Spencer Ackerman uses some interesting language:
Did Disdain for Counterinsurgency Breed the ‘Kill Team?’
The looming question within Craig Whitlock’s excellent Washington Post piece on 5th Stryker’s commander, Colonel Harry D. Tunnell IV, is whether Tunnell’s distaste for counterinsurgency created an environment of callousness that led some of his soldiers to form a “Kill Team.” Tunnell himself had nothing to do with the murders of three Afghan civilians that the “Kill Team” is charged with committing. And there’s no evidence to date that he knew about the team’s alleged killings, corpse mutilations or hash smoking.
So… what’s the point? Spencer doesn’t actually say—he seems to imply that a rejection of counterinsurgency leads one (“breeds” one) to commit horrific crimes against humanity. Let’s be perfectly clear: you do not wander around the countryside, looking for people to murder and harvest their body parts, because you reject counterinsurgency. You do it because you are mentally ill. In a war, some soldiers will do horrible things—that’s not a question of aggressiveness (the USMC are FAR more aggressive than the Army when it comes to gunfights, but not even the Marines in Haditha harvested trophies from bodyparts), or COIN. It is a question of sanity.
The Stryker brigades are among the most high-tech in the army, equipped with armored vehicles that are “networked” to provide a common “operating picture” of the battlefield. This can breed hubris among soldiers who think that their gee-whiz gadgets give them an insuperable advantage over a more primitive foe. That was certainly the case with Tunnell, who actually told me that all his sophisticated computer systems gave him a better picture of his area’s “human terrain” than that that possessed by the insurgents. I thought this was a pretty amazing statement considering that few if any of his soldiers spoke Pashto or understand anything about local customs — all of which was second nature to the Taliban.
Questions of Tunnell’s competence as a commander—and by all accounts he appears to be a bonehead—are beside the point. Tunnell is not the only commander to have vocally rejected COIN in Afghanistan, nor is he the only one to institute a far more aggressive stance than his predecessor. I can think of at least two Brigade commanders who did so in RC-East, without anything like the “Kill Team,” and blaming a commander for being aggressive and taking losses in a war is ridiculous on its face.
But blaming a misplaced faith in technology for his soldiers committing horrible crimes against humanity is… well it’s more than a few steps beyond petty.
A fascinating undercurrent to this discussion is the descent of counterinsurgency as an unstoppable force for the betterment of war to a troubled theory we haven’t really figured out how to do right, if ever. Many of the boosters of COIN, who see the McChrystal implementation literally blowing up in our faces, seem eager to cast what is wrong with the war on refusing to follow the theory, rather than the theory’s inherent unworkability.
There is an effort, in other words, still, to enforce a rigid orthodoxy on COIN. Boot proclaims “protecting the population” is job #1 of any COIN campaign, but even where it supposedly worked, in Iraq, all measures of violence got worse—air strikes increased exponentially, as did kill missions on High Value Targets, and aggressive (and bloody) “sweeping” missions to clear areas of insurgents. It played into the fundamental social and political dynamics of Iraq in 2007. It is not playing into the fundamental social and political dynamics of Afghanistan in 2010. Blaming the monsters at the margins of the war, rather than the ill-suited strategy at its center, is passing the buck and avoiding responsibility for what happened.