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Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion

Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion
To cite this article: Owen, William F., “Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 2, Spring 2011, pages 12-15.

“If the people of Georgia raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking.”

William Techumseh Sherman, in a letter from 1864

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.

Carl Von Clausewitz, “On War” – Book II, Chapter 7.

The purpose of this article is to argue that the destruction of the enemy’s forces lies at the heart of countering both terrorism and insurgency.[i] Nothing here is original or insightful, since such assertions were once statements of the obvious. At the time of writing, they no longer are. Insurgency and terrorism are defeated primarily through killing and capturing those who participate in it.

It is not the aim of this article to advance or discuss why many do not agree with this obvious and enduring fact. Rather, it is to lay out the case that any policy that seeks to have a terrorist organisation or an insurgency cease their pursuit of an objective via armed violence, should focus on the physical attrition of such groups as being the primary contribution of force to gaining such a policy goal.

The words “terrorism” and “insurgency” are only used here to denote the difference given to them by common usage. Neither is a rigorous or useful term for what is best described as “armed rebellion.”

Countering armed rebellion – what’s the policy?

Any government that faces armed rebellion will usually first make it clear that it will not alter any existing policy or re-distribute political power because of armed threats made against it. It may have to alter that position subsequently, but generally speaking, most governments will strongly resist any policy being dictated to them via violence, and rightly so. It seems fair to suggest that getting any armed opposition to unconditionally cease violent action will form the core of any reasonable policy. If the policy is merely to achieve a cessation of violence, then this can be achieved by appeasement or acquiescence to the enemy’s demands. Thus the strategy should actually be to force the enemy to give up fighting, by breaking their will to persist in the endeavour.

The most appropriate initial policy should thus seek an “unconditional and permanent cessation of violence” from all or any violent actors except the government. If that goal proves elusive within the time and resources that the policy deems reasonable, or the political will to endure in combat evaporates, then the policy will have to alter. This will most likely occur when bad tactics fail and/or undermine the policy. This situation would thus create conditions where a negotiated settlement would seem appropriate. However if the rebels are still actively conducting operations, then the strategy has already failed and the enemy has benefited from armed violence. This will nearly always have negative implications for the future.

So the policy should always be to force the armed enemy group to renounce violence. This essentially means delivering much the same effect as unconditional surrender, though it may not use those terms. However emphasis should be placed on forcing compliance, not merely requesting it, though procedures by which the rebels can request a cease-fire should always be in place.

So the strategic objective set forth by such a policy will generally be most effectively achieved by killing and capturing those using violence. Who will (or will not) need killing or detaining will be a critical detail at the tactical level, but the strategy will be one of attrition. This strategy has to be realised in tactics; and the tactics chosen will be specific actions that kill or capture those who are instrumental to and/or materially supportive of illegal violent opposition to government policy.

Therefore the precise nature of the tactics and against whom they are applied will have to support the policy. Killing and detaining the wrong people will at best be irrelevant to achieving the policy, or at worst catastrophically undermine it. Killing and detention will always be violently and even non-violently opposed by those who share the policy objectives of the terrorists or insurgents, but this is inherent to all forms of armed conflict. Importantly and explicitly, the aim is to kill and/or capture the rebels, while leaving the civilians un-harmed.

Moral and legal objections – the problem with “hearts and minds”

Very few of the often cited objections to killing and capturing terrorists or insurgents are ever supportive of the idea that killing and capturing the enemy does not deliver the policy objective. More often than not the argument does not resides in the issue of killing and capturing insurgents and terrorists itself, but rather in the issue of killing and detaining the wrong people and thus undermining a policy that supposedly relies on the political support of the population. Indeed, the often-used phrase “winning hearts and minds” means nothing more than gaining the political support of the population. This means the population supports the government.

Yet it does not in and of itself deliver the policy. That the population supports the government may be irrelevant. Armed force means that the insurgents can coerce the population and gain support via intimidation. Terrorists may not even require any significant population support at all. Lenin said one man with can gun can control 100 without one. No social program, promise of protection, provision of services or education can deliver 100% of the population, or even 90%. 1 percent of a 3 million population is 30,000 people who could support an insurgency. 0.1 percent is 3,000. That 99.9 percent may support the government is thus irrelevant. Criminal gangs operate in cities all over the worlds using this principle. Indeed, the example of criminal gangs is highly relevant.

Terrorism and insurgency are crimes. Regardless of the specific act, when perpetrated it usually contravenes one or more laws relevant to the time and place of the offence. This is not to make an attempt at defining terrorism or insurgency. The sole point here is that regardless of the political motivation or its justification, the killing and/or destruction inherent to violently furthering a political cause within a state usually breaches existing legislation. Thus, those doing so are criminals in the eyes of the law. No emotional rationalisation can alter this. Therefore inciting or assisting in the performance of these acts should, or usually does, attract legal sanction.

So how does an insurgency differ from terrorism? The distinctions that exist are essentially arbitrary and not fit for purpose[ii]. Differentiating between terrorism and insurgency is pointless and largely pseudo-intellectual. The idea that “counter-terrorism” is somehow distinct from “counter-insurgency” is an idea not held to rigour; it is extremely subjective, politically motivated and usually self-serving.

Insurgency and terrorism are both forms of armed rebellion, and both are always illegal within the jurisdictions they operate. Both are criminal activities, be it planting a bomb at a bus stop, or conducting an attack on an army base. The armed rebellions that have delivered decisive results have almost always had to employ armed force at a level that requires a military response to counter. However, military action by irregular forces[iii] is almost always illegal in terms of the law of the state within and/or against which they are perpetrated. Regardless of whether the government employs military forces or not, the rule of law is how the authority of the state is expressed. In this respect, the differentiation between “insurgency” and “terrorism” is useless. Both are defeated by the same strategy of attrition, albeit appropriately modified by the context of policy.

Violent challenges to government control, as expressed by the rule of law, cannot be allowed. Nor can the incitement or support of such challenges be allowed to go un-punished. War and rebellion are not legal conditions. They are violent contests for political power. The law is merely an expression of that power. Governments spend a great deal of time crafting legislation. Law is not inherently either just or ethical. It merely “is”. Some laws may make it “illegal” to hold a certain faith or to own property if you have a particular ethnic background. That is not the concern here. The issue is that violent opposition to the authority and/or policy of the state can never be tolerated, either internally or from other states or political entities. The counter to such a threat, a state must seek the destruction of the enemies’ armed force. When those armed force are also the source of the violent political discourse that has been set forth to counter state policy, this need is all the greater.

Friction – quantifying tactical objectives for a strategy of attrition

Seeking to destroy the enemy, as an armed force, is a clear strategic objective to deliver the unconditional cessation of armed action by the enemy. Thus the strategy is one of attrition. The actual physical destruction of an entire organisation is usually not possible, or even necessary. You merely have to kill and detain enough of the enemy to break the individual and collective will of their armed wing and/or leadership to persist. No enemy is untameable in terms of attrition or exhaustion. In this respect so-called rebels are no different from regular armies.

However, unlike regular armies, here the focus of force is usually best realised at the individual level. You can deny ground, and seize objectives. Indeed it may be necessary to do so. Yet it is the tactical objective of the “body count”, both living and dead, that delivers strategic success, which in turn serves the policy. Logically, you can kill and capture your way to success, if this is done well enough to break their collective will to endure. After all, rebels essentially aim to kill enough people to break the will of a government or population to resist their policy. Therefore, the reverse is also true. This is supported by 3,000 years of political and military history.

While this is logically simple, it is incredibly hard to execute the tactics to deliver such a result. The strategy of killing and capturing to support a policy of “unconditional cessation” requires a very precise execution of tactics, because the levels of force usually have to be restricted to ensure that those not guilty of challenging the authority of the government remain un-harmed. Sometimes they will be, but the percentage of innocent civilians killed as a result of the governments armed action should be kept to a minimum, as a matter of utmost urgency. However, a balance must be struck between rewarding the terrorists’ or insurgents’ use of the population to restrict the use of armed force, and the effective prosecution of operations. Policy is generally best served by killing those seen to victimise the population, therefore the government should not be part of that victimisation process. In this regard cultural understanding need only extend to being aware of what actions may and may not cause unnecessary offence to civilians.

It would thus seem wise to try and exclude the population from the competition. The population is not the prize. The population is the audience. The prize is the control that the unchallenged rule of law creates. In this competition, you win because the other team are dead or have run away. Support does not create power. Unchallenged power creates support. The population will support the team they know will win. While fighting persists, the winner may not be clear. For the population, the wining team is the team that provides the beneficial rule of law and security. Allowing the population to remain separate from the actual armed struggle may have benefits in this regard.

Identifying and finding the enemy is thus of extremely high importance. Who needs to be killed and/or captured and why, is the domain of the intelligence professional. The population are more likely to provide actionable information to the team they believe will win than the one they think will lose. A substantial intelligence effort must be combined with a clear understanding of what constitutes illegal or unacceptable challenges to government authority. Owning firearms may not be illegal. It may even normal. Thus there must be a sound legal basis for the employment of armed force to kill or capture. This is a requirement that cannot be avoided, as enforcing the law is the expression of government power.

Thus, the body count should reflect both a rigorous and evidence-based approach to determining who you have either detained and/or killed and why. Done badly, by poorly trained soldiers, a body count may be entirely counter-productive. Yet a good army will be able to effectively employ a body count methodology.

In addition, the mechanics of detention must account for both detaining those convicted of crimes and those detained because they were captured during or after armed action. Taking part in illegal armed action should be an offence and attract a considerable sentence. It will also contribute to the denial of manpower to the enemy and the breaking of their will, both individually and collectively.

The military guidelines called “rules of engagement” (ROE) should provide the legal basis for the government’s use of violence in support of policy. Policy demands that the enemy unconditionally surrender in the same way that law demands that a murderer does the same. ROE ensure that the tactics do not harm the policy, whilst aiding the government’s expression of its power and control. Power and control should be efficient and effective, not clumsy and useless. Populations which are threatened are best secured by killing those who might seek to harm them, or exercise control over them.

Delivering the political objective

So, the number of dead or detained is the tactical result. It is not an actual measure of success. While the body count should be aimed at accurately accounting for and exploiting who has been killed or captured, it does not signify the gaining of the political objective. The political objective is delivered by the reduction in effective enemy action. How many armed attacks government forces suffer, and how many casualties they sustain are critical in gauging the progress of your operations. High or rising casualties amongst the government’s own forces may bear excessively on policy. This is hardly surprising, as the enemy’s main objective is to pressure government policy by causing casualties, both military and civilian. It could also be claimed that normal levels of activity and commerce amongst the civilian population are indicators of progress. This is only true if that activity is widespread, sustained and enduring. Afterall, commercial activity may also thrive in areas under rebel control.

Progress will be indicated in the reduction of violence to a sustainable and acceptable level. If the rebels cannot usefully kill and destroy in the furtherance of their strategy, then they will soon become irrelevant. Irrelevance will usually erode their political will to endure in the conflict. Thus their defeat may often be more a function of exhaustion rather than destruction, but they will only become exhausted due to constant and unrelenting pressure to visit harm upon them. Seeking destruction can and does deliver exhaustion.

The idea that armed rebellion is best countered by addressing the cause of the rebellion is a diversion. Governments may wish to alter specific policies to address the desires of all or some of their population, but this should only do so once the armed rebellion is defeated. Victory is not achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency[iv]. Victory is achieved when the insurgency has ceased to conduct violence because those prosecuting it are either dead, detained or hiding in fear of their lives. The aim should be to make the populations’ active or passive support of the violence irrelevant. The acknowledged existence of the dead, detained and suppressed should have a deterrent effect on those who may consider using violent means. Indeed, history proves it does.

Additionally, legitimacy is purely subjective. Legitimacy is not, in and of itself a requirement. The objective is always the securing of the political aim. That political aim is always both legitimate and ethical. No nation or political body has ever advanced a policy it believed unethical and/or illegitimate. Policy is, by definition, what people believe to be necessary, and therefore right. Thus, legitimacy is inherent within the given the context of its existence. Conversely, a people under occupation may never believe the occupation to be legitimate. A nation forced to adopt democracy may never believe democracy to be a legitimate form of government, but if another nation believes it should be, then it must be forced upon them and violent opposition skilfully suppressed and destroyed. If armed force is not part of the political debate, then there is simply normal political debate, conducted within legal means. Illegal non-violent means are a strictly political problem, in terms of the action best taken to counter such activity.

Thus, the rule of law is how government control must express itself. Those abusing the rule of law for matters of self-interest are working against the government and should be considered as such and dealt with appropriately. Likewise, the rebels can only seek to set forth their own policy via laws and rules that they are able to enforce. This may appear as a competition between two forms of jurisdiction, thus the false assertion that rebels do not win by outfighting, but “out governing”.[v] The dead and detained cannot govern. Killing the enemy leaves the government in control. Once in control, control must be applied or else it will cease to exist. However, gaining control is critical.


Given the logic of the need to destroy the enemy, it could be argued that armies which are not primarily focussed on the destruction of the enemy are those lacking the skill, and/or time, resources and political will to do so. When faced with armed rebellion the policy of forced unconditional and permanent cessation of violence by the enemy is what any government requires before any other policy can be sought. That objective is most likely to be delivered by the physical attrition of the rebel’s armed forces while, where possible, reducing any negative effect of armed operations on the governments own population. Armed force must be applied against armed force to ultimately achieve government control, expressed by the rule of law.


[i] The author would like to acknowledge the work of Carl von Clausewitz in the production of this article.
[ii] It is noteworthy that the British in Malaya referred to the enemy as “terrorists,” and not Insurgents This was also the case in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kenya, Oman and Rhodesia (by the Rhodesians). All may have been “counter-insurgency” campaigns, but that was utterly academic to the men on the ground.
[iii] Irregular forces are defined here as non-state forces, usually lacking documentation, pay, formal training and a declared chain of command.
[iv] FM3-24 Para 1-14
[v] This aphorism is usually attributed to Bernard Fall.

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