Commentary Magazine


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The Limits of Technology in Counterinsurgency

The Washington Post has an interesting if depressing report on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd infantry division — the unit where five soldiers who are accused of killing several Afghan men “for sport” came from.

The Post notes that the brigade’s commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, was adamantly opposed to the prevailing counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes protecting the population. He believed in “counterguerrilla operations” along the lines of his brigade’s motto, “Strike and destroy.” He encouraged an aggressive attitude that resulted in many casualties — both among Afghans and among his own men. Some of those losses were no doubt inevitable, because the 5th Brigade was deployed to a heavily Taliban-infested area on the outskirts of Kandahar. But it is striking, and alarming, that the army allowed the deployment of this brigade to a vital area even when it was obvious to all, as far back as pre-deployment training, that Col. Tunnell was dangerously out of sync with the state-of-the-art thinking on how to fight counterinsurgency. The Washington Post article notes that Tunnell is not implicated in the atrocities allegedly committed by his men, but it raises legitimate questions about whether his overly aggressive attitude may have been at the root of some of the brigade’s problems.

That was certainly an issue in my mind when I visited Col. Tunnell and was briefed by him at his brigade operations center at Kandahar Air Field in October 2009. A related issue, which isn’t mentioned in the Post article, is Tunnell’s faith in technology. 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.

The army has made great strides in counterinsurgency, but this shows clearly that it still has a way to go. It clearly has to do a better job of making sure that all those in such important combat commands have a better understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine — which includes a keen appreciation of the need for cultural knowledge and the limits of technology in this kind of fight.