The commander of 2-508, LTC Frank Jenio, had been relieved of duty on 13 January. (According to Army Times, there are 961 battalion-level commands in the Army; a service spokesman estimated that around five per year are relieved.) LTC Clarence Counts, a spokesman for the 82d Airborne Division's commanding general, said that Jenio and his senior non-commisioned officer, CSM Herbert Puckett, has been relieved "after a 15-6 investigation was conducted and found that the team's actions were of poor judgment which fostered a command climate that was not consistent with our Army Values." Counts did not elaborate on what those actions were.
The Army Values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.
As noted above, 2-508 is one of the battalions that makes up the 4th BCT of the 82d Airborne. (Readers of the blog might recognize this unit as the modular brigade augmented for security force assistance that was sent to Afghanistan last fall to train and advise ANSF.) In December of last year, 2-508 was pulled off the SFA mission and re-assigned to the Arghandab as a maneuver battalion under the tactical control of Task Force Kandahar, commanded by Canadian BG Daniel Menard.
Prior to 2-508's arrival, the Arghandab mission had been assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. The battalion had sustained extremely heavy casualties, by the standards of this war, since it arrived in country in the summer. Indeed, by mid-December, only five months into a year-long deployment, 1-17 had taken 21 KIA -- more than any battalion in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 period.
Just before Christmas, the Army Times ran a story by Sean Naylor highlighting the complaints of junior leaders and soldiers throughout 1-17 about how the battalion and brigade leadership had chosen to operate. COL Harry Tunnell, commander of 5/2 ID SBCT, had incensed many in 1-17 by firing a popular company commander, CPT Jason Kassulke. Described by his soldiers as "the backbone" and "the glue" of the company, Kassulke had openly disagreed with Tunnell's emphasis on brigade-sized sweeps and other heavily kinetic operations. Many speculated that Kassulke was the scapegoat for 1-17's heavy losses; a dozen of the dead had served in his Charlie Company.
What I've written up to this point is fact. The only concrete, certain correlation between the facts above is a relationship to the same battlespace: the Arghandab River Valley. The Naylor piece in December resulted in a lot of commentary (and even a "rebuttal" on SWJ from one of Tunnell's staff officers), and Jenio's firing (also reported by Naylor in yesterday's Army Times, but only in paper/subscription form) has been more grist for the speculation mill. What follows here will be in that vein. I have no special insights, no access, no combat experience, and no personal knowledge of any of the men involved. My analysis is based only on what's available in the public domain -- on public statements and published writings -- and not on any unique understanding of anyone's individual character. There's a lot here to digest, so this is going to be long and rather detailed; prepare yourself. And so with that disclaimer...
Let's first examine the plight of 1-17. The unit's leadership spent Reset and most of the Train/Ready period preparing for deployment to Iraq, only learning in February 2009 that 5 BCT and its Strykers would head to Afghanistan instead. Here's Naylor:
However, 1-17 soldiers said their training, which had been focused on highly “kinetic” urban warfare drills such as room clearing, did not change much to accommodate the change in mission. “The COIN-intensive fight here … isn’t so much what we trained on,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Turnblom, Charlie Company’s fire support officer.
“We trained [in] urban fighting in
Iraqand then they give us ,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Hughes, Weapons Squad leader in 1st Platoon, Charlie Company. “The principles are the same but the details are day-and-night different, and we’ve learned that the hard way over the last almost five months.” Afghanistan
In response to e-mailed questions from Army Times to Tunnell, Maj. Brian DeSantis, a spokesman for Regional Command-South, said the Stryker brigade “showed a great understanding of what it would take to operate in a COIN environment by the training they conducted before arrival in
Kassulke also defended the pre-deployment training in e-mailed answers to Army Times’ questions, saying it was “as realistic” as could be achieved. “[I]t is hard to say that the training didn’t prepare us,” he said. “We have done a lot of kinetic, enemy-focused missions and the soldiers were definitely trained to do that."
Kassulke's reply is telling, and is representative of the careful, politic tone of most of his responses: the brigade trained on kinetic, enemy-focused missions, and that's what they ended up doing.
There are a couple of different possible complaints about preparation, really, and you see hints of both of them above. The first is that the brigade trained for one mission set and ended up doing another that they weren't prepared for. This could be the legitimate grievance of men who feel poorly led, perhaps even betrayed by their command. But to be under-prepared (or mis-prepared) for Afghanistan as a result of a training focus on a different AO is an understandable consequence of having a stressed, stretched force. That ought not be a gripe about brigade, but about the realities of the modern Army (and FORSCOM). There's some contradictory information here, too: some say that the problem was that the unit trained for urban warfare and ended up operating in different terrain, while others (notably battalion commander LTC Jonathan Neumann) suggest the opposite:
“What we didn’t understand is really where the enemy was making his push against
city,” [Neumann] said. “We did expect more of an open desert fight.” Kandahar
The second possible complaint is that the brigade trained for one mission set and ended up doing exactly that, in spite of the fact that many soldiers and junior leaders feel the situation called for a different mission and mode of operation. This one, to be blunt, is really sort of above an O-3's pay grade. According to Naylor's article, battalion and brigade senior leadership paid lip service to the COIN mission, but still focused on offensive, kinetic, "enemy-centric" operations.
But lower down the rank structure, 1-17 soldiers said that a major factor behind the battalion’s difficulties in the Arghandab was the failure of their battalion and brigade commanders to adhere to McChrystal’s published counterinsurgency guidance, which states up front: “Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will not be won by destroying the enemy.”
Soldiers in 1-17 say that while the battalion’s junior leaders have embraced these principles, Neumann and Tunnell — whose brigade’s motto is “Strike — Destroy” — have not. “There’s definitely a disconnect between the platoon and company level and the battalion and brigade level,” said a Charlie Company soldier in a leadership position, who requested he remain anonymous.
“McChrystal’s guidance is very clear on its population focus,” said another junior leader.
But 1-17 soldiers thought that focus was missing from their operations. “When we first started operations, we were told we were going to stay enemy-focused,” said Capt. Jon Burton, an assistant fire support officer who is also 1-17’s civil-military and information operations officer co-located with Charlie Company. “That came from brigade.”
“That has absolutely been the message that’s been delivered from higher,” agreed Turnblom, the Charlie Company fire support officer.
Kassulke made no bones about the fact that he understood his priorities in a similar fashion, and Charlie Company built counterinsurgency missions around and within the offensive operations directed by brigade and battalion. The climate in his company as described by Naylor was one of nearly open dissent (if not defiance) against the directives of Neumann and Tunnell. In one noteworthy example, Kassulke responded to frequent brigade clearing operations by posting an excerpt from COMISAF's Counterinsurgency Guidance on the wall of his command post:
Sporadically moving into an area for a few hours or even a few days solely to search for the enemy and then leave does little good, and may do much harm. The local insurgents hide in plain sight and the people remain ambivalent. Once we depart, the militants re-emerge and life under insurgent control resumes.
(Neumann directed him to take it down.) Another posted sign, attributed to Kassulke's first sergeant: "Apparently COIN stands for 'Clearing Operations in November.'"
Kassulke's superiors, for their part, insist that these sorts of disagreements and petty dissent had nothing to do with the company commander's early relief. They intimated that the men of Charlie Company may have lost confidence in their commander, or that Kassulke was suffering unduly from the stress of combat. His men, for their part, vehemently disagreed.
Neumann said if it had been up to him, he would not have replaced Kassulke, but the decision was Tunnell’s. “His main point to me was [that he was] worried both about the company and about the man,” Neumann said. “Either one can hit a breaking point.”
But Kassulke’s troops didn’t see any strain affecting him. “I saw him every day,” said Staff Sgt. David Myers, also of 4th Platoon’s second squad. “He never once lost focus. He was on top of his game.”
Tunnell said that the casualties suffered by Charlie Company influenced his decision to replace Kassulke “a month or two” earlier than planned. “It was going to happen in the December/January time frame anyway,” he said.
Can we really believe that Kassulke's dissent played no part? I can't. Even his supporters recognized the risks involved: "It was probably bad juju for an O-3 to tell an O-6, 'hey, you're not doing what the four-star wants you to do,'" said one soldier. Probably. (And that's completely leaving aside the question of whether or not Kassulke was right.) This, for me, is one of the pernicious effects of the full-bore strategic communications/IO campaign that GEN McChrystal and his supporters have engaged in since last summer, to include his Afghanistan assessment (leaked helpfully to the press) and the aforementioned Counterinsurgency Guidance: a failure to effectively disambiguate what is essentially a political argument -- the pro-COIN, population-protection, progressive rationale for escalation and increased troop levels -- from the tactical and operational directives essential to letting subordinate commanders understand their job and how it ought to be done. Everyone has spent so much time talking about the tactics of counterinsurgency, the platoon- and company-level, on-the-ground prescriptions, that alternative methods are viewed as inadvisable, impermissible, or even impossible. And I really don't think a four-star intended to tell every company commander in Afghanistan how to do his job, or how his brigade commander ought to be doing his job.
But what of this particular O-6? COL Harry Tunnell, on the evidence of what little I've read of him, is perhaps perfectly suited to play Darth Vader to the COINdinistas. More from Naylor:
When the brigade deployed to
, Tunnell announced his intention to pursue a “counter-guerrilla” campaign. Most observers perceived a conflict between Tunnell’s approach and McChrystal’s population-centric counterinsurgency campaign. Afghanistan
But Tunnell said that his approach was drawn straight from Army Field Manual 90-8, Counterguerrilla Operations (last updated in 1986), and that it was complementary to, not competitive with counterinsurgency. However, he added, the “counter-guerrilla” concept “is misunderstood. ... That’s why we don’t use the term anymore.”
Brenda Donnell, spokeswoman for the Maneuver Center of Excellence at
, said FM 90-8 had been superseded by FM 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency. “It’s not supposed to be used anymore,” she said of the counter-guerrilla manual. Fort Benning, Ga.
Ms. Donnell's comment, of course, is correct: the introduction to FM 3-24.2, published in April of 2009, expressly states that it is the successor manual to FM 90-8 (which itself succeeded FMs 31-20 Operations Against Guerrilla Forces, 31-15 Operations Against Irregular Forces, and 31-16 Counterguerrilla Operations). But the quoted sentiments are entirely consistent with Tunnell's conclusions in a Combat Studies Institute Press study focused on his command of the 1st Battalion of the 508th PIR in Iraq in 2003, "Red Devils: Tactical Perspectives from Iraq." In Appendix A, "Some Final Impressions From Iraq," then-LTC Tunnell advocated for doctrinal terminology more clearly derived from combat operations than that commonly used to describe COIN and stability operations, using FM 90-8 as a reference.
While on this subject, an interesting digression: COL Tunnell has a Master's Degree in professional communication studies from Purdue University and spent time assigned to the National Defense University's Center for Strategic Communications while recovering from his wounds. During his time at NDU, Tunnell co-authored a paper called "Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism." (This was actually my first acquaintance with the man, as I read the paper -- which I thought was excellent -- when it came out in the summer of 2006. It never occurred to me that I'd later be analyzing the author's operational decisions amidst accusations that he "doesn't get COIN.") This is clearly an individual who understands the power of language. That's why this observation from the CSI study is worth examining:
Kinetic and non-kinetic are terms without any military meaning, usefulness, or purpose. Army units conduct some form of maneuver, they attack or they defend. If a leader wants to restrict his unit’s authority to attack an objective with fires then the leader should describe what he expects. Lethal or non-lethal fires, maneuver, assault, etc. are terms that we routinely use and are in doctrine. “Kinetic” sounds sophisticated but means absolutely nothing to a sergeant, lieutenant, or lieutenant colonel for that matter. Do not tell a subordinate to “go kinetic” or “don’t go kinetic,” tell them to conduct some type of maneuver. Be understandable and straightforward—if you expect your unit to make direct-fire contact with an enemy force then say so; if you do not want them to engage an enemy for a particular reason then simply tell them not to shoot and why.
Even more noteworthy is a passage that follows shortly thereafter:
, many operational level leaders, and this includes those who are traditionally tactical leaders but circumstances require that they frequently operate at the operational level, tended to employ a “social scientist” approach to fighting an insurgency. They concentrated on the development of infrastructure, political systems, etc., which quickly consumed all of their attention and the bulk of their resources. IPB and combat operations, consequently, could quickly become unsynchronized throughout a large area, or an economy of force effort. While in tactical operations, the enemy “still gets a vote” and tactical leaders therefore should continue to focus a large part of their efforts on destroying the enemy, or denying him resources. Iraq
Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy. It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates
to change his or her point of view—they simply must be attacked relentlessly. CMO and stabilization operations are important; commanders should use these activities to help define the operating environment, and gain knowledge about an adversary. It is appropriate for military units to develop goals that include appreciating local culture, improving quality of life for the populace, and promoting good governance whenever these concepts improve access to the enemy. However, if the pursuit of them does not advance one’s knowledge of threats and a unit’s capability to maintain the offensive, then they are of little practical value as tactical or operational objectives. Destruction of the enemy force must remain the most important step to defeating terrorists and insurgents—everything else supports this goal but is not a substitute for it. America
Here we've come to the real crux of the issue, haven't we? Tunnell simply rejects the construct in which an insurgency can be defeated through control of the population, insisting instead that the only way to do COIN is through destruction of the enemy's force. Once more, back to Naylor:
Tunnell, who was badly wounded as a battalion commander in
in 2003, was adamant that the situation in the Arghandab lent itself to the counter-guerrilla approach. Iraq
“Here in the green zone ... they’re hard-core guerrillas,” Tunnell said. “They form and they operate in teams and squads, and they mass into platoons very quickly. So I think you can’t ignore that. We haven’t seen any $10-a-day Taliban here.”
He outlined how he intended his approach to work. “[W]hen it comes to the enemy, you have leadership, supply chains and formations. And you’ve really got to tackle all three of those,” Tunnell said. “I was wounded as a battalion commander and they had a perfectly capable battalion commander in to replace me very quickly; our supply lines were interdicted with ambushes and they never stopped us from getting any resources, but when you degrade a formation substantially, that will stop operations. And then if you degrade formations, supply chains and leadership near simultaneously, you’ll cause the enemy in the area to collapse, and that is what we’re trying to do here.”
Asked if this was an enemy-centric approach, Tunnell replied: “The enemy informs how you gain access to the population. You cannot ignore it. We were taking horrible casualties trying to gain access to the population, and we knew that we needed to get to the population, and so if we didn’t conduct the types of operations that we’re conducting throughout the brigade’s area ... we wouldn’t be able to get to the population. So you can’t separate the two.”
Surprisingly, considering his work at NDU (this makes it surprising to me, anyway), COL Tunnell seems to believe that the vast majority of insurgents are in fact hardened Islamist "terrorists" who will only quit fighting with victory or death. This makes it easy to understand Tunnell's contention that there are no "$10-a-day Taliban" in his AOR, though one suspects that this conclusion may be based more on ideology than intelligence analysis.
But even if you do accept Tunnell's philosophical predisposition, I think he makes a dramatic mistake in equating the insurgency's structure and resiliency to that of the U.S. Army. American forces can replace commanders and keep formations supplied because we have a "deep bench" of talented, well-trained personnel; a flexible, modular, plug-and-play organizational structure; and consistent, standardized training. All of these factors mean that attacks on key leaders or sustainment structures are less likely to destroy a U.S. unit's ability to continue the fight than simple degradation of the formation, but this same equation doesn't apply to insurgent forces. (A counterargument related to "safe havens" and sanctuary can be made here, but this is already going to be long enough.)
In short, Tunnell believes he can kill enough of the enemy to make him quit, or render him incapable of continuing the fight -- in Tunnell's own words, his operations were intended "to dislocate the enemy so they don't want to continue operations." And isn't this the great divide in the great COIN debate: between those who think you can make the bad guys quit by hurting him badly enough, eroding his will to continue, and those who don't buy it?
All of this means that we ought not be particularly shocked when we learn of Tunnell's significant philosophical disagreements with CPT Kassulke (and GEN McChrystal, for that matter): COMISAF is one of the "doesn't buy it" types. But the brigade commander insists that this isn't why Kassulke was relieved, and Kassulke is diplomatic and considered in his own statements on the subject. And then the brigade, in some sense, would be relieved itself: replaced in Arghandab by the battalion from 4/82 at the decision of British MG Nick Carter, the commanding general of RC-South. His explanation for the switch is eminently sensible, as 1-17's Strykers made them uniquely suited for a road-security mission: "in terms of an organization that can bring freedom of movement as an effect to me, there is no better capability than the Stryker brigade." Fair enough. What about their replacement?
2-508, like the other battalions in 4/82, spent its time in the States preparing for the SFA mission in Afghanistan, training up on advisor skills and integrating an augmentee package of additional field-grade officers designed to facilitate splitting the brigade into many small training teams for deployment across both RC-South and RC-West. After spending a couple of months in country performing that mission, the battalion was directed to re-form as a maneuver formation and head for the Arghandab River Valley. This challenge would test the Army's contention that SFA brigades would maintain the capability for full-spectrum operations; though the vast majority of training time was still spent on kinetic, maneuver tasks, the fact remains that the brigade was mentally and philosophically prepared for advising and mentoring.
There's little reason to believe that LTC Frank Jenio was anything but an enthusiastic proponent of this mission, though he obviously retained an offensive mindset: a message the battalion commander posted on a Facebook page for 2-508 families after the unit's arrival in country in September indicated enthusiasm at the opportunity to get into the fight and an assurance that the enemy "are quickly learning that there's a new unit in town... and they are a hellova lot more aggressive than the previous one."
Jenio, according to the accounts I've seen (and to Naylor's most recent article), is generally considered to be a "rock star" in the Army. He's an alternate on this year's Senior Service College list (meaning he was a candidate to attend the Army War College, headed for O-6 and perhaps beyond), and is known to be friendly with GEN McChrystal from his time as the general's executive officer at the Joint Special Operations Command. Jenio also served in the 75th Ranger Regiment -- another commonality with McChrystal -- commanding Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion.
And then all of a sudden, just a month after his battalion takes over for 1-17 in TF Kandahar, just days after briefing GEN McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, and a Congressional delegation, LTC Jenio is relieved along with his CSM. Why? Like I said, I don't have any inside information. I've seen speculation about inappropriate slides, which would seem to fit with the bit about inconsistency with Army Values and fostering an inappropriate command climate, but aside from the apparent sensibility of it I've got nothing to commend that explanation. It strikes me as irresponsible to cast aspersions and try to guess what may have prompted the dismissal when we're not even really sure who pulled the trigger on this disciplinary action: 2-508 is under OPCON to BG Menard at TF Kandahar, but LTC Jenio's administrative chain of command runs through COL Brian Drinkwine (commander of 4/82) up to MG Mike Scaparotti, CG of Task Force 82, the 82d Abn Div, and RC-East. I don't know what kind of weight it takes to fire a battalion commander in a combat zone, particularly one seen as a rising star, but it strikes me that it would probably have to originate beyond COL Drinkwine.
As Bruce has already noted on flit, the nature of the explanation (however limited) given by Scaparotti's spokesman indicates that this decision is not related to operations. The fact that both the battalion commander and command sergeant major were dismissed suggests that this was indeed a matter of "command climate," as both men could be considered responsible for the environment fostered in the unit. On the subject of operational approach, though, it's worth noting that LTC Jenio served as COL Mike Steele's operations officer in 3/101 in Iraq. Steele, as you may know, has expressed many of the same sentiments as those detailed above from COL Tunnell about the utility of COIN doctrine and the necessity of crushing the enemy's will through the application of offensive firepower. (He also, quite incidentally, was a company commander in the Ranger Regiment during the Battle of Mogadishu, an experience that no doubt helped to shape his feelings about force protection and the ascendancy of violence in irregular conflict.)
All of which is a long way of saying that I still have precisely zero idea of how the leadership styles of the various officers I've discussed have impacted the level of violence and/or success of counterinsurgency operations in the Arghandab, but hopefully this helps to illustrate how the "gets it"/"doesn't get it" dichotomy breaks down at the tactical and operational levels. If it's as simple as some guys "getting COIN" and other guys not getting it, then how is it that we've seen successive commanders at the battalion and/or brigade levels with aggressive, offensive, kinetic outlooks assigned to operate in one of the most vital AOs in the country? TF Kandahar, RC-South, and others in the senior leadership of the coalition have made encouraging noises about building on progress in the region and so on, but this is pretty much what they always say. So here's the question: are we any better off in Arghandab, or in Kandahar, or in RC-South, than we were six months ago? Is the escalation and much-talked-about strategic re-orientation toward the "Pashtun heartland" of the south going to be executed by aggressive maneuver commanders in apparent contradiction of GEN McChrystal's softly, softly approach? Is "pop-centric COIN" a PR campaign designed for public and congressional consumption, to be abandoned on the ground for tactical exigencies?
Paul Pena was killed eight days ago. LTC Guy Jones, formerly the operations officer for 4/82, now the new commander of 2-508, lost one of his company commanders less than a week after taking over the battalion. I don't know where he stands on counterinsurgency doctrine, but American paratroopers continue to fight in Kandahar province.
CPT Pena was a friend of one of my very close friends, a fellow graduate with him of little bitty San Marcos Baptist Academy in central Texas (and also a West Pointer, just like Jenio, Drinkwine, Tunnell, Scaparotti, and McChrystal). I don't include him in this post to place blame for his death on his superiors, present or former, or to imagine that his fate would have been any different in a different place on the map or in a different brigade. But reading the details of his biography in the casualty report that came over email from DoD last week, thinking "hey, San Marcos, I wonder if R knows him?", hearing the details of the single mother and loving friends he left behind... it all helped to remind me that this isn't a soap opera. It's not about personalities. It's not Monday Night Football. Our commentary should mean something, should advance our understanding of the conflict or improve the quality of the dialogue about how and why we fight.
I hope -- if you've made it this far -- that you'll help me do that. Apologies for the encyclopedic word count of this post.
UPDATE: I was remiss in not originally thanking Tintin for his contributions to this post, both by pointing me to a lot of the relevant source material -- all the way back to the original Army Times article about a month ago -- and in discussing a lot of the content over email.