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A Light at the End of the Tunnell

Colonel Harry Tunnell 

Michael Yon recently published a remarkable and courageous letter by US Army Colonel Harry Tunnell to the Secretary of the Army regarding deficiencies in our military operations in Afghanistan.  Colonel Tunnell is now retired, but the letter was sent while he was on active duty in 2010. Yon calls it “stunning” and I wholeheartedly agree. It is a “must read“.

Colonel Tunnell is a controversial figure in the Army. A bluntly outspoken critic of COIN with strong views on military professionalism and tactical leadership, he served as a commander of combat troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where he was badly wounded. Overcoming his injury, Colonel Tunnel returned to command a Stryker brigade in Afghanistan and clash with his ISAF superiors over his use of older Army doctrine on counter-guerrilla operations instead of the pop-centric COIN of FM 3-24.  Tunnell aggressively and repeatedly attacked the Taliban in his area of operations, pressing them, which resulted in frequent combat and casualties on both sides – something that was out-of-step with ISAF’s tactical guidance. Several enlisted soldiers in the Stryker brigade were convicted of the infamous “Kill Team” murders which led to Tunnell being investigated and cleared by the Army which found no causal responsibility from Tunnell’s advocacy of aggressive tactics but nonetheless reprimanded him for “poor command climate”.

In light of  Tunnell’s letter to the Secretary of the Army, interpret that administrative action as you wish. Afterwards, Colonel Tunnell continued to be a harsh critic of COIN and the focus of periodic,  extremely one-sided, negative stories in the media.

When Yon published his piece on Tunnell’s letter, I commented to him on a private listserv and he asked permission to use it, which I gave:

Mark Safranski Comments Col (ret.) Harry Tunnell 

The following email came from Mark Safranski subsequent his reading this letter from Colonel (ret.) Harry Tunnell.  The letter.

===Email from Mr. Safranski:===

Interesting, this part in particular:

“”A gross lack of concern for subordinates,” Tunnell wrote, “manifests itself in guidance that ‘zero’ civilian casualties are acceptable and coalition soldiers may have to be killed rather than defend themselves against a potential threat and risk being wrong and possibly resulting in injury or death of a civilian.”
….Tunnell’s memo exhibits particular disdain for British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in Regional Command South, which includes the Arghandab District where Sitton was killed.

It was Carter, Tunnell wrote, whose verbal order led commanders to risk their own troops rather than Afghan civilians – something Sitton complained about two years later in an email to his wife.”

Very helpful. I finally get it now.

I was always curious, reading threads [on private listserv] here on Afghanistan, how Colonel Tunnell was able to openly pursue counter-guerrilla operations in Afghanistan when pop-centric COIN was the heavy-handed, top-down and rigidly enforced tactical paradigm; Harry, IMHO, could do this because the *verbal* orders being issued went far beyond FM 3-24 theory into an unauthorized and unofficial but *politically desired* British policing model used in Northern Ireland. A kind of tactical guidance that could not be put in writing and enforced through the UCMJ because the American people would have found that guidance to be politically intolerable and morally outrageous – and rightly so.

Unlike Catholics in Ulster who are subjects of the Crown, Afghans are not American citizens and American soldiers and Marines are not cops in a bad neighborhood. Nor is the Taliban the IRA. Minimizing civilian casualties is a good and worthy goal; valuing political atmospherics over American lives is a sign of gross incompetence, at best.

Hence the anonymous leaks and smears about Harry to politically connected  Beltway scribes instead. Tunnell’s superiors were afraid to air their real dispute…..

Read the rest here.

In my view, Tunnell’s letter raises critical questions that every officer has a duty to raise with his superiors in the chain of command if, in their view, operations are not properly being carried out, which endangers the campaign and the lives of the troops. Moreover, if the United States military is to adhere to some bizarre, complicated, unworkable “law enforcement model” ROE not required by the Laws of War, or even our own COIN doctrine, then this is a subject for Congressional hearings and testimony from the administration, not something to be instituted on the sly using allied foreign officers.

Wanting to police the world is hard enough without making our soldiers into policemen.

12 Responses to “A Light at the End of the Tunnell”

  1. joey Says:

    It was Carter, Tunnell wrote, whose verbal order led commanders to risk their own troops rather than Afghan civilians – something Sitton complained about two years later in an email to his wife.”

    I’m not sure what is meant by this?   Could someone clear up please?  Surely it is preferable that soldiers die in the interests of safe guarding civilians?  Since they are being paid to carry out a dangerous job,  and take the job in the knowledge that they may die following orders.  Not the other way around,  ie civilians caught up in a battlefield dying so soldiers can make it out alive.

    American soldiers are supposed to be professional’s not a militia force donating there time.  If they are ordered to conduct themselves according to a certain set of principles, that is what they should do. Perhaps the British understand this basic premise.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of coin or whatever,  surely there is something wrong when a low ranking officer decides that he knows best and decides that he shall apply his own tactics and the rest of the army can go to hell?  What if every officer acted like Tunnell?  

    A final point, success has a 1000 fathers…  blaming foreign officers has a long linage,  the Prussians came in for quiet a kicking during Alexanders retreat in 1812.  The basic issue should be the war is being lost, if not lost already,  why split hairs as to weather the whole Coin thing has been taken to far,iIts ridiculous that such such an issue takes up oxygen rather than the basic fact that Afghanistan is being lost. 

  2. zen Says:

    Hi joey,
    Well, what puzzled me the last year that I have been aware of this situation was why Tunnell was allowed to carry out counter-guerrilla ops if that violated orders. The answer as I see it is, that counter-guerrilla ops are still as much official US Army doctrine as FM 3-24 COIN but what Major General Carter was ordering (assuming he did) American troops to do re: do not defend yourself unless you can guarantee zero casualties – isn’t. It might not even be a lawful order in light of obligations that US Army officers have toward their men without a contingent military necessity justifying such a risk. That’s a question for an expert in the UCMJ, which I am not, but I suspect that the weird hands-off approach of ISAF toward Tunnell’s operations indicates I may be right

  3. Pundita Says:

    Hi Joey — What soldier expects to be handed rules of engagement that give him zero ability to defend himself if there is the possibility that he might unknowingly harm a civilian?  That’s not a job; that’s martyrdom. That’s not soldiering, that’s forced suicide. That’s not warfare; it’s a perversion of the concept of war.
    The draconian rules of engagement were demanded by Hamid Karzai only when he understood that the NATO command did not have victory over the Taliban — or al Qaeda — as its objective in Afghanistan.  Only when he realized that NATO was settling down in Afghanistan for years on end and that it would not confront the true source of the insurgency, which was Pakistan’s defense regime, did he insist that NATO abandon it’s pretense of war regarding the normal rules of engagement that govern the military’s treatment of civilians in a battle zone. 
    With regard to the British role in Afghanistan — first, there’s no blame that Tunnell or any American critic could level against British conduct in Helmand that has not already been exceeded by the blame that British defense analysts and editorialists have leveled against the British command there.
    In fact, just recently  — in the last few months — there was a uproar in the U.K. when the British public learned that the draconian rules of engagement had been imposed on British soldiers in Afghanistan. 
    Secondly, my understanding of Zen’s point is that he’s referring to a tacit application of ROE that were used by the British to deal with the IRA in Northern Ireland.
    In other words, ISAF soldiers are being ordered to follow what are essentially illegal ROE — which makes it impossible for the soldiers to formally protest. That is the scandal, Joey — a scandal perhaps unprecedented in the history of modern warfare.
    Keep in mind that the approach used by the British in N. Ireland, while counterinsurgency tactics, were not part of an acknowledged ‘war.’  The situation was referred to informally as “The troubles.”  But to apply such tactics in war conditions is not only a scandal, it’s also an atrocity.     

  4. Pundita Says:

    Zen — I should have prefaced my reply to Joey with thanks to you for mentioning Tunnell’s letter and for all your comments about it. I tried all day yesterday to write a post about it, but with one interruption after another I may not get out the post until Thursday unless I pull an all-nighter.  Anyhow, you may trust I will publish at my blog about it, and perhaps more than one post.
    The situation Tunnell describes is horrible but thanks to Michael Yon and you now the public stands a better chance of learning the truth of what has been done to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
    All of it must come out, in part because something very strange has been going on with the American military.
    I’ve been trying for more than two years to figure out what’s really going on but I am still in the guesswork stage. I suppose I shouldn’t be doing my guessing in a public venue but it’s almost as if the civilian government is trying to turn the military into a kind of mercenary force that can be placed under the command of any number or foreign governments as the case may warrant. 
    My guess is probably wrong but I have seen enough that I didn’t pull the guess out of thin air.  There’s always been a lot of fuzziness regarding how decisions are made in NATO but it’s no longer just NATO; it’s now an ‘international security force’ commanded by scores of governments, many of which don’t belong to NATO……

  5. joey Says:

    I would say that the basic assumption that carter issued such an order is hearsay at the moment, and any commander would wish such an order in writing.  Correct me if im wrong.

  6. Bob Coleman Says:

    I was the Law Enforcement Professional assigned to JEFF-6 at RC-S during this time. And prior I was with a platoon plus at Dand Wa Patan.  All the colonel says is true.  When coin demands that Americans toilet with Afghans and at that level it does, you begin the doom of every military principle important to the good morale of an army.   I think the Colonels last paragraph spells it out quite well.  You’ll have to cross reference any take aways from this letter with the command relationship the US Marine Corps enjoyed in first the dashed line and then hard between RC-S and RC-SW.  No one was going to tell RCT commanders what to do, or not, like Carter did.  I guess you had to be there to see it, but having US brigades under British Command or depending upon Canadian heavy support would be like asking LAPD to depend upon cub scouts from San Fransisco to back them up in East LA.  Further,  any notion that defeating or suppressing an enemy in a country such as this without civilians suffering great harm is ridiculous.  Certainly preventing their deaths to a reasonable degree is important, but not the most important thing.  We’ve gotten to a point where the only real killing of the enemy SOF types, hides behind pop-coin and the unwarranted deaths of Americans; frankly just driving around waiting to get blown up.  SOF isn’t going to win anything by themselves. So there you have it.

  7. Bob Coleman Says:

    I meant to say – real killing of the enemy by SOF types.

  8. Ski Says:

    You know, if it bothered Tunnell to such an extent, he could have resigned his commission before the deployment to Afghanistan. I wonder if anyone has bothered asking him this question.

  9. Madhu Says:

    Isn’t writing strongly to leadership of a piece with resigning a commission? I’ve never been in the military, I’m not sure how this stuff works. If you resign, you basically say you think you are being asked to do something wrong and won’t do it?
    If you write strongly to leadership and then plan to do things you think are correct, is that wrong?
    Sorry to be so dopey, I really don’t understand a lot of military culture so this is a serious question on my part.
    At any rate, how exactly did this ISAF/NATO thing work in practice? I mean, who was in charge in what way, and how? I expect we’ve got years of interviewing, reading declassified materials, and study coming up about this topic. And then it will be like other conflicts, the arguments will continue forever….
    I still don’t get how we got together (meaning NATO/ISAF) this Rube Goldberg contraption of a strategy given that we knew full well Saudi Arabian and Pakistani intelligence were involved in various ways from the very beginning, and for various reasons….
    Why are some American military officers so naive about the world? It’s a serious question. Or, perhaps, they are not, but they can’t speak up and so it comes across that way.

  10. Madhu Says:

    The whole kill-list thing made me so angry when I first read of it that I couldn’t look at the situation clearly….

  11. Madhu Says:

    Back to the original point about orders, we can’t really discuss this without understanding the day to day structure of ISAF and its various duties and designations of who is in charge for what….
    I’ve always been suspicious but that is my nature, sadly. Always been that way, dunno why.

  12. Justin Boland Says:

    “That’s not a job; that’s martyrdom.”


    What baffles me the most — and it’s pure ignorance on my part — is how, precisely, the UK wound up with so much clout in the Afghanistan theater?

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