Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

When counterinsurgency comes marching home

Published on 13 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024


Take up the White Man’s burden, In patience to abide, To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride; By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace– Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s Burden


I had not read this poem in the long time. It is so crass… Idly, I wonder whether Kipling wrote it in irony.

Whatever Kipling’s intent, one thing is sure. He failed to see the consequences of counterinsurgency abroad for liberties at home. Just as soldiers “come marching home,” so does the counterinsurgency. The results may transform the homeland, whatever the effect or success abroad.

Let’s begin with a historical example: fingerprints. Fingerprinting was developed in colonial India in order to identify illiterate masses.[1] Once its usefulness established, it became part and parcel of crime detection in the homeland. We have accepted the thin edge of the wedge: the police had begun to go beyond witness, seeking material evidence.[2]

Fast forward to today: under pressure to minimize collateral death among the population in which counterinsurgency actions take place, the military-industrial complex has developed an impressive array of “non-lethal tools” for control and to minimize “collateral damage.”. Here is a list – it is provisional, and probably incomplete:[3]

  • Invisible pain ray
  • Laser blinding ‘dazzler’
  • Tazer rifle
  • Calmative agents
  • Microwave MEDUSA
  • Ear-splitting siren.

Looking at it, one recognizes the same philosophy that underlies the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used in the recent past. As long as the target survives, somehow, the weapon is “non-lethal” and thus acceptable.[4]

Counterinsurgency is also a matter of intelligence. Exquisite maps have been developed tracing the social landscape in which such operations take place. Electronic surveillance is at the core. Again, this kind of map is now used to track social behavior in neighborhoods.


These instruments were developed and tested abroad to fight recognizable terror; now they are drifting back into the homeland. Police forces are acquiring them to prevent the (imagined) unpredictable.

Police work is being thoroughly transformed by counterintelligence experience. Various factors drive this process. First, fear of imported terror. Second, crowd control is in any case a high priority. Third, the process is technology- and institutionally-driven. Once surveillance structures are in place and populated by intelligent, dedicated, and ambitious people, prevention takes on a life of its own. There is no logical limit to prevention: worst-case scenarios – Dick Cheney’s 1% doctrine cannot be rationally challenged[5] since it rests on imagined scenarios.[6]

At the most immediate level, the ability of police to predict and control crowd behavior is enhanced. The tool is narrowly “efficient.” More profoundly, though, the counterinsurgency technology transforms the relationship between the state and the citizenry. The London Bobbie of old saw himself as the protector of a peaceful neighborhood, as mediator as well as “guardian of the peace.” The local people saw him in his role and trusted him.

The counterinsurgency technology changes the policeman’s mind. Dressed in counterinsurgency attire, he no longer sees himself as “guardian of the peace;” rather he feel like a stealthy warrior in hostile territory. His garb emphasizes his adversary role. The citizens see him as a hostile alien and react accordingly. Subliminally, an adversary relationship develops, feeding on itself, and ready to escalate exponentially.

Prevention is rooted in the imagination of a risk; the task is to connect the dots before the event. We no longer transform reality or fulfill potentialities, we focus on preventing them. From the “great creator” of his visions homo faber has become the “great destructor” on his nightmares.

On the policy level, there is a threefold challenge. First, there is no limit to human imagination – the danger may be overblown, or invented. Second, the evidence of preventive success rests on absence of disasters – we have self-referentiality. Third, a cost-benefit analysis is no longer possible – by definition prevention is absolute and escapes and budgetary process. Another way of looking at the issue is to realize that measuring opportunity costs becomes well-nigh impossible.[7]

A silent transformation is taking place. Focusing on preventing the emergence of “terror” creates a mentality of chronic, diffuse, and vague fear. Terror is no longer abroad – an “alien” force. Terror has come home and metastasized within the polity. The fundamental trust between the power of the state and the citizen is destroyed. The relationship has become adversary. A society at peace with itself has become a society in which “war of terror” – from the indistinct and foreign to the indistinct and local – is its highest (and usassailable) goal. Prevention has become TIMA = the ony way to go. This evolution is the most profound “blowback” of developing a counterinsurgency for export.

The heaviest of the “white man’s burden” may well the silent transformation that it engenders at home, as we blithely go about transforming the world.


[1] Chandak SENGOOPTA (2003) : Imprint of the Raj. How fingerprinting was born in colonial India. Pan Books. London.

[2] I am not arguing right or wrong. I simply state the fact that police started tracking the evidential trail. Meanwhile, reading a person’s “trail” of evidence has becoming a humongous and ongoing process. People have become “transparent.”

[3] https://bit.ly/1FdEkpf

[4] David GRAEBER documents the “social relations” between police and protesters. Police may beat up demonstrators, but death is out of bound. See. David GRAEBER (2007): Possibilities. Essays on hierarchy, rebellion, and desire AK Press, Oakland. (pg. 375)

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_One_Percent_Doctrine

[6] The Counter-reformation created an Inquisition, which went “wild” as it moved from chasing (a few heretics) to mind and behavior control. See. Elena BONORA. (2001): La controriforma. Laterza, Bari.

[7] In this context, the term “insurance” is used in an inappropriate fashion. Insurance is a way to share the consequences of events, not to prevent them.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog