Lessons Of The Brit War With The IRA

November 12, 2005

A Brit intelligence officer who served in Northern Ireland suggests the US army in Iraq should adopt a softer approach and needs better intel & more troops. This advice is not credible since, in spite of its courage and skill, the Brit army in Northern Ireland was sold out by Brit pols so the IRA won.

Saying the IRA won may seem a little extreme, so judge for yourself. The leaders of the IRA, one of whom I believe to be a murderer are now Members of Parliament. The IRA gangs run the Catholic community in NI and murder with impunity. All IRA killers have been pardoned. The Brit government is criminally investigating soldiers who served in Northern Ireland. It has disbanded the police force that opposed the IRA and replaced it with a politically correct group that doesn’t have the word “Royal” in its title. And they’ve disbanded the Brit army’s Northern Ireland regiment. Oh, and the majority population of the province has been pushed to support extreme politicians.

Bearing this in mind that we lost, here’s what the guy said (my ellipsis).

Don’t use heavy force

The term “collateral damage” doesn’t explain the emotional damage and animosity that the death of innocent civilians can create. The classic example is the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident, when 13 demonstrators were killed by British soldiers. Garfield said the incident has haunted the British Army and British government for 35 years.

According to an ex-member of the IRA, Bloody Sunday was an IRA set-up. The expert ignores the fact that terrorists always blame their killing of innocents on the enemy – look at the Palestinian propaganda every time they kill an Israeli kid, and their justifications for 9/11. Get used to it.

Finally, the Brits used this “softly softly” approach with the Shias in Southern Iraq and let the Iranians in.

Provide massive intelligence support

A counterinsurgency campaign requires heavy intelligence support. In the British Army today, he said, an armored brigade has six or eight intelligence professionals to support each 5,000-man unit. The numbers are similar for U.S. Army brigades. In Northern Ireland, the British had 400 to 500 intelligence professionals to support a brigade-sized force (about 10,000 men).

Those intelligence analysts cannot be on short-term rotations, he said: Most intelligence professionals deployed to Northern Ireland were there for two years on individual, not unit, rotations, so they could build continuity. Many of the intelligence professionals in more sensitive and difficult areas served even longer.

This is fine, although again, judged by results, it didn’t help a lot.

Deploy more US soldiers

In Northern Ireland, British Army numbers rose as high as 22,000, relative to an Irish population of 1.5 million, a Catholic population of 500,000, a hard-core republican population of 100,000 and 500 terrorists.

This is the opposite of the successful Malayan experience, and it’s worth investigating why. Eliminating 500 terrorists was perfectly within the capability of a small number of Brit troops. However they weren’t allowed to do this, and tried weight of presence instead. But, prevented from acting aggressively, they never took the initiative and so the IRA continued to murder away.

Taking the initiative would have involved shutting the border with the Irish Republic, which provided safe haven and logistics, tracking and targeting the 500 in exactly the same way the New York police did when they turned that city round. No deaths squads, just aggressive policing.

So, lessons the US can learn from the Brit war with the IRA are:

1. Don’t do what the Brits did, or you’ll end up with Saddam in the Senate and the USMC indicted.

2. Go on doing what you’re good at, which is vigorous warfare.

3. And continue to avoid killing civilians, keep building your intel network, and building the Iraqi army. Not that you need reminding.

4. Trust the competence and bravery of the Brit army but don’t trust their leadership.

Beating Insurgencies

November 12, 2005

Two critiques of current coalition operations in Iraq have surfaced, one from a Brit and the other from John McCain. They raise different issues, and I’ll post on them separately. First, it’s instructive to look at how the Brits defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. Compared with the Brits in Malaya, the coalition in Iraq is much stronger relative to the enemy, but has three disadvantages it still has to overcome.

Here’s a summary of the Wikipedia account of the Malayan insurgency (my ellipsis).

Like the Iraq Sunnis, a minority was fighting for dominance

The Malay Races Liberation Army (MRLA ) was a guerrilla force…led and dominated by ethnic Chinese communists.

The actual conflict began when the MCP…decided that an armed conflict would be the only way to bring the communist revolution to Malaya…

Like the Sunnis, only part of the ethnic group supported terror

Support for the MRLA was mainly based on around 500,000 ethnic Chinese then living in Malaya (there were 3.12 million Chinese in total); the ethnic Malay population for the most part did not support them.

Unlike the Sunnis, the communist supporters were not a previously-dominant minority

The MRLA raised the support of the Chinese because they were denied the equal right to vote in elections, had no land rights to speak of, and were usually very poor.

Six Key Brit Tactics

1. Draining the swamp

Part of the British attempt at resolving the situation was…the resettlement of people – especially 400,000 Chinese – living in jungle areas to the relative safety of new, partially fortified villages with full round-the-clock armed sentries. People resented this at first but some soon became content with the better living standards in the villages. They were given money and ownership of the land they lived on.

2. Hearts and minds

In 1951 some British army units begun a “hearts and minds campaign” by giving medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous Sakai tribes.

3. Aggressive patrolling

At the same time, they put pressure on MRLA by patrolling the jungle. Units such as the SAS, the Royal Marines and Gurkha Brigades drove MRLA guerrillas deeper into the jungle and denied them resources. The MRLA had to extort food from the Sakai and earned their enmity. Many of the captured guerrillas changed sides.

4. Promising an exit route

(The Brit governor’s) most important deal was a promise of independence once the insurrection was over.

5. Better Intel

He also instituted financial rewards for detecting guerrillas by any civilians and expanded the intelligence network.

6. Good allies

Australia was willing to send troops…and the first group of Australian troops arrived in 1955… New Zealand sent NZSAS soldiers (and air support), and other Commonwealth members also sent troops to aid the British.

The Outcome

In the end the conflict involved some 35,000 British and 100,000 Malay troops against a possible army of 80,000 communist guerrillas.

The last serious resistance from MRLA guerrillas ended…in 1958. The remaining MRLA forces fled to the Thai border and further east.

During the conflict security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerrillas and captured 1,287. Of the total number of guerrillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict and about 500 at the end of the conflict. There were 1346 Malayan troops and 519 British military personnel killed. 2,478 civilians were killed and 810 recorded missing as a result of the conflict.

The coalition is following 5 of these tactics, so it’s instructive to look at the differences between Malaya and Iraq.

The coalition has a much bigger qualitative and quantitative advantage over the Iraqi insurgents

The largest number I’ve seen for the Iraqi insurgents is 30,000, and the coalition (including Iraqi army) fields about 300,000 – an advantage of 10 to 1. The Brits and Malays had only about 50% more men then the insurgents. Plus the Brits soldiers were conscripts not volunteers.

Draining the swamp is harder in Iraq

Unlike the landless Malayan Chinese who supported the insurgents, the Sunnis ruled Iraq for 80 years until Saddam went down. They’re comparatively wealthy, and resettling them is not feasible. However garrisoning their townships is.

The US MSM plays up American deaths more than Brits do theirs

For comparison, Brit deaths in Malaya scaled for population equate to over 3,000 US dead,

Brits (including their MSM and pols) are more phlegmatic than Americans about casualties, perhaps because they and their empire lost 1.4 million dead in 20th century wars – over 2% of their populations.

Foreign Support

The insurgents in Iraq are supplied and given sanctuary by the governments of Iran and Syria. If the Chinese had been strong enough to support the Malayan communists, the Brits would have had a much harder job.


Malaya took about 7 years. However the coalition is most of the way to defeating the insurgency, so I don’t consider the time difference significant.


In summary, compared with the Malayan operation, the coalition is further ahead and has an enormous qualitative and quantitative advantage. However it can’t lock down the Sunni population that harbors terrorists, is fighting proxy wars with Iran and Syria, and is opposed by the US MSM. To complete the victory, these three problems need to be fixed.

Late Autumn In The Southern Med

November 12, 2005

Skies still blue most days, but daytime highs down to 70, which feels quite chilly.

The first rains found a leak in the roof, which in a house that has been evolving for 200 years and has 1 to 2 foot thick stone walls, ceilings and floors represents a major diagnostic challenge. I eventually tracked it down using multivariate analysis and fluid dynamics.

The fruit trees in our yard are looking very fruitful. The oranges here are small, but – being home grown – taste excellent!