The Other Fighting Irish and the War on Terror: Lessons Learned and Forgotten

By Nicholas Smith

Clough %2806%29  october 2009

ImaBy Ardfern - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It may have ended in the '90s, but The Troubles between the Irish and the British predicted a new form of war that would become especially important the decade after. With 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, the West became intimately familiar with a kind of conflict called "Fourth Generation Warfare" (4GW), characterized by prolonged, complex struggles typically fought between a nation-state and a violent non-state actor that is no longer a mere continuation of politics—it is at times indistinguishable from politics. They are often undeclared and the state actor will often nominally remain at peace. The Troubles are often forgotten by those in the West outside of Ireland or the UK; but they are incredibly relevant to the world in which we live, one where waging one or more 4GWs is considered a normal state of activities.

Why should we, as Americans, care about a conflict that did not involve us and ended two decades ago when we could, instead, turn our attention and our care to present conflicts that we are sending our children to fight and die in? The question is its own answer. I am only 68 days older than the War in Afghanistan. Next year, if the war was a person it would be eligible to vote and, ironically, be registered for the draft. It is within the best interest of the American people to win the war and go home as soon as possible—at the time of writing this, American forces were deployed in Vietnam only three months longer than they have been in Afghanistan.

With all that said, how? We obviously cannot look to the future through a crystal ball. However, we can learn from the lessons and mistakes of the past. This is the reason that Americans should learn and care about The Troubles—because they are an archetype, a pattern, a mold for a fourth-generation war—precisely like the ones we fight today. Understanding the war we fight is the first step towards ending it without just giving up and leaving a bloody, violent power vacuum that we are directly responsible for. For us Americans, the Northern Ireland conflict provides a convenient and culturally approachable lens to do just that. The Troubles do not hold all the answers to ending what is about to be the longest war in American history; nothing does. However, The Troubles share a great deal of similarity with offshoots of the Global War on Terror such as the War in Afghanistan, and as we find ourselves and our NATO allies in a similar situation to the English, we stand to learn much from what they did, right and wrong.

The first place to turn to in this comparison is the home front, mainly because it provides a clear and tangible link between the Global War on Terror and The Troubles, and that is the notion of the "suspect community." The concept of the suspect community was devised by scholar Paddy Hillyard in reference to the Irish population in the United Kingdom, and recently some have come to apply this terminology to Muslim populations in Western countries, especially the United Kingdom, in the wake of 9/11 and the outbreak of the Global War on Terror. The Irish, Pantazis and Pemberton claim, received similar treatment to Britain's Muslim population; a 'hard' approach that involves heavy use of surveillance tools such as police stop and search, applied to the 'suspect community' at a disproportionate rate to all others. In Britain, Irish and Muslim people have experienced similar levels of state suspicion.

During The Troubles, crossing the Northern Irish-Irish border was enough for the police to question someone on possible IRA ties; British police made a habit of writing "Irish Suspect" on fingerprinting forms; and police could and frequently did arrest people on the basis of nothing but mere suspicion of ties to the IRA—and question their friends and family, repeating this until the information dried up.[1] Recently, British police have used 'stop and search' powers against ethnic minorities tied to the Muslim population at disproportionate rates and for similarly little reason, with one person stopped saying that they were "…stopped under the Terrorism Act 2000 for wearing Islamic clothes with a rucksack near Stockwell tube station."[2] British Minister of the Home Office Hazel Blears even said that "some of our counter-terrorist powers will be disproportionately experienced by people in the Muslim community. That is the reality of the situation."[3]

While these actions were undertaken by the British rather than the American government, one cannot rule out the possibility—especially given recent disclosures on such post-9/11 surveillance programs as the NSA's PRISM—that American authorities aren't doing similar things. Regardless, by early 2019, the British will have the third largest amount of troops in Afghanistan (America being the largest), and thus, the policy of American allies is just as important to ending the war as American policy.[4] 'Hard' approaches taking precedence over 'soft' ones on the home front engender sympathy towards insurgents and even sometimes serves to radicalize Westerners with ethnic, religious, or ideological ties to those that make up the violent insurgent groups that America, Britain, and other NATO countries are currently fighting in Afghanistan.[5] This sympathy prolongs wars and makes it easier for terrorists to operate in the nations they oppose; and it can transcend the home front to the actual site of the armed conflict.

The IRA was a beneficiary of great sympathy from the Irish people; there was "a sneaking regard for 'the boys'" among them that even extended into the government of the Irish Republic.[6] As a result, they issued Standing Order 8 in 1954—that their militants were not to attack security forces of the Republic. This led to a popular ambivalence towards the IRA's violent methods, which was seen as defending Irish Catholics rather than being destructive terrorists. The Irish government even refused to extradite IRA militants who had only been active in Northern Ireland or Britain.[7] Even if most Irish people did not support violent means, it didn't particularly matter; the atmosphere that had been created was one conducive to seeing the IRA as freedom fighters rather than terrorists due to a common view—that Northern Ireland should be part of the Irish state. John Denham, British MP, made a statement that seems to indicate British government fears that the same sort of sympathy is being engendered for organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIL among the British Muslim community, saying:

Few terrorist movements have lasted for long without a supportive community. A supportive community does not necessarily condone violence, and certainly, most people in it would not want to become personally involved … whether or not they condone violence they see terrorists are sharing their world view, part of the struggle to which they belong.[8]

Modern US COIN tactics understand the dangers of a sympathetic community, and while whether they are being effectively implemented or not, the doctrine recognizes the role of public opinion in the efficacy of a terror group. Modern US tactics follow a pattern of "shape-clear-hold-build-transition": shaping the environment, both in terms of the strategic resource of public opinion and denying the tactical resources necessary for an insurgency to effectively fight; clearing the influence of the insurgency and its hold on public institutions; holding these institutions and keeping them removed from the insurgents; building the legitimacy and efficacy of US and allied-backed institutions; and finally transitioning to the institutions functioning independently of US and allied backing.[9] However, while these new 'population-centric' strategies seem to make sense in the framework of preventing public support for insurgencies, implementation of them is not always smooth and the details don't always align with measures that eliminate the institutional suspicion, such as the recommendation to take an initial census with biometric identification devices to provide "initial accountability for everyone," which however lies right next to very effective tactics such as collecting information on the cause of the insurgency in specific regions and the expectations of the host nations' citizens.[10] Perhaps it's impossible to eliminate that in counterinsurgency operations; but regardless, Field Manual 3-24 provides a far better framework to tackle counterinsurgency than the British government's actions during The Troubles.

Going forward, it is absolutely critical to avoid incidents that inspire terror towards American forces. Bombing campaigns by the allied forces in Afghanistan were used to spin propaganda by Al-Qaeda early into the war painting the US and allies as indiscriminate murderers. This engenders the same sympathy discussed above. The British had many mistakes that led to this sort of phenomenon, one of which being the 1970 Falls Curfew. Following a weapons search in the Falls district of Belfast, Northern Ireland, young residents started throwing rocks at the soldiers; this escalated into a full-blown riot, with a gunfight following, and British Army forces then decided to impose a curfew over the district. The British enforced this curfew by arresting anyone on the streets and making announcements from low-flying helicopters. They fired 1,500 live rounds and killed four civilians. They fired 'large numbers of CS gas cartridges' and arrested 337 people.[11] The imposition of the curfew was then denied by the British government only one day after it had ended.[12] Committing and denying atrocities like this is one of the mortal sins of counterinsurgency; it only serves to galvanize popular opinion against your force; first by committing them and then by lying about them, the first making the counterinsurgents look bad to the local population and the second causing public trust in the counterinsurgent force to erode on the home front. Furthermore, this leads to a greater willingness for locals to support the use of violence by insurgents or to even join the insurgency themselves, creating a cycle of escalating coercion into violence (counterinsurgency making mass arrests; local populace rioting) and reactionary violence that mimics and fuels itself.[13] Avoiding this is a lesson that we can learn from the mistakes of the British.

However, many seem to consider the British tactics as highly successful. On November 8th, 2001, Prime Minister Tony Blair briefed President George W. Bush on the British strategy over thirty years of fighting the IRA.[14] The Northern Irish example has been lauded by such influential people as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Iraqi Foreign Minister as one to follow for global conflict resolution. Why? Because of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace treaty between the British and Irish governments alongside multiple Northern Irish political parties including Sinn Féin, the de facto political wing of the IRA.[15] However, the GFA was not a victory for the British. It was effectively a draw, and one might even go so far as to say that the Good Friday Agreement was a British surrender. Within the GFA is a clause that provides for the possibility of a 'border poll' that if successful with a majority of the population of Northern Ireland voting to do so, Northern Ireland would begin the process of leaving the United Kingdom and reuniting the island of Ireland as one nation. In this the British provided the IRA the tools to get exactly what they wanted without the use of violence, and Brexit debate has recently brought the question of a unified Ireland back on the table in Northern Ireland, which overwhelmingly voted against Brexit.[16] Northern Ireland has not had a government in 677 days since the date of writing this (which would be the world record if not for the fact that they are not an independent nation) and public confidence is waning.[17] It is entirely possible that a united Ireland could happen in the next 30 years if Brexit goes through. This is by no means a victory for the British, whose goal was to maintain governance of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. Negotiating a treaty with ISIL is not going to end the War in Afghanistan in a way that America and NATO can claim victory, if it is even possible to do so at all.

Is the war in Afghanistan unwinnable? It is impossible to say for sure, but winning the War in Afghanistan will be quite possibly the most difficult endeavor in US and NATO military history. The Troubles don't provide us with a model on what to do, but they certainly provide a great many lessons on what not to do. Were they justified in seeking peace with the Good Friday Agreement? Absolutely. However, they should not have provided a mechanic for the defeat of their cause within the peace settlement; and the War in Afghanistan does not allow for a similar concession. Lasting peace and lasting victory is only possible if the local people want that peace. In short, the United States must convince the population of Afghanistan (and ourselves) that we are "the good guys" if we want to win. That is something the British clearly failed to do when Sinn Fein, a political party that was formerly the political wing of the IRA, is the second most powerful political party in Northern Ireland.[18] We cannot simply settle to destroy ISIL's holdings of land or weapons or oil in Afghanistan, we have to destroy their holdings of sympathy, of hearts, and minds. That is a daunting task for us. When the people of Afghanistan see US Soldiers or Marines on the ground, they are more likely than not going to see someone who does not look like them, who does not speak their language, who does not worship like them. If hardline tactics did not work for the British with the Irish who looked fairly similar, spoke English, and had a smaller (but still substantial) religious gap, what chance do they have with people to whom we might be entirely alien? With such a wide ethnoreligious and linguo-cultural gap between America and Afghanistan, we must convince the people there that we are not there to harm them and that we are their friends and allies. Is it possible to convince people to believe in strangers from a far-off land over people who might be their friends, neighbors, and family? We stand in a position to find out, but if not, there is only one way this long war can end… and that is in defeat.

[1] Pantazis and Pemberton, 647-648
[2] Pantazis and Pemberton, 659
[3] Pantazis and Pemberton, 658
[4] BBC News, "Afghanistan: UK to Send 440 More Non-Combat Troops.", 10 July 2018
[5] Pantazis and Pemberton, 660
[6] Patterson, 496
[7] Patterson, 496-497
[8] Cited in Pantazis and Pemberton, 651
[11] Campbell and Connoly, 343
[12] Campbell and Connoly, 352
[13] Bigo and Guittet, 489-490
[14] The Telegraph, "Britain to Brief US on Experience with IRA." 8 Nov. 2001
[15] O'Kane, 240
[16] France 24, "Irish Reunification 'on the Table', Says Sinn Fein's New Leader amid Brexit Talks." 26 Feb. 2018.
[17] "How Long Has Northern Ireland Not Had a Government?"
[18] France 24, "Irish Reunification 'on the Table', Says Sinn Fein's New Leader amid Brexit Talks." 26 Feb. 2018.