Irish bomb expert takes on the Taliban


An article in the Irish Examiner on 2 March 2007, entitled Irish bomb expert takes on the Taliban, reported:


“The army has sent its top explosives expert to battle the Taliban in war-torn Afghanistan.  The senior officer will head a contingent of seven Irish soldiers to serve with ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, in the country.


“The technician is Ireland’s top bomb disposal expert and routinely attends bomb alerts with Defence Forces Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit.”


Ireland has had 7 military personnel serving with ISAF since 5 July 2002 - this is merely the latest deployment of 7 personnel.


A decision to commit military personnel to a mission abroad is supposed to be subject to a Triple Lock requirement, that is, the mission has to be authorised by the UN Security Council, and the commitment of troops has to be approved both by the Government and by the Dáil. 


As we will see, the creation of ISAF was authorised by the Security Council.  According to a written answer by the Minister of Defence, Willie O’Dea, in the Dáil on 26 October 2006, the Government took a decision on 2 July 2002 “authorising the provision of seven members of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the force”.  Presumably, this decision was also approved by the Dáil (though I haven’t been able to find a record of it in the proceedings of the Dáil).


No doubt the proper approval procedure was gone through in 2002.  But, since then, ISAF’s mission has changed utterly.  In 2002, ISAF was a peacekeeping force in and around Kabul; today, it is engaged in offensive military operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.  What was approved in 2002 was the provision of military personnel to a peacekeeping force as ISAF then was, not to the “warfighting” force led by the US/UK that ISAF has since become.


Resolution 1386

ISAF was established, initially for 6 months, by Security Council Resolution 1386, passed on 20 December 2001 [1], shortly after the US/UK military intervention in Afghanistan that led to the overthrow of the Taliban.  Resolution 1386 authorised it


“to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment”.


The Afghan Interim Authority, headed by Hamid Karzai, had just been put together by the US at a conference in Bonn.


Resolution 1386 was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and authorised ISAF to use armed force, if necessary, to fulfil its mission.  Paragraph 3 gives it the authority to “to take all necessary measures to fulfil its mandate”, which is UN-speak for authority to use armed force, if necessary. 


When ISAF was established, it could reasonably be said to have a peacekeeping role.  At the same time, forces under separate US command were engaged in offensive military operations in the southern Afghanistan (as part of Operation Enduring Freedom).  Then, ISAF was not engaged in “warfighting”.


However, in the intervening 5 years, ISAF’s role, and area of operation, has been gradually changed by the Security Council.  It has now taken over the “warfighting” role in southern Afghanistan, which was formerly the business of US forces under separate command.  Most of the latter have been transferred to ISAF.


Resolution 1510

In October 2003, resolution 1510 [1] authorised ISAF to operate


 in areas of Afghanistan outside of Kabul and its environs, so that the Afghan Authorities as well as the personnel of the United Nations and other international civilian personnel engaged, in particular, in reconstruction and humanitarian efforts, can operate in a secure environment”


In addition, resolution 1510 required ISAF to “work in close consultation” with “the Operation Enduring Freedom Coalition”, which was certainly not engaged in peacekeeping.


Under this new mandate, ISAF set up bases first in northern Afghanistan (for instance, at Konduz and Mazar-e-Sharif) and later in the west (for instance, at Chaghcharan and Herat), ostensibly to provide security for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).  These actions met with little resistance, since these areas are home to the groups that made up the Northern Alliance, which helped the US overthrow the Taliban regime in late 2001.


However, in 2006, over 10,000 US troops were transferred to ISAF command and it extended its operations to the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan, from which the Taliban arose.  By so doing, ISAF essentially took over the ongoing US Operation Enduring Freedom and it understandably met with fierce resistance.


Under NATO command

ISAF came under NATO command in 2003.  As of February 2007 [2], it had 35,460 troops from 37 states, the largest contributors being the US with 14,000 and the UK with 5,200.  (The US has a further 8,000 troops in Afghanistan under its own command).


There are also substantial contributions from Germany (3,000), Canada (2,500), The Netherlands (2,200), Italy (1,950) and France (1,000).  However, some states apply “caveats” to what there troops are allowed to do:  Germany, for instance, whose troops are in the north, restricts them to firing in self-defence, which is appropriate to a “peacekeeping” role, but not to ISAF’swarfighting” in the south.


Throughout ISAF’s evolution from peacekeeping to “warfighting”, Ireland has continued to provide 7 military personnel.


Of late, Bush and Blair have been trying to browbeat other NATO states into providing more troops for ISAF operations in the South and into lifting “caveats” on troops already serving in other parts of Afghanistan, so that they can be used in the South.  Happily, so far, they have had little or no success, so they are having to put in more troops of their own.


O’Dea takes on the Army

If Phoenix is to be believed, Ireland would be answering the Bush/Blair call for more troops for Afghanistan, if senior officers in the Defence Forces had their way.  In its issue of 9 March 2007, an article entitled Corporal O’Dea takes on the Army told of ongoing rows between Minister of Defence, Willie O’Dea, and senior officers “usually in reaction to the gung-ho posturing of officers anxious to get into the global war theatre as main players”.  The article continued:


“Thus, he has had to dampen down expectations of massive investments in the EU battle groups and has also clashed with offers over his refusal to offer unqualified support for the US war in Iraq and his attachment to that old shibboleth, Irish neutrality”.


More specifically, on 24 February 2007, the Irish Times reported that Willie O’Dea had sent Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan, a strongly-worded letter in early January reminding him that “any public comment on national, international or political issues represented a breach of Defence Forces rules” [3].  The occasion for this rebuke was an interview given by Sreenan without the Minister’s permission to the Irish Times, extracts of which were published in two articles on 27 December 2006 [4].


Irish Times interview

In the interview, the General spoke about Ireland’s participation in one of the 13 EU Battlegroups (which are battalion size units, around 1,500 strong, that are supposed to be capable of rapid deployment around the world).  Willie O’Dea announced Ireland’s intention to participate in a speech on 9 February 2006 [5].  Sreenan told the Irish Times that it had now been agreed that Ireland will contribute 80 troops to the Nordic Battlegroup, led by Sweden, alongside troops from Sweden, Finland, Norway and Estonia.  This battle group is scheduled to be available for deployment for the first six months of 2008 (but, after that, not until 2011 at the earliest).  This is a small commitment compared with the present deployments of 330 troops in Liberia, 200 in Kosovo and 160 in Lebanon.


(It is worth noting that, in his speech on 9 February 2006, O’Dea stated unambiguously that any deployment of Irish troops as part of an EU Battlegroup would be subject to the same Triple Lock requirement as other troop deployments overseas.  He said:


Any decision to participate in any mission, irrespective of our commitment or participation in a Battlegroup, will be a national sovereign decision. … The Triple Lock requirement of UN, Government and Dáil approval will continue.”)


Perhaps, the Minister was annoyed that the General had stolen his thunder by announcing Ireland’s participation in the Nordic Battlegroup.  More likely, it was some of the following remarks (as reported by the Irish Times on 27 December 2006) that annoyed him, since they are manifestly concerned with policy questions:


“Gen Sreenan said the nature of all overseas missions in which Irish troops would be involved in the future was becoming more difficult.”


“Gen Sreenan described as ‘misleading’ the use of the terms ‘peace keeping’ or ‘peace enforcement’ to describe the nature of the Defence Forces’ work overseas. Irish troops were now playing a vital ‘crisis management’ role. They were helping to bring security in the developing world. In doing so they were paving the way for NGOs, security sector reform and other development work.”


“Gen Sreenan said he believed reservists would help to alleviate pressure on the 10,500 full-time soldiers, as the Defence Forces became more involved in increasingly ‘complex and robust’ missions overseas.”


(The Defence Act allows the deployment of members of the Permanent Defence Forces under specified circumstances.  It’s not clear that it would be legal to deploy members of the Reserve Defence Forces overseas without amending it.)


Minister’s letter

Small wonder then that the Minister felt the need to write a letter of rebuke to the General.  The Irish Times report of 24 February 2007 on the letter said:


“‘On matters of policy’, [O’Dea] wrote, ‘there can and must be only one position defined either by Government, by me as Minister for Defence (or through my officials). No official spokesman can have any legitimate role beyond the articulation of this position.’ … ‘Where there is any doubt, it is essential to establish the official position in advance of commenting publicly’.


Mr O’Dea reminded Lieut Gen Sreenan about sections of the Defence Forces regulations that prohibit any public comment on policies by a senior officer. ‘No discretionary power is mentioned’, he said. … ‘The airing of individual or controversial views is simply prohibited and any departure from the prohibition is a breach of regulation.’”


The Minister’s rebuke was fully justified.  You can’t have military men sounding off about policy in a democracy.



David Morrison

Irish Political Review

23 March 2007





[3]  See

[4]  See

[5]  See