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Northern Ireland's Arch Irrelevance

Why comparisons of the Iraq war to the conflict in Northern Ireland reflect only false hope, not reality.

Authors: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Jonathan Stevenson, U.S. Naval War College
July 25, 2007
American Prospect

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In June, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain endorsed a Northern Ireland-style political process for Iraq involving Sunni and Shi’ite leaders. Since taking over as commander of American ground forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus too has repeatedly trotted out the British counterinsurgency effort in Northern Ireland as an example of a successful campaign that offers hope for the American enterprise in Iraq, and as support for a long-term military commitment. Recently, he told a U.S. News & World Report journalist that the “Northern Ireland experience” of his British deputy commander was “really quite instructive,” and cited that experience to point out that the Iraq challenge could take a decade to meet.

It’s easy to understand the superficial attraction of the Northern Ireland analogy: It reflects the United Kingdom’s undeniably effective blend of hard and soft power, resulting in a historic multiparty peace agreement in 1998 whose previously stalled implementation was advanced last month when the two most mutually hostile parties agreed to share power. Under any but the most glancing scrutiny, however, the comparison is so factually strained as to border on the ludicrous, which makes citing it as a case for continued large-scale deployment in Iraq disingenuous at best.

The most recent incarnation of the Northern Irish “troubles” arose in 1969 primarily because a very small group of revolutionary members of Northern Ireland’s 35 percent Catholic minority — the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) — decided that Catholics’ civil rights could not be protected against a bigoted 65 percent Protestant majority unless the British province were forcibly united with the largely Catholic Irish Republic. At no point in the 25-year struggle did active IRA volunteers (as opposed to more numerous support players) number more than 500. In Iraq, hardline Sunni insurgents alone are estimated at more than 30,000, foreign jihadists at more than 1,000. British troops in Northern Ireland peaked at 30,000, which yields a soldier-to-insurgent ratio of 60-to-1. Coalition forces in Iraq now stand at roughly 170,000, a ratio of less than 5-to-1. Counterinsurgency is notoriously labor-intensive. On the basis of the numbers alone, the analogy doesn’t add up.

Subtler differences make the comparison even more inapposite. For one, the Brits had the unalloyed support of a traditional and fanatically enthusiastic Protestant majority that considered itself “more British than British” and cherished Northern Ireland’s sovereign status as part of the United Kingdom. The Iraqi counterpart to Ulster’s Protestants is the Shia population, which regards the American presence as a temporary if necessary evil and draws its primary external political (and operational) support from Iran — currently the United States’ most troublesome strategic adversary. Whereas Protestant “loyalist” terrorism was almost exclusively pro-British, Shi’ite militias have directly and lethally targeted American troops as well as their Sunni enemies. No matter how effectively the United States might rein in Iran’s support for the Iraqi Shia, Americans will never enjoy the backing from them that the British enjoyed from Northern Irish Protestants.

Furthermore, in a successful counterinsurgency, there must be a supporting government that possesses some small shred of legitimacy and competence that the outside power can work to assist, as well as a large civilian component to secure the confidence of the general population. Although the British government suspended the Northern Irish parliament precisely because it had lost legitimacy, most Catholics accepted the more enlightened British administration in Northern Ireland that replaced it as an interim governing body pending a non-violent political agreement between contending factions. Thus, hundreds of civilian employees, covering a population of only 1.6 million, were available to work with the Catholic community to keep a lid on popular support for the IRA.

No government with such qualifications has emerged in Iraq. Indeed, it is quite likely that a coup, soft or otherwise, is in the works. And there is no appreciable American civilian contingent to fill the void in civil authority. As of January, less than 200 U.S. civilian personnel were assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are charged with rehabilitating an Iraqi population of 28 million. This compares with some 1,700 civilian (mainly USAID) employees assigned to the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program during the Vietnam War, covering a South Vietnamese population of 18 million. Even CORDS, of course, had at best mixed results in terms of “winning hearts and minds.”

In addition, while the Catholic–Protestant divide that had featured in Anglo-Irish relations for hundreds of years provided much of the emotional fuel for the Northern Irish conflict, a workable theological and political coexistence between the two Christian sects had long been achieved when the troubles began. Having substantively little to do with religion, the “troubles” played out as an almost quaint, and certainly geopolitically isolated, anachronism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Sunni–Shia divide that has triggered civil war in Iraq: The schism not only constitutes a major impediment to political reconciliation in Iraq, but also has drawn regional powers — in particular, Iran and Saudi Arabia — into the fray.

Although the IRA paid lip-service to its revolutionary brethren in Spain, Palestine and elsewhere, and to socialism, it did not seriously consider its armed struggle an integral part of a larger global movement. The Sunni jihadist leadership that has encouraged foreign fighters to go to Iraq and anointed al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, on the other hand, has portrayed the Sunni insurgency as an element of a larger struggle against Western tyranny and insinuated al-Qaeda’s maximalist grievances and goals into its identity, rendering it harder to contain.

Finally, it took the British at least a quarter-century — arguably, far longer given the long history of British hegemony and Celtic resistance in Ireland — to bring the IRA to heel and induce the group’s political arm, Sinn Fein, to declare a cease-fire and enter into meaningful negotiations. Because the Northern Irish conflict was small and containable, claiming on average fewer than 40 British troops a year, it was politically manageable. While the war-hardened British electorate regarded the province and its Protestant majority as a nuisance, they were able to accept the Crown’s long-term political obligation to sustain Northern Ireland’s British sovereignty at relatively low cost.

The United States government, of course, does not have the political leeway to provide the warring factions in Iraq 25 years or more to learn how to live with one another. The midterm elections made it clear that the Bush administration would be granted very little time to fix Iraq through military force. With fatalities among U.S. forces nearing 3,500, their rate increasing beyond 100 a month, and doubts proliferating about whether staying the course serves American or even Iraqi interests, Congress may be nearing the point at which it will deny the White House the funding required to sustain the U.S. deployment. Clearly an open-ended commitment is politically out of the question. It is that reality above all others that makes any comparison between Iraq and Northern Ireland absurd, cynical, and ultimately counterproductive.

The U.S. command in Iraq has also latched on to other models, like the British suppression of the communist insurgency in Malaya and the defeat of a bloody the Salvadoran insurgency. These and the Northern Irish conflict have one thing in common: The good guys won. But in Malaya, the British implemented a multi-dimensional counterinsurgency that really did win hearts and minds, while in El Salvador there was a viable central government to defend, a relatively small number of insurgents, and an operational requirement of less than 100 American military advisers. When it comes to Iraq, the appeal of invoking Northern Ireland and other miscast precedents lies in its ability to sustain false hope.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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