Lessons in Counterinsurgency from the Anglo-Irish War

January 21, 2014

J.B.E. Hittle, Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure (Potomac Books, 2011).

Michael Collins and I are unrelated to the best of my belief, but in 1994 I genuflected before his pale death mask in the National Museum of Ireland on Dublin’s Kildare Street. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War is less his biography between 1919 and 1921 than a case study of intelligence and counterintelligence during that period of Irish insurgency and British counterinsurgency warfare.

Author Hittle admits that the full extent of Collins’ intelligence network never will be known. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that the complete story of British intelligence efforts against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during 1919-1921 will ever be known because the Brits burned many sensitive files and sealed the remainder when they departed in 1922. He has, however, done a bully job with the best available data, which occupies 28 pages of descriptive endnotes and a six-page bibliography.

The foreword by Michelle Van Cleave, who was the U.S. National Counterintelligence Executive in 2003-2006, notes,

An intelligence service suffering from confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization is a ripe target for the adversary to penetrate, defeat, and exploit. That is why a strategically coherent counterintelligence capability is never more important than in times of turmoil and change.

Pages that follow confirm her contention because the British intelligence community underwent a politically driven and ill-advised reorganization at the very moment that Collins and the IRA were going on the offensive.

The 2009 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide underpins Hittle’s assessments of British performance during uprisings in Ireland. Hittle contends that British forces emphasized military-centric operations defined as “first defeat the enemy, then all else will follow,” rather than population-centric operations defined as “first protect and support the population, then all else will follow—a sizable mistake in his opinion.

British army, police and intelligence specialists organized, equipped and trained for heavy-handed conventional warfare (much like U.S. forces in Vietnam several decades later), but were poorly prepared to secure insurgent hotbeds, much less restore civil institutions and authority after gutting the economy by sacking and burning sources of livelihood in efforts to make life so miserable for most Irish citizens that they would welcome restoration of British rule. Inept strategic intelligence gurus failed to keep political leaders properly informed of positive and negative developments that would indicate whether present policies, operations, and tactics were succeeding or failing., .  This skewed security policies and invited regional catastrophes. Van Cleave’s foreword explains resultant problems as follows: bureaucrats in charge tended to meet new situations by reorganizing, “a wonderful method for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization” (does that sound familiar?). The appointment of a career law enforcement officer as supreme director of national intelligence and home security, for example, rapidly disrupted a proven counterintelligence community by adding needless bureaucrats. Hittle says that shuffle “should stand as a stark warning to American politicians and policy-makers,” inasmuch as “partisan political maneuvering and budget slashing… habitually handicap the U.S. intelligence community every decade or so.”

Michael Collins took full advantage of British discombobulation and realized early on that many civil service employees were sympathetic Irishmen who could be recruited or coerced into providing invaluable intelligence. Irish informers and civil servants who yearned for Home Rule were particularly exploitable, because many not only staffed the postal and telegraph system, but served as policemen and tax collectors. He appealed to patriotism and, whenever that failed, resorted to extortion, kidnapping, and slaughter to silence targeted individuals who remained loyal to the Crown. Collins concurrently recruited and developed key penetrations in virtually all British institutions in Ireland, including the British Secret Service, and adroitly used this information advantage to unleash ruthlessly effective hit-and-run guerrilla attacks.

Brits, in sharp contrast, found few native-born Irish who were willing to help penetrate Sinn Fein and IRA cells. Many who volunteered to help had lived outside the homeland quite long and lost touch with potentially lucrative contacts. Wholesale murder of Dublin’s Metropolitan Police Detective Force concurrently decimated members who knew leading rebels by sight. The residue predictably became reluctant to risk their lives after odds against success sagged precipitously.

The basic value of this book to most U.S. national security specialists are lessons they should seriously consider regarding intelligence and counterintelligence practices during counterinsurgency operations anywhere. History buffs may dispute flat statements such as

[Michael] Collins advanced revolutionary strategy to a new level. He was the first revolutionary to combine guerrilla warfare tactics and ruthless political assassination with relentless political agitation that included non-recognition of the existing political system, proactive formation of a shadow government to replace it, and a highly effective propaganda offensive.

Hittle’s contention that “Ho [Chi Minh] followed the Michael Collins playbook to perfection in his thirty-year revolutionary struggle against the French and the Americans” is equally disputatious. This slim volume in any case is an easy read that held my attention throughout and will captivate others equally well whether they agree with every word or not.


Colonel John M. Collins completed 53 years of Federal service, first with the U.S. Army (1942-1972), then as Senior Specialist in National Defense with the Congressional Research Service (1972-1995). He remains active with the Warlord Loop, a national security email forum.