Lessons From Ulster

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.

15 thoughts on “Lessons From Ulster”

  1. I have absolutely no confidence that our government could muster the will, determination and plain competence to run such an effective effort. Not with all the leaks.. not with the civil employees engaging in a media war against the policy makers. Not with one political party who treats our national security as an object to be taken hostage whenever it wants leverage for something irrelevent. Not when one single mistake or misdeed will blow up into a media firestorm and Congressional Circus and even maybe criminal charges (I’m talking about the CIA videotape specifically) and most certainly not when our Foreign Policy at the State Department is crafted by people who seem to be oblivious to the world we’re living in.

  2. It’s a special case of the rule that you can achieve almost anything as long as you are prepared to let someone else take the credit. It must have stung, though, to see oily creeps like Blair and Clinton taking the credit.

  3. I just don’t think that we have the political culture to support such an operation. American has never had an effective human based intelligence capability. We simply cannot tolerate the moral compromises necessary and our very important mania for open government leads us to fundamentally distrust any part of government that functions in secret.

    Politically, we cannot defend such programs in public debate due to their inherent secret nature. People can make outrageous claims about the programs and those supporting such programs cannot refute them.

    We’re never going to have any significant human intelligence capability and therefor we need to have a serious discussion about how to manage signal intelligence.

  4. Vince and Shannon I think you are pretty much right, which is why I said “…the Iraqi government, with our help, and the help of others in the coalition…” I do not think the US Gov can take the lead on such a program in Iraq, for example. Maybe not anywhere.

    We could never have something like the Brits had, where out-of-uniform military are stalking terrorists within the territory of the country, Northern Ireland being part of the UK, and then kill the terrorists without warning in a military style ambush. Neither Geneva Convention nor due process. Things would have to get awfully bad here before we would allow such practices.

    The British have a culture of secrecy, and they do not have a Constitution, so Parliament can put together broad grants of authority to deal with situations and let the executive get on with it. This process is sometimes abused. It is also sometimes the answer to various problems. Their system, like ours, has strengths and weaknesses. We have to live and work within our own.

  5. I think the process will work in Iraq as long as enough Iraqis are committed to it, and I think they are. A good parallel might be Colombia.

  6. “I think the process will work in Iraq …”

    I don’t know what process is being used in Iraq, or if there is any overarching strategy. So I have no idea if “it” will work, or if “it” is even going to be tried, if by “it” we mean something like what the Brits did in Northern Ireland.

    I also have no basis to say whether Iraqis would support an effort like this, and it would depend on who ran it, and who it was directed against. “Iraqis” may not be the operative word. A Shia leadership may be able to do this against the Sunnis, and not have the operation betrayed, I don’t know.

    I have no reason to think this type of effort is going on in Colombia. I understand they are running a more orthodox counter-guerilla campaign there. But if they are doing this kind of thing, they would not tell anybody.

  7. If Iran and Saudi Arabia are not taken care of, Iraq will never work.

    I supported the Iraq invasion because I believed at the time that that was our politically expedient way of establishing ourselves in the Middle East. From there we would take on the true enemies… Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi.

    Unfortunately I gave the government too much credit. It appears we’re basically there to democratize them even though it’s impossible with the neighbors that Iraq has.

    I had hopes that Bush would do *something* about Iran’s nuke program but he allowed his own agencies to undermine our credibility.. meanwhile C Rice is accomodating every Arab diktat that comes our way.

    I see nothing but the eventual undermining of everything that our military has achieved in Iraq.

    We live in a time of treachery.

  8. The review certainly presents all three books as a gripping read, but I think the analogy to our present situation is strained. The rough equivalent would be 700 deaths per year for 3 decades from domestic terrorism, concentrated in one area of the country with a population of about 9 million and distinguished by ethnic, or at any rate sectarian, characteristics from the rest.

    The only thing I can think of remotely resembling Ulster in the US is “Aztlan,” and we don’t have an Aztlan terrorist problem, just some idiots (MEChA) and blowhards (National Council of La Raza). Such domestic terrorism as existed in the late ’60s was massively penetrated by FBI informers — I have heard that one-sixth of the protesters in Chicago in August 1968 were, to borrow a phrase from the review, “being run” by law enforcement. I suspect that any future attempts at mischief would be similarly compromised and contained very quickly. It is my impression that every American subculture, irrespective of ethnicity or sect, contains more than enough patriotic individuals to enable recruitment of plenty of HUMINT assets.

    The question, then, is how to apply any of this to the Muslim world. A nontrivial memetic-engineering effort, combined with a clear commitment to engage for as long as it takes, could satisfy the necessary game-theoretic conditions for widespread cooperation. The necessary domestic political consensus obviously does not yet exist; I note that another prediction from Strauss & Howe is that the “Crisis of 2020” will be fought with both enthusiasm and consensus (which they claim are simultaneously present only with the proper alignment of generational temperaments). Looks like we’ll get to find out.

  9. “The question, then, is how to apply any of this to the Muslim world.”\

    Get regional allies to recruit individuals for long term infiltration of terrorist organizations. US involvement to be advisory and at arms length and as consumers of intelligence data.

    I did not suggest that there is anything resembling Ulster in the US. I said that the US government needs to build similar capabilities for use elsewhere, including Iraq In fact, the US government could not possibly do what the British government did even if there was somehow an Ulster-like situation here.

  10. I really wouldn’t imitate the British in Ulster. Is it not obvious that we lost? Oh not militarily perhaps but politically. A part of the United Kingdom has been handed over to various gangs who are part political and largely criminal. The army has had to be withdrawn, the RUC has been dismantled, “ethnic cleansing” is going on with more or less violence, known terrorists decide on such matter as education policy and murderers are happily ensconced in local government as well as running matters further down the scale.

  11. Right, Helen. And that is what happens to the anti-insurgency force when it “wins”. Most other possible outcomes are worse. No one ever said that a counter-insurgency struggle was something you want to be in.

  12. Lex, this is not a question of whether one wants to be in counter-insurgency struggle or not. Sometimes there is no choice. This is a question of winning or losing. In Northern Ireland, as it is now known, we lost. Kind of you guys to pretend otherwise but that is the truth.

  13. Helen, what I am saying is, no one knows how to win one of these things. Northern Ireland is a “success story” only comparatively speaking. But I cannot agree that the unambiguous statement “we lost” is correct. (1) The IRA failed to achieve its war aims, which was the forcible removal of British power from the six counties, and (2) the IRA has either stopped attacking or been stopped. That is, if not a win, certainly the denial of a victory to the other side. The rest is politics.

Comments are closed.