The 'Incendiary' Effect of White Phosphorous in Counter-Insurgency Operations

The Army Lawyer 84 (June 2010)

7 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2013

See all articles by Shane Reeves

Shane Reeves

United States Military Academy, West Point

Date Written: June 2010


Voluntarily choosing to restrain a specific means or method of warfare in furtherance of counter-insurgency strategy has contemporary precedent and is congruent with established doctrine. Requiring all white phosphorous use in contemporary counter-insurgency operations to comply with the heightened requirements articulated in Protocol III of the CCW is a clear policy decision, versus an international legal obligation, and is best communicated through a supplemental measure in theater-specific rules of engagement. Though establishing a policy barrier when international law allows for white phosphorous use may seem a subtle and insidious way to subvert a commander’s ability to conduct operations, in the counter-intuitive nature of COIN operations, reducing unnecessary force results in increased local support and eventual isolation of the insurgency. Victory comes from this isolation, not from physical destruction of the insurgent; thus, it is a mistake to view the limiting of a highly controversial weapon in counter-insurgency as an infringement upon force protection. Defeating an insurgency requires unorthodox approaches, and only the military force that is “able to overcome” the “institutional inclination to wage conventional war” can be successful.

Keywords: counter-insurgency, white phosphorous, Afghanistan, means and methods, warfare, law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, law of war, Conventional Weapons Treaty, rules of engagement

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Reeves, Shane, The 'Incendiary' Effect of White Phosphorous in Counter-Insurgency Operations (June 2010). The Army Lawyer 84 (June 2010), Available at SSRN:

Shane Reeves (Contact Author)

United States Military Academy, West Point ( email )

600 Thayer Rd
West Point, NY 10996
United States

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