Ireland And Iraq: When COIN Works And When It Cant

The Irish Civil War is a conflict that is widely ignored in military circles, outside of the Irish Army, which has always seemed strange to me. The Irish Civil War is that rarest of things: an example of a successful COIN campaign, that led a newly emerging state to victory over an insurgency, turned those insurgents to a political system and helped make the nation viable. There are many things that we can learn from the experience of the pro and anti-Treaty sides of the Irish Civil War that we can use to greater understand the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The comparison with Iraq is apt, for several reasons. Both wars began in a conventional manner, with that phase of the war ending quite quickly. Coalition forces smashed their way to Baghdad in a month, while the pro-Treaty government basically fought only five major engagements of note in a matter of months– Dublin, Limerick, Kilmallock, Fenit and Cork – before the traditional war came to a close.

Both winners of that conventional conflict prevailed due to having a superior amount of troops and superior technology with the losing side failing to carry the complete support of the people.

But the comparison doesn’t really have legs beyond this point. The Iraq War was an outside intervention by a foreign force, one that was backed up by some internal fighters. The Irish Civil War was just that, a civil war between an army, the IRA, that had been split due to political reasons.

A better comparison is not with the Americans, but with the new Iraqi Republic, a state that has been forced to engage in a long, drawn out struggle with an insurgency since its very inception. In that regard, Iraq, its government and its armed forces can be compared with the pro-Treaty side, the side that formed the legitimate or “Regular” forces of Ireland, with uniforms, structure and technology, with the Iraqi insurgent forces comparable to the anti-Treaty side: both forces carrying out a guerrilla style campaign aiming at de-stabilising and toppling the sitting government.

What followed in Ireland, once the conventional war had finished with a resounding victory for the pro-Treaty side, was an insurgency/COIN war that lasted less than seven months, and ended with the near complete victory of the Regulars over the “Irregulars” (the term “Irregulars” was coined by pro-Treaty generals as a derogatory phrase, but has since become the standard name for those forces of the anti-Treaty IRA).

This was success that has not been replicated in Iraq. The reasons for this are manifold, and offer an insight into the amazingly difficult process that counter-insurgency actually is. It is a process that is reliant on a wide number of factors, and also an absence of factors, in order to be successful in a meaningful way. Looking at the decisive victory of the pro-Treaty side and how they reached that point, it is possible for us to see why the COIN campaign in Iraq has failed in the past, and is perhaps destined for failure in the future.

The pro-Treaty side consisted largely of members of the WoI IRA, and so they knew the leaders of the anti-Treaty side intimately, knew their tactics, hiding places, style of combat. They knew weaknesses and strengths. In Iraq, the government and army of the Republic seems largely separated from the militia that have fought against it, unable to really turn those members of the “awakening” into legitimate armed forces. The pro-Treaty side did not operate their own allied militia military system, you were either in the army or not. This meant the merging, disbandment and creation of certain units, changing things from the WoI norms which angered many but meant a unified command structure that could better take on the anti-Treaty foe. Iraq has never had full unity of all of its post-Saddam military resources.

Iraq has been emerging from the shadow of a brutal repressive dictatorship that divided the country largely along religious lines. Ireland, while never fully free under the British crown, is not comparable in that respect. Iraq has deep seeded problems due to their recent history that Ireland did not have.

Especially, the religious divide between Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities was not as pronounced as the divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam in Iraq. In fact, it was almost a non-factor in the Irish Civil War, the majority of combatants on both sides being Catholics. The existence of such a secular conflict in Iraq adds an extremist dimension to the COIN operations, further complicating them.

In that regard, the Irish Civil War, with some very obvious exceptions, was fought with less extreme tactics then the insurgency in Iraq. That is, the main form of conflict was not IEDs, bombs or other kinds or terror, but the tactics of the WoI. Such tactics, while viewed as extreme at the time, were limited enough when compared to Iraq, and were more easily combated. The Iraqi insurgency could not, in many cases, be directly confronted by military force, and relied more on intelligence work.

The Irish Civil War was fought by Irishmen. That is, no foreign troops directly aided, with troops either side (the pro-Treaty side was armed by the British, but fought all engagements themselves). The closest was a threat by then Minister for War Winston Churchill to bomb anti-Treaty positions in Dublin shortly before the war broke out. In contrast, Iraq has had huge amounts of foreign troops on its soil, complicating the COIN effort. Iraq might have been better served with a stronger native military taking the lead in counter-insurgency, rather than an outside one, which would naturally build resentment. This kind of resentment, which is a killer for COIN, was absent in the Irish Civil War.

At the time of the Irish Civil War, mass media did not exist, and it was easy for the pro-Treaty side to control what little press existed, mostly print and a smattering of radio. This allowed them to dominate the propaganda war. Maliki in Iraq has attempted this (anathema to democratic ideals of course, but winning is winning) but it is increasingly impossible to fully control the media in the modern age, as Egypt and Tunisia found out recently. The pro-Treaty side did not have to deal with Twitter and its denizens badmouthing it.

Ireland was also a periphery state, one who only really was a concern of Britain. This allowed it and the pro-Treaty side a greater amount of latitude in making decisions and fighting a war then Iraq, in the middle of one of the great strategic interest areas, can have. Everything that the pro-Treaty side did was analysed by a London government desperate to wash its hands of the situation. Everything Maliki does is watched and commented on by every major power on the planet, not to mention regional neighbours.

The Irish Civil War was decided by a relatively powerful military completely defeating a smaller foe, retaining the largest part of popular support, controlling the media and showing no hesitation when it came to military matters as well as having a stable political machine behind it. Iraq is absent a powerful military, it is absent a stable political structure, it has no media control, limited popular support and seems unable to adequately face those insurgent elements that may one day take up arms against it.

Nine years after the Irish Civil War ended, the party that was made up of those members of the losing side won power in an election, and took over the running of the country peaceably. COIN had worked in Ireland. Is it possible to imagine a similar scenario occurring without bloodshed or fraud in Iraq, ten years from now? Not really.

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