Small Wars Journal

Why Donald Trump's 'Mini-Surge' in Afghanistan Invites Skepticism

Why Donald Trump's 'Mini-Surge' in Afghanistan Invites Skepticism by David Kilcullen, The Australian

As President Donald Trump ponders a “mini-surge” of a few thousand troops to Afghanistan and Canberra considers supporting the effort, it’s worth recalling a controversial character from last time around. Colonel Harry Tunnell, a US Army officer, commanded a Stryker (light armoured) brigade in Kandahar during Barack Obama’s surge of 2009-12. He was sacked after allegations of a “kill squad” in his unit targeting Afghan civilians, and complaints from allies (notably General Sir Nick Carter, British commander in Kandahar) that he refused to support the counter-insurgency strategy then in effect.

Nobody accused Tunnell of complicity in killing civilians, but critics claimed he was too focused on the “kinetics” — attacking the enemy rather than protecting the population — and failed to support governance and economic development. They argued his belligerence made enemies of potential friends in the community and created a command climate where rogue subordinates thought they had tacit approval to kill civilians.

I was in Kandahar at the time and close to people on both sides of the dispute, including Brits in the headquarters and Americans and Afghans fighting under Tunnell’s command. Without weighing in on the merits of his dismissal, I always thought he made some good points about the then situation — points worth reviewing as we consider surging again.

One grievance against Tunnell was he issued a directive ordering “counter-guerilla operations” rather than counter-insurgency. Tunnell responded that he was simply drawing on official US Army doctrine from the early 1960s. He was right about that.

Before escalation in Vietnam, the army did draw a clear distinction between military aspects of a campaign — defeating guerilla combat units — and broader counter-insurgency efforts including governance, intelligence, rule of law, economic development and other measures to undermine insurgents’ support. Both aspects were regarded as critical, but the military’s counter-guerilla role was seen as its key task and a subset of a larger, primarily civilian, counter-insurgency campaign.

The military’s job was to defeat the guerilla forces, while civilian agencies took the lead in translating battlefield success into long-term political and economic stabil­isation. In Vietnam, this distinc­tion still existed in theory, but what was then called “pacification” blurred it in practice, with the army and marines leading governance and development programs such as “winning hearts and minds” and “civic action”.

By the 90s, in places such as Bosnia, military forces increasingly were taking the lead in ­nation-building during reconstruction and stabilisation operations, simply because they could: they had capable logistics systems and could support and protect their people on the ground, unlike civilian agencies (cut back dramatically after the Cold War).

After 9/11 — and, particularly, the fiasco of the early Iraq occupation, when civilian agencies proved barely able to function in high-threat environments — the military reluctantly took charge of all aspects of counter-insurgency. In principle, civilian agencies were supposed to retain responsibility for civil functions; in practice, they plugged into military life-support systems and command-and-control infrastructure, and were unable to get outside the wire or interact with the population except with military help.

This made military commanders key players, but also diluted their attention from military matters to economics, politics, infrastructure, rule of law, essential services and a host of other issues.

This “comprehensive approach” was enshrined in NATO and US military doctrine after 2006. By the time of Obama’s Afghan surge, it was considered self-evident that soldiers needed to undertake governance and development programs because these things needed to be done and civilians were not in a position to do them. This led to some odd outcomes: in 2011, I worked with a US Navy submarine commander running a provincial reconstruction team on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and with an armoured ­cavalry officer leading a counter-corruption taskforce reforming accounting and banking systems…

Read on.