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Pentagon had red flags about command climate in 'kill team' Stryker brigade

Five soldiers in the 5th Stryker brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are charged with forming a 'kill team' in Afghanistan. The commander of that brigade is not implicated in any criminal proceedings, but some Pentagon officials worry that his aggressive philosophy might have been an 'enabler.'

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 28, 2010

A soldier of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, looks over an area to set up an ambush site in the Shah Wali Kot district of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province in this May 21 photo. Five members of the 5/2 are charged with war crimes, including targeting unarmed Afghans.

Julie Jacobson/AP/file

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Washington

While recovering from grievous wounds of a violent tour in northern Iraq between 2003 and 2004, Army Col. Harry Tunnell reflected on the lessons he learned there. One in particular was clear: Peacekeeping methods weren’t working.

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What did work were measures that “political correctness dictates that we cannot talk about,” he later wrote in a paper published by the US Army.

“Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy. It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her point of view – they must be attacked relentlessly.”

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

It was an aggressive approach that Tunnell continued to promote among his troops in the five years following his tour in Iraq, even as the Pentagon had begun shifting toward a more nuanced vision of warfare focused on protecting civilians and, in some cases, promoting the reintegration of insurgents.

As the 5th brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, which Tunnell commanded for three years, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in June 2009, senior Army officials questioned Tunnell's leadership focus with growing concern, and discussed the possibility of removing him from command.

Now, Tunnell’s tenure is raising fresh questions in the halls of the Pentagon.

Five soldiers in Tunnell's brigade stand accused of war crimes, including creating a self-described “kill team” that allegedly targeted unarmed Afghan men and cut off their fingers as war trophies. There is no indication that Tunnell, who declined requests to be interviewed for this story, condoned or had any knowledge of the alleged murders. Nor is he implicated in any criminal proceedings. Soldiers and commanders interviewed for this article emphasize that he never exhorted troops to do anything unethical or immoral.

But military officials are debating the extent to which the climate set by Tunnell influenced the actions of his troops, hundreds of miles away and far down the chain of command.

The question has been raised before, in the case of commanders who oversaw the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, for example.

The narrative of Tunnell’s leadership is particularly significant to the Pentagon now, however, as it endeavors to instill in troops a new ethic of fighting in its current wars – using the least force necessary rather than the maximum force permissible.

The Monitor interviewed a dozen officers and officials who have served with Tunnell or who witnessed him leading troops in recent years. As active-duty members of the military, they could speak only on condition of anonymity because of Pentagon strictures against talking to the press without official clearance.

Some sources suggest that Tunnell set a tone that was not only out of line with Pentagon doctrine, but was inflammatory and potentially dangerous.

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