Small Wars Journal

Search and Destroy

Search and Destroy by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Slate. An excerpt from Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, out this week from Knopf.

One Stryker battalion lost more men in Afghanistan than any other. Who was the gung-ho colonel in charge?


I served with then LTC Tunnel in Iraq in 2003 and was in Afghanistan for part of COL Tunnel's rotation there. He is intelligent, innovative, and very aggressive, exactly the traits we should desire in our infantry officers. Ultimately we still want and need infantry forces that can close with and defeat the enemy on the field of battle. Agreed tactics need to be modified to accomodate the overall context of the fight, so I didn't always agree with his approach, but this article was very much one sided. The author got part of the story straight, his BDE was getting ready to go to Iraq, he invested a fair amount of effort into Arabic language training for his men, cultural awareness, etc. Probably more so than any other BDE Cdr, and then literally at the 11th hour they were diverted to Afghanistan to support the surge. The author also pointed out that Army didn't provide them with enough MRAPs, and a large number of casualties were due to IEDs hitting Strykers. However, ultimately the high casualties in the end were due to the insurgents being very active in the region and this BDE decided to engage them. The population wasn't being protected from the Taliban before the BDE arrived if the Taliban had that type of presence in the region. For the COINdistas the area was not cleared, so no holding, no building, until it is cleared. I have no idea what the Canadain unit in that location did before the 5th BDE arrived, but it wasn't effective.

As Bob pointed out, COL Tunnel's BDE produced the best intelligence in Afghanistan, and this was generated by using some very innovative approaches, but instead of examining these successes (lessons that should definitely be captured) they'll be judged on failing to follow what many believe to be a flawed COIN doctrine to begin with. The comments about relieving him because he wasn't following the doctrine reinforces that the BDE's performance was only being viewed through the optic of FM 3-24, not the effect on the enemy or the populace.

10 years from now I suspect there will be different interpretation of events and actors that isn't as bias as the current view. Rajiv is an experienced author, but he isn't a soldier and knows little about strategy, in this case he simply parroted the popular party line regarding COIN doctrine. I have to agree with Gian on this one. This is just another pro COIN doctrine article with little to substantiate the author's claims that if the BDE took a softer approach that it would have turned out better.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 06/29/2012 - 9:04pm

I served with Harry in Afghanistan. I didn't always agree with him, but he understood what his Stryker unit could do and couldn't do in RC South, and always fought for what he believed his mission to be, be it with the Taliban, or the RC South senior leadership.

Harry told me "We defeated the Taliban in the Arghendab." I didn't think so, as I understood that terrain means little to insurgents. But he indeed had forced them to leave, but that in due time (their time) they would come back. But he approached that mission in a manner within the ways and means of his unit. Harry's S-2 section was the best in the region, IMO. He had firepower and an enemy willing to fight. He let them.

Then Harry was ordered to secure the main highways throughout the entire region. From Zabul to Helmand, and down to Spin Boldak. Oh, and while you are at it, sending your men crusing up and down the IED superhighway every day, have them also dismount and secure the hearts and minds of the populaces a mile to either side and convince them that planting such IEDs were futile. Mission impossible. Mission futile. Harry got frustrated. I don't blame him.

The Flag officers in RC South were eating their young at that time (though most of them all advanced to the next grade upon return to their respective countries). Col Brian Drinkwine - disgraced. Col Harry Tunnell - barbarian. Brig Gen. Daniel Menard - relieved. LTC Brian Petit - sanctioned for a civcas event in Uruzgan ordered by a Captain and perpetrated by Kiowas.

Take any hatchet job on Harry with a grain of salt. He may not be the master of COIN, but I haven't met the man who was.

gian gentile

Fri, 06/29/2012 - 3:21pm

Not another bashing of Colonel Tunnell, please not another one. This one reads just like Sean Naylor's of a few years ago with the same basic counterfactual argument: follow the rules of pop centric coin, put quotes from McChrystal and Petraeus in your command post, say you are protecting the population, then give them things and voila things will get better.

Look, did RC ever consider the fact that perhaps the Taliban enemy said hey boys, whichever freaking battalion ends up in the retched valley they are going down, we are going to concentrate against them? I sumbit to RC that the dream team of Coin battalions (imagine Galula as the battalion commander, HR McMaster as the S3, Andrew Exum, John Nagl, Doug Ollivant, and David Kilcullen as the company commanders, and every soldier in that battalion trained to the tee on afghan culture, language bla bla bla) and the same darn thing would have happened to it!

Like Carl Prine I grow weary of this never ending stream of counterfactual assertions which essentially make up the argument to RC's book: assume that coin theory works in practice, tweak the org structure and tactics, send the marines to the right spot and there you go, you win.

It sure seems like a never ending search by this current bevy of main stream reporters to find the John Paul Vann for Afghanistan, the solution to solve the riddle.