Intelligence in Irregular Warfare: A case study on Ireland and Afghanistan

Nationsmith Writer K. David Du writes about a comparative intelligence essay about Michael Collins’s IRA insurgency in Ireland (1915-1920) and compares it to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan 

Michael Collins and the IRA

             Under siege by British invaders for hundreds of years, the Irish were an occupied people who had relinquished self-sovereignty and autonomy to their imperial captors. The Irish had tried to repel the British many times in history, which in every attempt has been met with grisly, bloody failures.  However, it wasn’t until Michael Collins, his Irish Republican Army, and the events of Bloody Sunday were the rebels able to turn Irish hearts and minds against the Crown, and achieving home rule of an independent Irish state.

The objective of this essay is to analyze the role Michael Collins’s intelligence apparatuses had played in thwarting British rule in Ireland. I will focus on the Collins’s personal aspect and operational organization, which lead to many of his intelligence successes; and lastly, British counter-intelligence failures. The secondary objective of this essay is playing the same scenario in the context of the War in Afghanistan; therefore, I will analyze the Taliban insurgency and their intelligence apparatuses within the same criteria in a section following my assessment of the IRA.

There’s no question that despite his bare bones intelligence professionalism, Michael Collins clearly knew the counter-intelligence process well and was able to exploit whatever advantage he could – after all, he was out-gunned, out-trained, and lacked the resources of his British adversaries.

Michael Collin’s personality, personal relationships, and motivations were vital in how he operated his intelligence operations. Individual assessments of Collins paint him as a ruthless leader, who was able to access and utilize any source with great flexibility and mobility. He is also remembered as being incredibly resourceful, charismatic, strategic genius and an unflinching believer of the Irish Republican values and goals. Michael Collins was not above using asymmetrical warfare to his advantage, he organized abductions, assassinations, and summary executions of enemy informants, soldiers, and collaborators in order to change the hearts and minds of his intended target: the Irish population. As an operational commander, he knew which targets was high value, how to penetrate and exploit the rival British intelligence organizations, and when to interdict and execute operations (or assassinate opponents).

Like many revolutionary leaders, Collins created a personal, decentralized network of spies, informants, and operatives who were willing to perform his clandestine operations. Unlike many conventional intelligence organizations of that time, he compartmentalized information to certain individuals, obscured his organizational formations and maneuvers, and kept the most critical information within his mind. Lastly, he was willing to sacrifice his assets if they furthered his cause.

Collins’s network included well-placed members that could easily be hidden in plain sight and exploited: a maid who worked within the Cairo Group’s offices, an Irish junior officer inside the RIC, and just about any Irishman (or woman, for that matter) willing to be utilized as an asset. His assets weren’t always informants; they were normal Irishmen who were willing to supply the IRA with resources, places for safe houses, and misdirection for when the British were close to uncovering key IRA operatives or material. His outfit also included the “twelve apostles”, Collins’s own intelligence detachment responsible for his personal security, intelligence gathering, and surveillance and assassination squad responsible for the Bloody Sunday attacks.

Lastly, I believe much of the IRA’s intelligence successes were a consequence of British intelligence may haps such as its failure to understand Irish cultural customs, religion, and resentment of being an occupied people. Collins made no qualms in his efforts to infiltrate the Royal Irish Constabulary, who were native policemen nor was he merciful in persecuting foreign enemies such as the brutish Black and Tans, mercenary RIC Auxiliaries, the British regular military, and the Cairo Group of professional intelligence officers.

To further illustrate this point, the British were easily distinguishable from the local populace: they spoke in foreign accents, were usually protestant, and historically have failed to assimilate the Irish into proper Englishmen. They had also put a very low value on the lives of normal Irishmen, who had often been the target of violent reprisal attacks, death squads, banditry, and psychological operations by both military and paramilitary authorities.

With this in mind, there is no question why the Irish, who were mostly loyalist subjects of the Crown, turned after the events of Bloody Sunday. The British crackdown on Irish civil society before and after Bloody Sunday was disproportionate to what the average Irishman wanted: stability and hope for a better future. They say during a stand-off between two sides, the side that often wins is the agent of change: that man is Michael Collins.

 The Taliban

            Like Ireland, Afghanistan must also endure an insurgency. The Taliban, since the War in Afghanistan has been toppled as the de jure rulers of Afghanistan, yet many Afghans still believe that Taliban are the legitimate rulers of the country. Like the IRA, they run a formidable shadow government to the one seated in Kabul with a judicial system and police force.

Since the War in Afghanistan, much of their intelligence leadership has been captured or has been replaced. Therefore, there is little evidence besides speculation that the Taliban have anything considerably close to an intelligence chief. Accordingly, Taliban forces are highly decentralized and unlike Michael Collins’s highly organized operation, its intelligence gathering and collection capabilities are fragmented and many of their commanders receive conflicting reports. There’s also no central repository of collected information.

Similar to IRA, the Taliban excel in their intelligence operations capabilities: they have been shown to utilize sophisticated HUMINT-based intelligence abilities that include early warning capabilities, the ability to feign and mislead through misinformation, conduct counter intelligence activities, and easily, their ability to hide in plain sight. It would also be ignorant to ignore that many of the Taliban were the mujahedeen fighters who were trained by the Pakistani intelligence agency during the Cold War.

Incredibly, the Taliban are able to utilize open source intelligence, such as written publications, radio broadcasts, and communicate using the internet with programs like Skype.

Before 9/11, there were estimates that the Taliban had over 20,000 spies and over 100,000 informants working for its Ministry of Intelligence. It would seem unlikely that this capability has atrophied, as there are reports of Taliban infiltration and collaboration from within the Afghan government. Like the IRA, the Taliban routinely search for Afghans who are seen collaborating with US authorities, uncover them, and outright murder collaborators.

Lastly, this will be a lesson for the United States in how it conducts counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan. From the British examples covered in Bloody Sunday, it is vital for the occupying force to understand the culture, social norms, and self-determination of the people they purport to protect.

I believe the intelligence failures of the British are heavily a civil-military affairs issue, thus, the precursor for a victory in Afghanistan lies not in the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Like the British in Ireland, the US and its ISAF allies are clearly the outsiders and are labeled as such – there’s no question of it. What the US is doing right is their incredible attention to detail in training its military officers and war fighters about Afghan cultural norms, language, and society. Unlike the British, US/ISAF’s political posturing assumes a realistic stance: the Afghan people will never accept an American or a European solution; every political solution must be an Afghan one.

In a nutshell, intelligence and counter-insurgency activity [for the US] will always be a cultural tight rope. Though highly constrictive, it is vital that we continue to be sensitive to the Afghan culture, language, and norms in order to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan.

In this essay, I have analyzed Michael Collins, his intelligence organization, and features of the British occupation which I believe led to the IRA’s victory in Ireland. I have also made modern parallels between the Irish and the modern day Taliban movement in Afghanistan in this paper to illustrate the similarities and differences between these two insurgent forces. In conclusion, we have much to learn from Michael Collins by considering the mistakes of the British, their intelligence failures, and Collins’s intelligence successes in the way we fight insurgencies and how we formulate our intelligence doctrines.