Blue Line


September 23, 2013  By Ken Molloy

1539 words – MR

Policing is not counterinsurgency

by Ken Molloy

There’s recently been interest in using counterinsurgency methodology to combat crime in North America.<1> Returning veterans have suggested policing methods based on their training and skills combating insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Counterinsurgency does not lend itself as a model for policing and its tools are not available to Canadian police.

Counterinsurgency is designed to defeat a group that is trying to take political control away from the legitimate government through arms. The American Revolution of 1776 was an insurgency and the British attempts to stop it were a counterinsurgency operation. Geronimo and the Apache fight against the United States in the 1800s was also an insurgency.

As with most forms of warfare, insurgency and counterinsurgency have evolved over time. The current situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq represent an insurgency war; there is a legitimate authority struggling with a shadow group, the Taliban or Al-Queda, that is trying to seize power. <2>

Military counterinsurgency operations are designed to stop this shift in political power and support the legitimate authority in maintaining its role as the government. Counterinsurgency operations use specific tools to achieve the aims of the government: control of the population, arbitrary detention and extraordinary measures and resources. Policing in Canada is governed by the courts and the law that prevents some of these tools from being used; budgets and resource limitations prevent the use of others.

Population control is based on the belief that insurgents can be separated from the population, denying them the ability to hide amongst civilians. <3> In counterinsurgency operations, this has sometimes been attempted by forcibly moving citizens. In Vietnam and Algeria, villages were moved and the former inhabited areas turned into free fire zones where no law abiding citizen should be.

In Malaysia, the British accomplished population control by issuing identification cards and mandating their use at control points. In Canada, police do not have the ability to force citizens, including criminals, to produce identification without cause, nor can populations be moved from areas of the city so gangs cannot hide amongst honest citizens.

Arbitrary detention has long been a hallmark of counterinsurgency operations (military theory uses different names for this concept, but it comes down to the ability to detain people). <4> The capability to take suspected insurgents into custody is key to preventing attacks on government or civilians.

The French used detention in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland, where laws were passed to allow the detention of individuals for 72 hours without a court appearance, involvement of legal counsel or notification of family. <5>

In Iraq and Afghanistan, detention is available to the military as a means to deal with suspected insurgents; searches of residences and businesses can be done without a judicial authorization. Canadian police do not have that option; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids arbitrary detention and requires that a person be told why they are being detained and the right to counsel. Searches require legitimate warrantless authority, or a prior judicial authorization – restrictions not placed on counterinsurgency operations.

The United States government sanctioned the use of extraordinary measures to gather information from suspected insurgents. This has included water boarding, rendition and even removal to Guantanamo Bay, to aid in interrogations. <6> British operations in Northern Ireland used white noise, sleep deprivation and stress positions to break down prisoners and gain information. <7> The French forces in Algeria are known to have used torture. <8> None of these methods are available to Canadian police officers.

Counterinsurgency operations have extraordinary resources and its doctrine preaches using air power to gain strategic and tactical advantage. While helicopters are gaining in popularity for policing, they are not unlimited. More importantly, counterinsurgency operations can rely on overwhelming manpower resources that policing cannot match. US General Petraeus wrote about and used in Iraq ‘surge of forces’ to attack insurgents. <9> The British Army in Operation Motorman used the same theory to combat insurgents in Northern Ireland, adding 4,000 extra troops to combat the Irish Republican Army. <10>

No Canadian police agency has that number of spare officers sitting idle to allow a ‘surge’ in operations. If a surge were conducted, the area the officers were taken from would suffer since there would be no one to do their work. This is compounded by how long the surge lasts. Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for 10 years; the British Army deployed to Northern Ireland for 38 years. Canadian police forces could not sustain such ‘surge’ operation without impacting other areas of operations.

On the face of it, counterinsurgency is a poor model for Canadian policing. Successful counterinsurgency operations and methods are rare <11> and the list of failures is long: Algeria, Northern Ireland, Vietnam. Even today, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to experience fighting; they are far from settled conflicts. For Algeria and Northern Ireland, counterinsurgency did not end the conflict. It was one part of an end that also used negotiation and political enfranchisement to achieve a solution that ended armed struggle for most of the involved parties.

Negotiation is not an option for policing operations. Canadian police are not dealing with insurgents seeking political power and legitimacy but rather criminals intent on making a profit. Negotiation is not an option for wresting control of a crime ridden area. Negotiating with criminal groups provides them legitimacy.

Modeling after a counterinsurgency operation, besides lacking in tools for policing, also runs the risk of modeling unwanted behavior. In British operations in Northern Ireland, it has been established that some military members provided information to loyalist paramilitary groups; in some cases, it is known the British military supplied arms and actively participated in paramilitary attacks. <12>

US soldiers caught up in the war in Iraq mistreated prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Such behavior cannot be condoned by Canadian policing and modeling crime fighting after military operations runs the risk of picking up the bad parts of military operations.

There are good points in counterinsurgency operations. The hallmarks of a successful operation, as the British found in Malaysia, are based on providing security for government workers to run their programs, security for businesses to operate, cooperation with local groups and security for the law abiding population. <13>

These hallmarks are the key to successful community police operations, are not new and their appearance in counterinsurgency literature does not mean that policing needs to model itself after military operations.

Policing in Canada must always operate with the law, our partners and the resources that we have available. Counterinsurgency is not one of those resources.


  1. See 60 Minutes, May 5, 2013, “Counterinsurgency Cops: Military Tactics Fight Crime,” or “Counter-Insurgency “Community Policing” Coming to Kitchner, as reported on on March 10, 2013, or “Police Bring Iraq-Style ‘Counter Insurgency’ Strategy to U.S. City on, May 6, 2013

2, 3. “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency” by Kalev I. Sepp, writing in May, 2005 of “Military Review”

  1. “Tactics 101: Corydon and Search,” Armchair General, April 23, 2008, also “Basic Counterinsurgency” by Andrew Wright on Military History Online

  2. United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and subsequent amendments

  3. “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror” by Alfred McCoy (2007)

  4. “British Ran secret interrogation center in Co Derry, N. Ireland” as reported by PressTV, August 9, 2013; see also Parker Report of 1971 or European Court of Human Rights in “Ireland vs. the United Kingdom” (Case 5310/71)

  5. Les Crimes de l’armee francaise en Algerie” by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Sept. 3, 2007, on

  6. General Petraeus in US Army FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency

  7. CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict

  8. RAND report: Keys to Successful Counterinsurgency Campaigns Explored, July, 2010

  9. “Army ‘colluded’ with loyalist killers,” BBC News, April 17, 2003

  10. “Malaya: A Successful Counterinsurgency Operation,” Lt. Col. (USAF) Steven Marsman, 2005


HOO-YAH! The battlecry of the re-pugilist

by Morley Lymburner

Although claimed by many sources in the US Army, Marines and Navy, the battlecry “Hoo-Yah” may well date back to First World War Turkey. Many sources believe it may have been derived from the Turkish phrase “vur ha!” translated as “strike!” or “kill them all!,” which was used by the Ottoman Empire army.

The Russians were the targets of the Turkish battlecry during the First World War. They later adopted “Urrah!” to great affect on the Russian front against the Nazi invaders. Facing a charging army of 100,000 soldiers yelling the same angry sound would certainly be unnerving.

In an effort to re-claim the prize many other sources insist attacking fronts of Confederate soldiers used the war cry during the Civil War. It’s known that many a Yankee trooper wavered on the battle line in the face of the attacking grey-coats’ wild loud whoops.

The final word and claim may be held by our own First Nations warriors, who attacked for more than a thousand years with great gusto and an accompanying war cry intended to startle and intimidate the opposition in the fields of battle.

The recipient of many of those battle-cries from attacking Indians, however, were… US soldiers. Ah yes… we have come full circle!

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