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.

6 thoughts on “A Light at the End of the Tunnell”

  1. I read that letter the other day and it explained some other observations. A caller to Rush Limbaugh a couple of weeks ago described how her husband wrote about not being allowed to shoot at Taliban mortar men while they were firing on the US position because they were “civilians.” Has anyone every seen a Taliban uniform ?

    I read the book by Dakota Meyer and Bing West, “Into the Fire” which described an incompetent command situation that got a number of Americans and Afghan soldiers (who Meyer was friends with) killed.

    The story is horrifying in its description of command failures and indecision. I wonder if something similar occurred in the Benghazi clusterf***.

    COIN became the doctrine but it does not apply to a situation like that in Afghanistan. Protecting the civilian population may apply where the houses are not forts and the men don’t fight for recreation. Afghanistan, at least in the hinterlands, is 1000 years away from a modern society. Iraq and Malaya, where COIN began, are not.

  2. Unfortunately I have a tough time taking seriously anything Michale Yon says. he has alienated many people in the Special Forces and military community, and seems to have puffed up his own accomplishments.

  3. “Unfortunately I have a tough time taking seriously anything Michale Yon says.”

    I know he has alienated a lot of phony milbloggers but would be interested in why SF are upset. I read his books like I read Michael Totten’s stuff on the middle east.

  4. Joshua Chamberlain showed the same sort of discipline and command unknown to Obama. An element of Chamberlain’s life almost unknown to biographers was the fact that he was wounded in a later battle and was left with a urinary fistula for the rest of his life. His fistula dribbled urine until he died in 1914. All through his career as professor, then governor, he did not complain of this residual of war.

    The bayonet charge is one of the most famous moments in American history. It may have saved the victory at Gettysburg.

Comments are closed.