The long struggle of the British government against the IRA can help us to understand the nature and requirements of anti-terrorist struggle more generally. Once a conflict has been pushed down to what could be called a sub-military level, victory of an unglamorous and even invisible sort can only come at the end of a very lengthy process.
This review essay is a good overview. RTWT.
Overwhelming military superiority was useless unless you could see inside what Republican euphemism specialists called the “physical force wing”. In the late 1970s, the messy improvisations which regulated rivalries between police, military and civilian intelligence agencies were decisively overhauled.
… what really mattered was penetrating and disrupting the Provisionals; in that specific and secret area, the ambition was anything but limited. A past Director of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, told an academic audience some years ago that it had taken governments a very long time, a decade or so after violence began, to grasp that defeating the Provisional IRA would require the slow cultivation of deep-penetration agents whose handling was MI5’s unique skill.
It is apparent that language skills and cultural skills are critical for the US Government personnel who will be involved in those sorts of activities, in Iraq and in other places. Everything I have read suggests our military and intelligence personnel are deficient in these areas, though perhaps the situation is improving. Cultivating deep-penetration agents, it seems to my layman’s understanding, would be impossible across cultural and linguistic barriers, unless we subcontract it out, which presents its own problems.
This overhauling of “inter-agency” rivalries and turf-defense takes time, and leadership. Then the process of cultivating “deep-penetration agents ” is slow, quiet, tedious and secret. It is like undercover police work, though occasionally punctuated by the swift and brutal employment of military-scale force.
In 1987, at Loughgall in East Tyrone, the SAS ambushed and killed an eight-man IRA unit attempting to demolish a police station, killing more “volunteers” in a single incident than at any time since 1921. Up to the year 2000, the IRA in Tyrone had lost fifty-three people; but twenty-eight of those died between 1987 and 1992.
The goal in Iraq, it would seem, is to get the situation stablized to the point that the Iraqi government, with our help, and the help of others in the coalition, can get itself coordinated, then infiltrate the hardcore terrorist groups, and kill them off. That will be the stick. Situation-specific carrots must also be on offer. This will leave open the prospect of bringing the rest of the opposition into the political process. (For the former terrorists who survive and become politicians, violence will have paid off. That does happen in history, even if the seeming injustice of it is grating.) This process will take a long time.
The author concludes:
If there are lessons from counter-terrorism in Ulster, they seem to be this. Recruit very good spies; then hire some more. Then give it time to work. The murders, the long wait and the compromises of the exit strategy may well grind the moderates to dust. Then wait some more. After that, the politicians can make their entrance.
Not a prospect which has much appeal, but like an unpleasant medical diagnosis, at least it is plain and unsentimental reality, and possibly a roadmap to recovery. It has the virtue of having worked once, as well.