The damage inflicted on civilians and their property in these encounters makes the environments insecure for the local population. In the meantime, insurgents operate among the people as non-combatants and out of sight of the security forces. The local population continues to be coerced – at a minimum into remaining neutral, but in most cases into actively supporting the insurgents through the provision of food, shelter, and money. At times, the situation even reaches a point where the local population wants the security forces to withdraw so that combat activities will cease. Even though highly-trained coalition forces are present in the area, there is no formal enforcement of the rule of law. If the local population wishes to report a crime to the local authorities, there are none – or those that are may still be dysfunctional and corrupt. The insurgents exploit this and act instead as the governing authority as they can exert justice swiftly and in accordance with local customs – perhaps even with satisfactory outcomes for all parties involved. When the presence of the security forces cannot extend the host nation government’s authority through the establishment of law and order, it fails to provide security for the local population and fails to promote the government’s legitimacy.

What often seems to happen is that the tactical-level units get bogged down. The environment is still non-permissive for state bodies and development organisations to commence the political, economic, and social activities as well as proper law enforcement. The tactical-level units are efficient in combat operations but cannot install rule of law by their own means. Instead, Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) units undertake various projects with the civil society, promoting the image of the security forces and trying to win the hearts and minds of the locals. While kind-hearted in their nature, and used for publicity in our homelands, these CIMIC projects often aim at winning consent for the coalition force rather than promoting the authority of the local government. The local population therefore has to balance its engagement with the security forces with that of the insurgents. One day soon, the security forces will have left the area and the insurgents will be the only authority remaining. The security forces try to offer the carrot, but all along it is the insurgents that have the stick. The words of John Wayne describe well the approach of the insurgents: “If you’ve got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow.”

Integrating security sector stabilisation with tactical-level unit operations: New sheriff in town

Nato, UK, and US counterinsurgency doctrines provide a simple step-by-step framework for operations: the three phases of Clear, Hold, and Build[9]. The logic is simple: A geographical area of importance to the overall campaign is selected and military forces are employed to clear it for insurgents and to secure the area. Once cleared, military forces hold the area so that host nation security forces gradually can take over the responsibility for upholding security and keeping the insurgents out. Once host nation government bodies and security forces have been installed, the focus changes to the actual development effort that addresses the core grievances and builds the government’s legitimacy and capability.

The theory is simple, but as stated above, the problem seems to be that the tactical-level units often get bogged down in the hold phase. The problem can be two-fold: 1) Military units initiate a clear phase well before means have been made available for a hold phase. The units thereby overstretch their own and the host nation’s capacity and undermine their credibility as a force capable of providing security. 2) The military units are running along with their own campaign plan detached from the broader governance institutions within the host nation. This may be because the units seek to stress the insurgents by denying them safe havens, or because there is a political pressure to clear and secure certain areas. The result, however, can be that they undermine national control, ownership, and the long-term objectives of reforming the security sector as a whole. Naturally, all sorts of compromises have to be made when fighting an insurgency while being under pressure to produce visible results. At this point, however, it is necessary to balance short-term priorities with long-term objectives, and to set the level of ambition according to actual capacity.

Prior to the clear phase, a unit at any level must define carefully what it sets out to achieve before it launches its operation. If clear of insurgent presence in an area is necessary for the long-term objectives, then the means to hold must be made available first. If the host nation does not yet have this capacity, the tactical-level unit should lower its level of ambition – for example by conducting raids with the limited objective of striking the insurgents, but not securing the area. Alternatively, the unit itself must install rule of law under what would in fact be martial law – i.e. the imposition of military rule by military authorities on an emergency basis when civilian authorities fail to function effectively. Agreeing upon objectives, coordinating with, supporting and training host nation security forces and local governance institutions therefore becomes a vital part of the shaping prior to commencing a clear-hold-build operation.

The clear phase is perhaps the most straightforward phase and what our units are best suited for. The clear phase will typically be carried out an offensive operation with the aim of defeating any armed resistance and securing the area. Whether our forces are in a lead or supporting role to host nation security forces, or carry it out alone, will depend on the host nation’s capacity. Active involvement of the host nation authorities and ownership of the clear phase should of course be given priority.

The hold phase is where security for the local population is established through the establishment of law and order. This is where local military or police start taking over the law enforcement and rule of law bodies must start functioning – such as a local governing authority and justice bodies. There is no Security Sector Reform taking place in this phase, but it is strictly a matter of introducing a formal, even if rudimentary, security sector into the area – i.e. Security Sector Stabilisation. Ideally, the role of tactical-level units in this phase is to support local governance, justice and police – or military – in enforcing rule of law. This can be done through daily mentoring or advising both in the field and in the offices, as well as supporting when carrying out operations to find or strike insurgent cells. If, however, the unit is taking the lead role in the hold phase, it should be because the area is being controlled under martial law. This implies that tactical-level units must perform the functions of local administration, police, courts, and prisons – functions which our units are not traditionally trained nor staffed for. What is decisive for the hold phase, however, is that the ungoverned space – or power vacuum created after the insurgents were expelled – is filled out quickly by formal rule of law bodies. In other words, it must be made clear that there is a new sheriff in town – an authority that represents the legitimate government.

The build phase can begin when the necessary host nation governance and security bodies are in place and when law and order has been established so that government institutions and non-governmental organisations can start rebuilding and developing local economy, infrastructures, and civil society. Our tactical-level units are to be exclusively in a supporting role. It is also in the build phase that actual SSR activities start taking place, which have the aim of establishing effective governance, oversight, and accountability in the security system, improving the delivery of services and ensuring its sustainability. This is where we need to be realistic in our expectations to the role of tactical-level units – they are combat units that can coordinate, support, train, and advise host nation security forces, but they cannot reform a local security sector, develop institutions, or empower the civil society.


At the tactical level, combat units carrying out clear-hold-build operations must retain a careful focus on establishing law and order that will protect the local population. The British doctrine manual for stability operations sums this up neatly in its definition of protecting the population: ‘Where the state lacks the capability or will to meet human security needs, individuals tend to transfer loyalty to any group that promises to meet those needs, including adversarial groups such as insurgents and foreign fighters, as well as belligerents and opportunists. These groups can exploit human insecurity by providing money, basic social services and a crude form of justice. Winning the contest for human security therefore, is fundamental to the development of host nation government authority and, ultimately security of the state.’[10] Units at the tactical level can be employed to conduct operations against insurgents to disrupt them, degrade their numbers, and deny them freedom of movement and their safe havens. However, these activities are not enough to provide human security and often not even enough to isolate the insurgents from the population. When securing an area, unit commanders therefore need to keep in mind that the insurgents are still there among the population, coercing them and drawing upon their support. Rule of law is the key to human security so that the local population, as citizens, have an authority to turn to when they are being threatened, stolen from, forced to labour, or have witnessed criminal activity.

All operations must, of course, be tightly interwoven with the host nation’s authorities and security forces’ operations. It is, after all, their country and their territory. Tactical-level units play an important role in the Security Sector Stabilisation, which has the aim of enabling essential and minimum security functions to be established and maintained[11]. Security Sector Reform, however, has a different, much broader, and political aim, which is to enable good governance, proper service delivery, and financial sustainability in the security sector. The tactical-level units’ capacity and role in SSR activities are therefore limited – their focus remain on providing security, either themselves or in conjunction with the host nation’s security forces. Political and strategic decision-makers must keep in mind that tactical-level units are not employed to conduct Security Sector Reform, nor run or coordinate all the strings of a counterinsurgency campaign. Tactical-level units conduct combat operations against insurgents and work to provide human security for the local population in conjunction with the host nation’s security forces – they work to stabilise the situation so that other actors can enter the area and commence development, reconstruction, and reform.

In a counterinsurgency campaign, however, merely securing an area with tactical units is not enough to provide human security. It requires proper law enforcement and justice bodies or the insurgents will otherwise continue to work in the shadows and fill out the ungoverned space. If the host nation’s rules of law bodies are inadequate or still non-existent, the power vacuum has to be filled out by other means. Other means may essentially end up being the responsibility of even tactical-level units, which will then have to install martial law locally while promoting the authority of the legitimate government. If rule of law is not installed, tactical-level units end up getting bogged down in a continuous clear phase, where the fight against the insurgents become a local war of attrition – a war the insurgents will have won the moment the units are transferred elsewhere. Decision-makers at all levels need to be conscious of this riling dilemma that merely sending our combat units will not be enough, but installing an immediate even if rudimentary authority that can uphold rule of law is key. Basic and immediate law and order may, if necessary, have to be provided through local martial law, where combat units take on the temporary role of the local government, the judge, the police, and the prison. Our units are not trained or staffed for these functions, but in the future it may be the focus of CIMIC and other supporting elements.

PDF med originaludgaven af Militært Tidskrift hvor denne artikel er fra:



[1] This article was written as part of the Conflict Management module at the Senior Joint Staff Course, Royal Danish Defence College, in May 2011, where the author was a student. In 2009, prior to Senior Joint Staff Course and Army General Staff Course, the author was Executive Officer and assistant to the Commander of the Danish Battlegroup in Helmand, Afghanistan.

[2] Nato “AJP-3.4.4 Allied Joint Doctrine for Counterinsurgency” (Ratification Draft 2, 2010), para. 0302-3

[3] Nato doctrine discusses core grievances more in detail in AJP 3-4.4 para. 309

[4] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force. London: Penguin Group, 2006, p. 204

[5] Nato “AJP-3.4.4 Allied Joint Doctrine for Counterinsurgency” (Ratification Draft 2, 2010), para. 0333 (Nato doctrine refers to these principles as attributes); UK Ministry of Defence, “AC71749 Part 10 Counterinsurgency Operations” (Issue 2), March 2007, ch. 3 para. 5; U.S. Army, ”FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency”, December 2006, para. 1-112 to 1-147

[6] Global Facilitation Forum for Security Sector Reform, “A Beginner’s Guide to Security Sector Reform (SSR)”, December 2007,

[7] Thruelsen, Peter Dahl, A Model for Security Sector Stabilisation in Counterinsurgency Operations: Case Afghanistan. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Defence College, 2011, pp. 1, 4-10

[8] U.S. Army, ”FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency”, December 2006, p. 6-1

[9] Clear-Hold-Build has its origins from the Malayan campaign. It has been used widely in both Iraq in Afghanistan and since then been written into US doctrine and now also Nato doctrine. British doctrine for stability operations name the phases Secure-Hold-Develop (UK JDP 3-40).

[10] UK Ministry of Defence, “X JDP 3-40 Security and Stabilisation: The Military Contribution” (Ratification Draft, 2009), para. 513

[11] Thruelsen, Peter Dahl, A Model for Security Sector Stabilisation in Counterinsurgency Operations: Case Afghanistan. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Defence College, 2011, pp. 1, 4-10