From Belfast to Baghdad – what have we learned?

Britain took 38 years to bring the warring parties to the middle ground.

At first glance, recent developments in Northern Ireland offer signs of hope for mending Iraq. But the deepening peace in Belfast has taken four decades to craft, a sobering thought for those who want to see analogs with Baghdad. The lessons that can be drawn from Britain's longest-ever military occupation are many, but the element of time is the most brutal. The warring parties were all Christians, spoke the same language, were racially indistinguishable, and were all part of the same great Western "civilization." Thus, even if peace takes hold, it can take a very long time.

When British troops were first sent to Northern Ireland in 1969, they embroiled themselves in a sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Initially, Catholics in Belfast welcomed the soldiers with expectations that they would be able to divide the warring sides and provide security. After witnessing British operations, which seemed to unilaterally focus on Catholics, however, this attitude changed. As a result, the Provisional IRA emerged as the key insurgent force opposing British occupation and Protestant political domination.

Britain's support among Protestants was also tenuous. In 1972, after the Protestant-led Stormont Parliament proved itself incapable of reaching a political settlement, the Crown imposed Direct Rule on Northern Ireland. This caused many Protestants who were satisfied with the status quo to question Britain's long-term commitment. As such, what had originated as a quarrel between two Irish populations soon morphed into a much more difficult triangular conflict. The complexity was further enhanced by inputs from the international environment. IRA members used the Republic of Ireland's territory as a haven for launching operations into the North and as a place of sympathetic refuge. Meanwhile, Irish Americans created a logistical network that was to supply the IRA with weapons and money.

Eventually, the British realized that some of the lessons of defeating the Malay insurrection (1945-1989) could also apply in Northern Ireland. Good intelligence was critical for hunting IRA members, but it could only be gained through the local Catholic populace. That local populace would only provide intelligence if they felt the local government was acting in their interests by providing security, employment, and education. Direct rule provided these elements, but it was a slow and painful process. A heavy emphasis on community policing conducted by the local police (not the British military) was also critical for success. However, victory required that the police be trained properly and be perceived as even-handed in dispensing justice.

Finally, patience was key. The British could take steps to alter the political landscape, but it was not until the Protestants and Catholics became exhausted by decades of violence and moved toward peace themselves that a solution was found. While the sectarian blood ran hot, the British could do little but to hold the line and absorb casualties. Unlike Malaya, however, the British were politically constrained in Northern Ireland. They felt they could not pursue heavy-handed policies like restricting food rations and using strict population-control measures that had eventually smoked the ethnic-Chinese communist insurgents out of the jungles of Borneo. Brutality can shorten the length of some insurgencies, but when a democracy is involved, usually the insurgents can stomach more of it than the state.

In analogous fashion, American forces in Baghdad were welcomed as liberators in 2003. However, within a year, the United States was faced with a full-blown insurgency, primarily led by Sunni militants who perceived the US as siding with the Shiites. As occurred in Belfast, the new Iraqi military and national police force were seen as being partial to one side. Baghdad's Sunnis feared the Shiite death squads operated by the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (whose Mahdi Army also attacked Americans), but they equally feared the Shiite dominated national police. As a result of a sharp upswing in sectarian killing in the capital, Baghdad became the center of gravity in American strategy, resulting in the "surge" of forces this spring. However, after witnessing growing levels of cooperation between American forces and Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province, it is now the Shiites who increasingly distrust the Americans, with serious tensions arising recently between US Army General David Petraeus and Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And Shiite militias are presently the biggest threat to US forces in Baghdad.

Northern Ireland was a tough and thorny situation, but in terms of relative complexity, it was a game of checkers compared with the three-dimensional chess board that Iraq has become. Indeed, what began as a simple, old-fashioned war between the US and Iraq has now evolved into a nest of infernal complexities that almost defies description. When the US does something to support or appease one party, it creates hostility in at least two of the other internal actors and one or more external players.

Like the British in Ireland, the US has morally constrained itself from simply choosing one side and repressing or killing everyone else, but as a result the only "middle ground" in Iraq is the ground American combat forces now occupy. It took 38 years in Northern Ireland for the British to bring the warring sides to the middle ground, to make peace, and to withdraw. Anyone who claims the US can resolve the situation in Iraq more quickly is sadly mistaken.

Douglas A. Borer is an associate professor at Monterey's Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of "Superpowers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared" and co-editor of "Information Strategy and Warfare: A Guide to Theory and Practice." The views here are his.

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