French Algeria and British Northern Ireland: Legitimacy and the Rule of Law in Low-Intensity Conflict

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THE POST-COLD WAR world, with its small wars of ethnic nationalism; tribal and religious conflict; and localized and global terrorism is not so different from Europe during the era of decolonization in the late 1950s and 1960s. The ethnic and religious roots of many of the world's current conflicts derive from the period when Europe shed its empires and much of the developing world gained independence. One critical lesson of the European wars of decolonization is the need to maintain legitimacy while conducting low-intensity conflict (LIC) operations. Without legitimacy, a democratic nation cannot hope to prosecute operations to a successful conclusion.

Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 and in Northern Ireland from 1970 to 1999 reveal significant truths about legitimacy and the rule of law. Insurgent warfare based on ethnic nationalism is inherently political. If, during the course of such a war, a government and military abandon the principles that put them above the level of the terrorists they are fighting, they lose the legitimacy of their cause and face political and military defeat.

In 1958, after several years of war in the then-French province of Algeria, which resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties, the French Fourth Republic collapsed and was replaced by a new republican government hostile to the war. In 1962, the French Army left in defeat and Algeria became independent. Ironically, by all accounts, the French Army had decisively defeated the Algerian Front de la Liberation Nationale (FLN) rebels and retained control of the country militarily at the time Algeria gained independence. (1)

The government of the Fourth Republic lost credibility and most of its popular support because of a perceived loss of control of the military waging the war and its toleration, if not encouragement, of the army's widespread use of torture, assassination, and violent intimidation. The French Army's ruthless counterterrorism campaign in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 was a classic Pyrrhic victory. The French Army crushed the FLN in the city, but the methods it used caused an international outcry that led to the Fourth Republic's downfall and, with it, the loss of any real hope for an "Algerie Francaise." (2)

By contrast, since 1969, in an attempt to force the separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain, Irish Nationalists have waged a war of terrorism against the British presence. Hundreds of combatants and innocents have been killed, yet Northern Ireland remains solidly British. In fact, the cease fire, Good Friday peace accords, and subsequent political developments suggest the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has virtually given up hope of achieving its aims through violence.

The British Army's counterterrorist and peacekeeping campaigns against the many paramilitary groups in Ulster have seen their share of mistakes, crises, and political failures but, on the whole, compare favorably with the French effort in Algeria. The British Government has insisted on maintaining civilian and police control over military operations, using the minimum possible level of violence in attacking terrorists, and has held fast to the rule of law in conducting military operations. (3) Despite some well-publicized exceptions, the British military has remained under the firm control of civilian authorities, and transgressions of law have been publicly investigated and prosecuted. This adherence to the rule of law has allowed the British Government to retain its legitimacy in the paramount view of domestic public opinion. (4)

Although these two wars differ in their causes, historical context, and geography, they are similar enough to help draw some important conclusions about LIC operations and government policies. In both wars, terrorists and insurgents fought on behalf of an ethnically distinct population residing in an area geographically separated from but still rhetorically and politically an integral part of the home country. …