Alex Massie

Belfast on the Euphrates?

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Matt Yglesias sees walls going up in Baghdad and wonders if the US Army is using Northern Ireland as its template:

I believe this technique comes to the US Army's counterinsurgency theorists via Belfast, where I believe they have been effective in helping the British maintain a degree of order.

To some extent, this brings us back to the question of strategy. If tactics employed in Northern Ireland can be made to work in Iraq (and maybe they can) even though Iraq has ten times as many people as Northern Ireland does and even though Iraqis don't speak English and even though the sectarian violence in Iraq is undergirded by concrete fighting over valuable resources, then does this really seem like a wise strategic undertaking? It doesn't seem that way to me. It's been decades since "the Troubles," after all, and while Northern Ireland is now in a situation that there's reason to be optimistic about, you could imagine it all going to shit. All things considered, it seems like the British position there is one we ought to avoid getting ourselves stuck into. Emulating the UK's more successful tactics from that theater makes sense if we're going to adopt that kind of mission, but there mere fact that the tactics can maybe kinda sorta work if we give them a few dozen years is no reason to actually do it.

Well, it hasn't been decades since "The Troubles" but I know what Matt means: the worst of the killing did happen more than 25 years ago, before the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary settled in for the long haul. Over time the security forces were able to squeeze the paramilitaries tighter and tighter; the violence didn't end, of course, but Ulster settled in to what amounted to a vicious stalemate. Neither side could prevail militarily (at least, from the British perspective, not without catastrophic and counter-productive social and political consequences) and the poor province was reduced to living with what one Secretary of State coolly ackowledged was "an acceptable level of violence".

Still, to the extent that Northern Ireland (population of 1.7 million, 5,000 square miles) can be a useful example for security measures in Iraq (26 million, 170,000 square miles) one might say that the US army is now approximately where the UK was in the late-1970s. Cracking an insurgency is one thing, but it is only preparatory to the real task of reducing violence to a level in which some degree of political progress becomes possible. This took 20 years in Ulster (Sunningdale, Anglo-Irish Agreement, Downing Street Declaration, Good Friday Agreement) and even then the violence wasn't snuffed out entirely (also, government ended up in the hands of thugs and bigots - a price eventually deemed worth paying).

Does the US really have the stomach for that kind of patience? Equally, can it really deploy the best part of 100,000 troops in Iraq for another ten years?

Earlier this summer, the army released a very interesting overview of its experience in Northern Ireland. Its findings are, shall we say, sobering in the light of the Iraq experience. Among them:

...There was no insurgency in August 1969. The IRA was not a credible force and took no significant part in the events of that month.  For several reasons the IRA was allowed to develop into an effective insurgent organisation over the next two years. This suggests that the early stages of an apparent breakdown in social order – however it is described - are absolutely critical to the subsequent nature of a campaign. All subsequent decisions and actions, by all parties, are conditioned by these early events. Furthermore violence in the early stages creates bitterness, hatred and extreme views which can last for generations.  Looking at the events of the Troubles in retrospect, it is apparent that many of them could have been avoided or reduced in impact if effective measures had been taken early on; and that similar patterns can be seen in many situations elsewhere.

...The initial period after the arrival of a military force in a peace support or peace enforcement operation has been described as the ‘honeymoon period’.  That suggests that there is a period (variously given as 100 days or three months) in which to put things right. The term ‘honeymoon period’ is a misnomer.  It is not a honeymoon.  It is the most important phase of the campaign.   

...Security forces do not ‘win’ insurgency campaigns militarily; at best they can contain or suppress the level of violence and achieve a successful end-state.  They can thus reduce a situation to an ‘acceptable level of violence’ – a level at which normal social, political and economic activities can take place without intimidation. ‘Acceptable level of violence’ as a term should be used carefully since violence should have no place in a developed society. What is required is a level which the population can live with, and with which local police forces can cope.  Security forces should bring the level of violence down to the point at which dissidents believe they will not win through a primarily violent strategy and at which a political process can proceed without significant intimidation.  If possible, the situation should not be allowed to come to that stage.

...Without effective cultural understanding the security forces in any theatre cannot conduct a truly effective information campaign and arguably, therefore, an effective counter insurgency campaign.  Additionally many military activities may be flawed because the reaction of population cannot be properly predicted: there is a need both to gain intelligence and to understand local perceptions.7  This links to the idea that insurgency feeds off dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is a sentiment based on perception.  Perception is framed by culture.

...The Manoeuvrist Approach generally stresses manoeuvre rather than attrition, whilst accepting that some destruction is inevitably required.20  Operation BANNER supports this approach. The massive and sustained attrition against PIRA in the mid-1970s did not destroy it, but drove it to reorganise and restructure.  The attritional aspect of ‘reassurance, deterrence and attrition’ in the 1980s had relatively

little effect on PIRA. Attrition did have other effects which reinforce key tenets of the Manoeuvrist Approach. The first is the shock effect of major strikes against PIRA. The second effect was that of shaping PIRA’s perceptions, that it would not win by the continuation of the armed struggle and that it was was losing some of its most experienced terrorists.

...Although the British Army has clearly benefited from the lessons it learned in Northern Ireland, not all of these were entirely new; many had been identified before 1969, but were then applied by a new generation of soldiers.  For example, the CO of the first unit to come under fire went to great lengths in his post-operational report to stress the need not to return fire until the firing point could be positively identified. As a result his battalion did not return fire until one hour and 40 minutes after the first round had been fired at it. Thus restraint in the use of force, and the discipline required to achieve it, were lessons from earlier conflicts.  Operation BANNER ensured that such lessons were learned, institutionalised and if necessary re-learned by the whole Army.

...The behaviour which the British Army displayed was a key factor.  The Israeli historian Martin van Creveld has said that the British Army’ ;s self-discipline, and particularly restraint and forbearance in the face of grievous provocation, was a key factor. The Army rarely over-reacted. It did not respond with tanks on the streets.  It generally displayed humanity and humour, although during the early 1970s this was difficult to sustain and a desire to ‘sort the Micks out’ was often apparent. 

...Martin van Creveld has said that the British Army is unique in Northern Ireland in its success against an irregular force. It should be recognised that the Army did not ‘win’ in any recognisable way; rather it achieved its desired end-state, which allowed a political process to be established without unacceptable levels of intimidation. Security force operations suppressed the level of violence to a level which the population could live with, and with which the RUC and later the PSNI could cope. The violence was reduced to an extent which made it clear to the PIRA that they would not win through violence.  This is a major achievement, and one with which the security forces from all three Services, with the Army in the lead, should be entirely satisfied. It took a long time but, as van Creveld said, that success is unique. [emphasis added]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsiraqterrorism