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How Great Nations Can Win Small Wars

By Yagil Henkin

Iraq, Northern Ireland, and the secret strength of democratic peoples.


The death toll from 1972-1974, at the height of the first outbreak of violence, was 297 members of the security forces and 597 civilians.24 Between March 1973 and February 1977, 276 IRA bombs exploded in Britain, and 14 shootings were carried out by Republican organizations.25 In later years, the Irish Republicans were not idle; between 1984 and 1986, they were responsible for no fewer than 521 bombings throughout the United Kingdom,26 and in the early 1990s the organization launched a bombing campaign in London that included, among other attacks, firing mortars at the prime minister’s official residence and detonating explosive-laden trucks in the Baltic Exchange and the NatWest Bank tower, which together caused enormous economic damage.27 In 1977, Seamus Twomey, an IRA leader, said: “By hitting Mayfair restaurants, we were hitting the type of person that could bring pressure to bear on the British government.”28 The IRA violence was carefully directed at convincing British public opinion to favor giving up Northern Ireland.
At the height of the fighting, it was certainly possible to believe that the Irish separatists had a good chance of achieving their objective. Early in the conflict, some high-level members of the British government advocated acquiescence to the IRA. In a 1972 memo he wrote to the British prime minister and a number of senior members of the government, the British Foreign Minister Alex Douglas-Hume argued:
The real British interest would I think be served best by pushing them [the Irish] towards a United Ireland rather than tying them closer to the United Kingdom. Our own parliamentary history is one long story of trouble with the Irish.29
At certain stages of the conflict, “polls demonstrated clearly that the majority of the British electorate would be glad to relinquish any claim to Northern Ireland,” one scholar asserted.30 Ostensibly, the outcome should have been clear: A British surrender to IRA demands.
But in the end, it was the IRA that announced a ceasefire. In 1994 it abandoned armed struggle, and not because it had achieved its ends. By the end of the 1980s, the IRA was an army on the run, and its leaders began to face the reality that they could not achieve their ends by violent means. The British honed their methods and were hitting the IRA hard, while Protestant counter-terror groups, which between 1989 and 1993 killed at least 164 Catholics—among them 20 members of the IRA—demonstrated to the IRA and to the Catholic community as a whole that their struggle was not paying off.31 Equally discouraging to the IRA was the fact that even though the British from time to time negotiated with IRA representatives and were prepared for certain reforms, they never gave any indication that they would consider surrender. Martin Mansergh, an Irish adviser who participated in the negotiations leading to the 1994 ceasefire, said that “while I do not agree that violence has never had any political effect, I see absolutely no evidence from our dealings with the British government, or indeed its dealings with anyone else, that it was materially swayed by the bombings in the city of London.”32 Even when many British citizens, perhaps even most of them, were prepared to make concessions in Northern Ireland or even give it up, “successive British governments had made it clear that they would not and could not give way to ‘terrorism’”33—and the British public did not force its government to do so.
In the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the IRA leaders adopted “a settlement that only a few years ago would have been regarded as treason.” They succeeded in achieving concessions that reduced Protestant discrimination, but the accord was nonetheless “a defeat for Irish republicanism.”34 After more than 25 years of fighting and 3,600 dead,35 the British demonstrated that a guerilla force does not always “win when it does not lose.” On July 28, 2005, the IRA announced its decision fully to abandon armed struggle in favor of developing “purely political and democratic programs.”36 Northern Ireland is still part of Britain. The British government did not relent, and the public did not force it to give in to pressure and withdraw.37
Another meaningful example of a democracy defeating an unconventional enemy is the IDF’s confrontation with terrorists in the Gaza Strip between 1967 and 1973. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan maintained a policy of non-intervention toward the 316,000 Gaza inhabitants on the grounds that they should be left to manage their own affairs and that an improvement in their economic condition would help prevent terrorism: “You think twice about helping terrorists when your belly is full,” he quipped. The result of this hands-off approach was a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the Gaza Strip. Terrorist groups took advantage of the unmonitored environment and organized and armed themselves with the declared intention of bringing about results similar to those that had been achieved in Algeria and were going to be achieved, as they saw it, in Vietnam.38 The significant improvements in medical services, education, and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip between 1968 and 1971 not only failed to bring about a more peaceful atmosphere; they actually helped terrorist organizations operate more freely.39 The situation reached a point where Palestinians thought to be collaborating with Israel were publicly executed, and residents actively helped terrorists evade capture by the IDF. Israeli citizens began to detour around Gaza on their way to Sinai, and Palestinians, fearful of the terror organizations’ revenge, were afraid to work in Israel. In 1970 alone, terrorists murdered 128 Arabs and 15 Jews, injuring 580 Arabs and 120 Jews.40 Only in early 1971, after a Palestinian terrorist threw a grenade at a parked Israeli car, killing two Jewish children—an attack that shocked the nation—did Israel change its policy.
IDF forces poured into the Gaza Strip and adopted a “carrot and stick” policy: Rewards for areas and individuals that refused to assist the terrorists, and destruction of the homes of collaborators and their expulsion, insofar as it could be done within the limits of international law.41 Development work started and stopped according to the security situation in a particular area, so that the residents had a stake in keeping things quiet. Emphasis was put on the economic improvement of trouble-free areas and protecting workers with jobs in Israel. Identity cards were changed to prevent forgeries, the behavior of soldiers was carefully scrutinized, and Palestinian complaints about unbecoming behavior on the part of the IDF were dealt with promptly.42 A military approach was adopted that the commander, Ariel Sharon, described as “anti-terrorist guerilla warfare.”43 Large and fixed patrols were replaced with small, fast-acting squads that were in charge of specific areas and well acquainted with their residents. Special operations were designed to strike at the terrorists and undermine their control over the population. The refugee camps were thinned out, roads were built through them, and lighting was installed.44 At the same time, a massive information campaign was undertaken to win the cooperation of the civilian population, ranging from explanations of the IDF’s actions to the screening of Arabic-language films.
The IDF’s approach yielded impressive results. By the end of 1971, one of the most wanted terrorists, Ziad al-Husseini, was already complaining that “nobody will agree to set up bases for us in the area where we operate. The people are afraid and are beginning to let us down.”45 Moreover, the pacification of Gaza was accomplished with a remarkably low cost in innocent lives. For example, the Shaked commando unit, which was responsible for catching most of the wanted Palestinians, killed only one innocent person, an elderly deaf man who did not hear the soldiers’ warning.46 Some 180 guerillas were killed, around two thousand were captured and imprisoned, and the number of wanted fugitives was reduced to almost zero.47 The terrorists who had operated so freely had moved out of the Gaza Strip completely by 1972, without any political or other gain for the Palestinians. The Gaza Strip was quiet for fifteen years.48
Alongside these unambiguous democratic successes in Northern Ireland and Gaza, the case of Russia—less than fully “democratic” yet in many ways similar to democratic states in ways that are relevant for the debate—in the second Chechen war offers an additional example of how public resolve can affect the outcome in a small war. In post-communist Russia there was initially little public support for the first Chechen war, which erupted in 1994 and lasted twenty months. Insubordination in the Russian military was pervasive, a number of generals resigned or were dismissed because of their opposition to the war, and at certain stages only about a tenth of the Russian public was in favor of continuing it. When the war ended in a Chechen victory, the two sides signed a five-year interim peace agreement.49
The conflict erupted again in late summer 1999. Several months earlier, the Russian public was divided on the Chechen question, with 41 percent in favor of allowing the Chechens independence, and a slightly larger percentage against. The conventional wisdom holds that in such a situation, the Russian public could be convinced to favor granting independence to the breakaway republic by being subjected to a campaign of violence or terrorism.


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