Does Anti-COIN Lead to Atrocities?

From today’s Washington Post (Brigade linked to Afghan civilian deaths had aggressive, divergent war strategy):

When the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade arrived in Afghanistan, its leader, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, openly sneered at the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy. The old-school commander barred his officers from even mentioning the term and told shocked U.S. and NATO officials that he was uninterested in winning the trust of the Afghan people. 

Instead, he said, his soldiers would simply hunt and kill as many Taliban fighters as possible, as dictated by the brigade’s motto, “Strike and Destroy.”

What resulted was a year of tough fighting in territory fiercely defended by the Taliban and a casualty rate so high that it triggered alarms at the Pentagon. By the time the 3,800-member brigade returned in July to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., it had paid a steep price: 35 soldiers were killed in combat, six were dead from accidents and other causes, and 239 were wounded.

The brigade also carried home a dark legacy that threatens to overshadow its hard-won victories and sacrifices on the battlefield. In some of the gravest war-crime charges to arise from the Afghan conflict, five soldiers have been accused of killing unarmed Afghan men, apparently for sport, and desecrating their corpses. Seven other platoon members have been charged with other crimes, including smoking hashish – which some soldiers said happened almost daily – and gang-assaulting an informant.

There are many, many issues I need to discuss here.  But first, I need to open with a full-disclosure and disclaimer notice. The brigade commander, Col. Harry Tunnell was a student at the National War College during my first tour there in 2004-06.  I knew him, but I don’t think I ever had him in class.  And frankly, my sense of him — admittedly impressionistic — is that he wouldn’t have been much interested in what an egghead academic like me thought anyway.  And at the time, in 2005, while I was becoming skeptical of the Iraq war, I was probably more pro-COIN than anything.  Long story short, he an I spend much of a year in the same building, but didn’t know each other well, and I really don’t have a personal stake in the story.

There are a lot of cross-cutting agendas in this story, however.

First, someone obviously wants to make Tunnell the fall guy for what seems to me to be the bad luck of having a sociopath in his unit.  Is it possible that Tunnell’s focus on killing the bad guys created an atmosphere conducive to sport killing?  Maybe.  But the key seems to have been the presence of Calvin Gibbs who at least claims to have done similar things in Iraq rather than Tunnell’s warfighting philosophy.

Second, the story also notes the high casualties in the unit.  And frankly, I don’t know enough about this to comment, but I’d like to solicit feedback from those of you who are more knowledgeable.  Obviously, the level of casualties could be tied to the “strike and destroy” philosophy of the brigade commander.  But it can also be tied to the sector in which they were operating, strategic decisions by the insurgency, terrain, and any number of other variables.  I just don’t know if the high casualties in this unit reflect bad decisions or unfortunately circumstances.  I’d welcome clarification and comments on that.

Third, whether intention or not, this has to be seen as a shot across the bow of COIN critics, particularly those of us who have advocated a more enemy-centric approach.  As Spencer Ackerman writes:

But for the families of at least three Afghans, and possibly a fourth, the “Kill Team” had a lasting impact. “Kill Team” lawyers charge that Tunnell’s selective interpretation of his orders led Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the team, to play by his own rules as well.

Lots of officers and soldiers think counterinsurgency’s focus on protecting civilians has gone too far. And their units haven’t produced “Kill Teams.” So it’s not as if skepticism of counterinsurgency reveals a zest for brutality. And chief counterinsurgent David Petraeus has consistently reminded people that counterinsurgency is a violent undertaking.

But Tunnell isn’t the first commander to set an aggressive tone and watch his soldiers misapply it in ugly ways. If the “Kill Team” is found guilty, it’ll likely spark a painful debate within the Army about the relationship between his anti-counterinsurgency approach and some of his men’s crimes. Striking the right balance between protecting civilians and fighting an enemy just got harder.

I think intellectual honesty requires us to consider the issue.  There are competing hypotheses about the connection between doctrine and atrocities:

Hypothesis 1: A philosophy that puts “kill” rather than “protect” at the top of the queue is more likely to lead to disregard for civilian casualties and is more likely to create an atmosphere in which the commission of atrocities can either be hidden or justified.

Hypothesis 2: COIN campaigns because they are drawn out and inconclusive in the short term lead to frustrations that manifest themselves in atrocities precisely because of the perception that not enough bad guys are being killed.

Hypothesis 3: In the absense of a deliberate policy to encourage atrocities — as in the case of German forces on the Eastern Front in WW2 — atrocities are uncorrelated to force employment doctrines.

Hypothesis 3a: While uncorrelated to force employment doctrines, atrocities may be the level of scrutiny places on kinetic activities, and this may be loosely correlated to doctrine, but may also reflect more idiosyncratic factors. 

I don’t know which of these is accurate, and I don’t know off-hand of empirical work that would shed light on this.  My suspicion, and it is just that, is that what we have here is a combination of bad luck in having a sociopath in the unit, a certain level of over-aggressiveness in the brigade that may have reflected the commander’s personality, and weak scrutiny of kinetic activities because of the emphasis place on engaging the enemy.

In short, what we have here is likely a combination of factors.  I do think it is an over-statement to suggest that opposition to COIN lead to the problems this unit had.  But as a general matter, an enemy-centric approach is, I think, likely to create an atmosphere where there is less scrutiny placed on individual firefights, which effectively pushes responsibility for using force discriminantly down the chain of command.  If you are in a unit where you know that every firefight is going to need to be explained and justified at length, I suspect it makes it harder to get away with inappropriate use of force.  A unit, however, that is expected to routinely engage and destroy enemy forces is likely to see less scrutiny, which means that NCOs and platoon/company commanders are going to be more important in ensuring that their troops follow the ROE.  Or so, it seems to me.  Correct me if I am am wrong.  But the implication, I think, is that an enemy-centric approach is likely to create more opportunities for abuse.  Which does not mean we should not do it, but rather that the risk of additional collateral damage and the marginally greater potential for atrocities needs to be weighed in the balance.

4 comments to Does Anti-COIN Lead to Atrocities?

  • mclaren

    You’re overintellectualizing. After 9 years of futile war with no victory in sight, these kinds of blowups become increasingly common. The tempo of continuous deployment is breaking the U.S. army, in particular the noncommissioned officer corps. If & when the U.S. finally pulls all troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s going to take at least a decade to rebuild our broken armed forces.

  • Me overintellectualizing? Unpossible!

  • Michael Drew

    This seems like a bit of precious debate, because in what world is enemy-centricwarfare going to be taken off the table. That’s basically what we have armed forces; even those least skeptical of COIN see the matter this way. The debate is whether we want COIN to be an arrow in the USM’s (and hence USG policymakers’) quiver, not whether it replaces enemy-centric operations. It may be the case that enemy-centric operations carry a greater risk of/tolerance for atrocities and unintended casualties, but what’s the upshot? We still have a military that exists primarily to destroy hostile forces, and perhaps (pursuant to a national debate) also rebuilds the institutional understanding of how to wage counterinsurgency, though in hopefully vanishing instances after this current Iraq-Afghansitan era.

    As a separate matter with regard to this horrendous story involving the 5th Stryker Brigade, I would please ask anyone looking into it even merely for the purpose of being privately informed, to please review this audio before making even tentative personal conclusions about the actions of the men of this unit, especially with respect to the command environment within it: It was enough to make me fundamentally question the institutional integrity of this country’s military command structure in a way I have never done since i began to pay any attention to that question at all. That doesn’t say much as I am the layest of laymen, but I wonder how this story strikes those who look at these matters professionally.

  • mclaren

    Michael Drew asked: “…In what world is enemy-centric warfare going to be taken off the table?”

    In the world of the 21st century. As William S. Lind and Martin van Creveld have pointed out, the 21st century is the age of 4GW: war without an enemy. Petraeus and Finel are grappling with the resultant conclusion that our current armed forces are obsolete. We don’t need an army or a navy or an airforce for the kinds of conflicts we’ll have to engage in throughout the 21st century. The U.S. army was designed to beat the Wehrmacht in the Battle of the Bugle, the U.S. navy is designed to defeat the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Battle of Midway, and the U.S. air force is designed to win dogfights with Soviet MiGs over Korea. These armed forces as they are currently constituted are useless in dealing with insurgents in third world hellholes who look and act exactly like the civilian population because they are the civilian population.

    The “hostile forces” which it is America’s armed forces raison d’etre to destroy don’t exist. America has 11 carrier battle groups. All of ’em will go to the bottom within the first 5 minutes of any engagement, courtesy of supersonic shkval-class torpedos, and radar-stealthed pop-up cruise missiles. Dogifghts are obsolete, with UAVs the wave of the future, able to pull G forces that would turn human pilots into puree. That leaves land tank battles, a relic of the 20th century which has become entirely obsolete in the era of the stealth bomber and the anti-tank drone.

    The U.S. military as presently constituted is worthless and useless, and the evidence is clear: America is losing two wars at once against barefoot teenage boys who are armed with bolt-action rifles. The Tijuana police force could whip the U.S. army today. The only significant question now is what America replaces its obsolete failed military with, or, indeed,whether to replace it with anything at all or instead follow Gen. Smedley Butler’s advice and maintain only a coast guard for coastal defense and a small standing army of perhaps 30,000 men for civil crises like the New Orleans levee break.

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