An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2017

Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy: The Case for Courageous Restraint

Joseph H. Felter and Jacob N. Shapiro
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Military commanders in wartime have moral obligations to abide by international norms and humanitarian laws governing their treatment of noncombatants. How much risk to their own forces they must take to limit harm to civilians in the course of military operations, however, is unclear. The principle of proportionality in the law of armed conflict all but necessitates that they make a utilitarian calculation: potential harm to civilians must always be balanced against military value when considering actions that could hurt innocents. In asymmetric conflicts, such as most counterinsurgencies, information flows, collaboration, and ultimately the support of the local population can be key to achieving strategic objectives. Thus, limiting casualties to noncombatants and other actions that alienate the population in these types of conflicts is a key part of a winning strategy. The concept of “courageous restraint” was created to express this principle to NATO and U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.

JOSEPH H. FELTER is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Codirector of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel who led the International Security and Assistance Force, Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan. He has published articles in journals such as the Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Conflict Resolution, American Economic Review, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs.

JACOB N. SHAPIRO is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Codirector of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. He is the author of The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (2013) and coauthor of Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq (2016). His research has been published in a variety of academic and policy journals. Shapiro received the 2016 Karl Deutsch Award from ISA given to the scholar younger than forty or within ten years of earning a Ph.D. who has made the most significant contribution to the study of international relations.

How much risk combat troops must accept in order to avoid harming civilians has long been central to moral and legal arguments about just conduct during war, or jus in bello. In his seminal book Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer argues that it is a state’s duty to accept greater risks for its own military forces as a means to limit harm to noncombatants in the course of armed conflict. He provides a vignette from a World War I British soldier’s memoir for context in supporting this assertion. In this particular incident, Walzer describes a dilemma faced by British troops as they attempt to clear a French town of German soldiers hiding among some of its dwellings. When entering a home, the British soldiers had the choice of whether or not to shout a warning before throwing a grenade down the cellar stairs. This warning would alert civilian noncombatants that may be hiding there and give them the opportunity to make the British soldiers poised to engage with lethal force aware of their presence. Alternatively, however, this effort to safeguard civilians would also place the entering British troops at greater risk by giving any German soldiers that might also be hiding there the opportunity to attack first. The soldier who wrote the memoir admitted that attacking first would have felt like murder to him if it resulted in the death of an innocent French family member. According to Walzer’s subsequent analysis, soldiers in such cases are in fact obliged to assume increased risk and – in an effort to limit the expected costs in terms of civilian casualties – issue a verbal warning prior to engaging with a grenade.1

This World War I example rests on a moral argument. From a utilitarian perspective, however, if the British troops opted to make themselves safer by throwing the grenade without warning, it would matter little for the ultimate outcome of the conflict. While the resulting French civilian casualties would be tragic, might weigh heavily on the consciences of those responsible, and could potentially encourage in-kind retaliation from the Germans, they would be of little military consequence. In conventional interstate conflict, civilian casualties do little to inhibit the ability of military forces to mass firepower on enemy objectives, seize terrain, and ultimately achieve victory at the strategic level.

Asymmetric intrastate conflicts are different. In conflicts like those in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines, to name just a few, information flows, collaboration, and ultimately support of the local population are key to achieving strategic objectives. Limiting casualties to noncombatants and other actions that alienate the population have clear military value in such conflicts. But while military commanders in all types of war have moral obligations to abide by international norms and humanitarian laws governing their treatment of noncombatants, just how much risk to their own forces they must take on in the process is never completely clear. Indeed, the principle of proportionality in the law of armed conflict all but necessitates that they make a utilitarian calculation: potential harm to civilians must always be balanced against military value when considering actions that could hurt innocents. And if minimizing civilian casualties helps advance strategic goals in certain conflicts, then the standards for protection might be much higher.

These were the challenges that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was grappling with in Afghanistan in 2009. Protecting civilian lives had clear military value at a time when ISAF and the government of Afghanistan were competing with the Taliban for the allegiance and support of the population. Standards of action that entailed protections for civilians, which were appropriate for interstate wars, and met requirements under international law were not necessarily protective enough. That observation prompted senior leaders within the organization to call for greater restraint when engaging an enemy that operated in close proximity to the civilian population. This increased emphasis on limiting civilian casualties, what became known as courageous restraint, was deemed critical to achieving strategic success.

In this essay, we first describe the genesis of courageous restraint in Afghanistan and discuss the arguments made for it on moral and legal grounds, as well as in terms of the expected impact on the success of ISAF’s campaign. We then highlight the challenges it faced in execution at the tactical level. We conclude with a discussion of the enduring lessons that can be learned from ISAF’s experience implementing courageous restraint and its implications for the preparation and execution of future conflict.

In late spring 2009, nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban and drove Al Qaeda from its former safe havens, the United States remained at war and, by most measurable standards, the war was not going well. According to NATO/ISAF statistics, there was a 156 percent increase in attacks on Afghan government infrastructure for the period of January to May 2009 compared with January to May 2008; a 152 percent increase in complex attacks (those involving more than one means of attack, such as small arms plus IED, or more than twenty insurgents); and an increase of between 21 and 78 percent in total attacks across the five Regional Commands within Afghanistan.2  Newly elected President Barack Obama considered Afghanistan a war of necessity, not of choice like Iraq, but his administration, like much of the U.S. public, was not willing to expend American blood and resources indefinitely in pursuit of their campaign’s objectives.

In a very visible manifestation of the dissatisfaction with the status quo, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for the resignation of General David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, in early May 2009, citing the need for “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” on Afghanistan.3  Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, the storied Army Ranger and Special Operations Forces commander who led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2004 to 2008, was tapped as McKiernan’s replacement and leader of the new direction in Afghanistan. Shortly after taking command, he called for a comprehensive assessment of ISAF’s mission, objectives, and strategy.

Based on the findings of the June 2009 assessment, General McChrystal requested an additional forty thousand troops to “surge” to Afghanistan later that year and help provide much-needed physical security to facilitate the broader aspects of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign plan. Perhaps even more significant than calling for a troop increase, General McChrystal determined that ISAF needed to fundamentally change how it operated in Afghanistan down to the level of how soldiers and small units interacted with the populations living where they were deployed. Specifically, he was concerned with the impact of the mounting civilian casualties that ISAF was responsible for and his command’s relationship with the population it was ostensibly deployed to protect. Reflecting on this assessment, General McChrystal recalls, “I quickly came to the conclusion – and had been talking about this for years – if we didn’t change the Afghan people’s perceptions about our use of power, then we were going to lose them.”4 . . .

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  • 1Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 152 – 154.
  • 2International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, Unclassified Metrics (Kabul: International Security Assistance Force, May 2009).
  • 3Ann Scott Tyson, “Gen. David McKiernan Ousted as Top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, May 12, 2009,
  • 4Felter telephone interview with General Stanley McChrystal, May 24, 2015.