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 , Staff writer

  • close
    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.
    View Caption

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.

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.”

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.

“When you feel violent intent coming down from the command and into the culture of the brigade, that’s when you end up with things like the rogue platoon,” says a senior US military official who worked with the brigade in early 2009 at the National Training Center before it deployed to Afghanistan. “He established a culture that allowed that kind of mindset to percolate. And there are second- and third-order effects that come with that. Clearly, the guys who were pulling the trigger are the proximate cause of the crime, but the culture itself is the enabler.”

Others argue that Tunnell’s aggressive posture was fair enough, and even necessary, for infantry troops who must prepare to kill, and also to be killed, on behalf of their country. They point out that the brigade was, after all, equipped with Stryker vehicles designed for soldiers working in some of the most violent regions of any conflict. And Kandahar Province – the cradle of the Taliban – was precisely where the 5/2 brigade was headed for a year-long tour.

“He was a confident, aggressive leader,” says one officer who served under him. “To make any connection between Tunnell and what the [alleged kill squad] did just because he was enemy-focused is a stretch. That was about leadership at a much lower level.”

What had become increasingly apparent to military officials was Tunnell’s reluctance to embrace a strategy of counterinsurgency, which focused on ratcheting down violence and winning over the local population with development measures. It was an approach Tunnell criticized as overly intellectual and something soldiers simply weren’t best equipped to do, troops under his command say.

He instead advocated his own “counter-guerrilla” strategy, directing his military intelligence officers in Afghanistan to create a “Guerrilla Hunter Killer Field Manual" for the brigade. Tunnell’s efforts to push for counter-guerrilla operations over a counterinsurgency strategy went well beyond semantics: It was a philosophy, troops say, that emphasized destroying the enemy above all else.

Face paint and intimidation

In Iraq during his 2003 to 2004 tour, Tunnell’s units began taking steps to make it clear to insurgents that the US military would not shy away from a fight. He encouraged the use of camouflage face paint. “This simple non-verbal cue intimidated the local population – at least initially – and allowed us to gain easier compliance from them,” Tunnell wrote.

Meanwhile, the military was changing. Top commanders would soon tell troops that wearing sunglasses – much less camouflage face paint – sent the wrong message to locals.

Tunnell grappled with these changes, which were already percolating during his Iraq tour, and their implications. How could commanders replicate the success of previous counterinsurgency campaigns without the use of "oppressive measures" that had helped to make them successful, he wondered in his paper. How do you win a war while still maintaining a 21st-century standard of ethics?

Tunnell's answer was his own straightforward doctrine: destroy the enemy.

But there was a growing awareness among his subordinates and his superiors that Tunnell’s emphasis came with a cost. “When you lay that general command philosophy out there, then there are thousands of day-to-day decisions from the first commander down to the private to determine what you should and shouldn’t do,” says retired Lt. Col. Richard Demaree, a battalion commander in the brigade for two years, until he was transferred weeks before the brigade deployed after publicly disagreeing with Tunnell on this issue. “Are you going to spend your time protecting the population, or are you going to destroy insurgents?”

Questions about Tunnell’s leadership focus began to emerge well before the brigade’s deployment to Afghanistan. It had long been an open secret among Tunnell’s subordinates that their boss disdained the word “counterinsurgency.”

Some in the brigade also believed that Tunnell was trying to raise his profile in the military by coining his own terms, including “guerrilla hunter killer teams.” “He was trying to create a new doctrinal term,” says one officer who served under Tunnell. “But it didn’t catch on.”

Readying for an Afghan tour

In February 2009, the brigade arrived at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., to begin its predeployment exercises. Some observers tasked with evaluating the performance of the units that came through soon noticed that Tunnell had set a tone that focused on killing the enemy to the exclusion of much else.

Commanders at the NTC submit a campaign plan that highlights what their brigade will accomplish during their year-long tours. The plan is supposed to incorporate security, economics, governance, and education. “Tunnell wrote one where the only thing that was on it was basically saying in 50 different ways how he was going to destroy the enemy,” says Demaree.

The senior military official who observed Tunnell’s brigade at the NTC offers a similar account. When an observer encouraged Tunnell to discuss the “nonlethal lines of efforts” that his brigade would be undertaking, including development, “Tunnell said, ‘I don’t have a single non-lethal soldier in my brigade,’ ” the senior military official says.

Other officers within the battalion shared their concerns, says the senior official. “I had two staff officers [in Tunnell's brigade] separately tell me that they were afraid that the brigade was going to end up on CNN for ‘all the wrong reasons,’ ” he says.

In response, trainers tried to help officers in the brigade take steps to “lead from the middle to ensure that didn’t happen,” says the senior official, who adds that some other military officials raised the possibility of removing Tunnell from command in discussions that included a two-star general.

Army spokesmen declined to discuss the matter, due to the ongoing investigation of the five men under Tunnell's command – proceedings in which he may be called as a witness. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, leader of the alleged “kill team” suspected of targeting innocent Afghan civilians in 2009 and 2010, had served on Tunnell’s personal security detail before coming to the platoon where the murders were alleged to have taken place.

“This guy was in and around Tunnell on a daily basis,” Demaree says. “How much his personal day-to-day words and actions may or may not have influenced this NCO who directly worked for him” is unclear, he adds. “But he was one of 20-some-odd guys whose sole purpose was to protect Tunnell as he moved around the battlefield. You know all those guys personally. There’s a lot of personal discussion that occurs, and they know you better than anyone else.”

Troops interviewed for this article reject the notion that Tunnell’s philosophy led any troops to commit homicide. “Whatever Tunnell’s failures may have been at higher levels, that doesn’t make people engage in psychopathic behavior. That is a failure of leadership, but it happened way lower than Tunnell,” says one junior officer in the brigade.

An aggressive mindset – just what was needed?

Tunnell was a respected commander who projected a strong persona and encouraged his soldiers to do the same, others add. “You can never yell at a commander for being too aggressive. There’s no such thing,” says the junior officer. “You want infantrymen to be aggressive and violent. You also want them to be well-trained and honorable.”

Many soldiers were appreciative of Tunnell’s take-the-offensive mindset. Another junior officer under Tunnell's command recalls when he first came into contact with the colonel, just before the brigade deployed. “The only time I saw him talk, it was a big pep talk, like an NFL coach before a game,” says the officer, whose company had earned a "counter-guerrilla streamer" – an honor invented by Tunnell. (Tunnell had also come up with the brigade’s motto: “Strike and Destroy.”)

“He told us, ‘You are hunters of men, you are the greatest strike force in the Army’ – basically, that we are the deadliest, most bad-ass thing that the world has seen in quite a while,” the officer adds. “At the time, I thought of it as a nice little pump-up-the-troops speech. I also thought I would not want to run into this guy in a back alley at night.”

It was also probably not a speech they would have heard from many other senior military leaders, says the officer. “It certainly wasn’t, ‘Alright men, we’re going to get in there, take it slow, gather intel and help these people to have a better life.’ Some commanders do take that tack,” says the officer. “For Tunnell it was, ‘You’re a bunch of killers.’ ”

A battered brigade

On the ground, Tunnell’s aggressive philosophy played out in practical ways, soldiers say. Within a couple days of arriving into the dangerous Arghandab Valley, one company received instructions to begin conducting two platoon-size ambushes a night.

It was a demanding, though not outlandish, order, but one platoon commander, feeling he had inadequate intelligence and preparation, made the decision to call off the ambush the first night out. “We were walking through fields with eight-foot-high walls in every direction, passing through choke points like crazy. I thought if anybody was going to be ambushed, it was going to be us,” he says. “There was nothing ethically wrong with my order, but I felt like it was stupid. I didn’t know what the ground was like, and I thought I would be putting my platoon in much more risk.”

During its tour, the brigade lost 37 troops and saw 238 wounded – a figure that amounted to a 10 percent casualty rate in some units and considerable loss by the standards of modern warfare. Many of the soldiers were experiencing tremendous stress, say officers within the brigade, one factor that could be taken into account during the proceedings for the 5/2 soldiers currently awaiting trial.

But some officials continue to wonder whether Tunnell's approach may have resulted in unnecessary harm to both US soldiers and Afghan civilians. “From a command perspective, it was, ‘We’re going to take an iron fist approach.' And I wonder if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says one US official who worked with the brigade soldiers in Afghanistan. “They were seeing more kinetic activity, but they were also bringing a lot of kinetic activity,” says the official, using the Pentagon language for offensive operations.

During the brigade’s tour, Tunnell was brought in for a video teleconference reprimand with senior military leadership. “He was taking a browbeating over this whole counter-guerrilla” philosophy, says one military official who witnessed it. “Tunnell would kind of try to explain it, then couch it in a very politically correct way, saying he was not just out looking for a body count.”

But some officials suggest that the Army confused soldiers under Tunnell by not removing him from command before the brigade deployed. “The fact that the Army chose to keep him in command sent a mixed message to Tunnell’s subordinates. They had to think about who’s right here,” Demaree says. “Everyone knows Tunnell openly disagrees with counterinsurgency philosophy, but no one’s doing anything about it.”

That apparent contradiction routinely affected the decisions made by those under him. “Despite things senior leadership said, I had to do this one last check and say, ‘Is Tunnell going to agree with this?’ And if it was something other than going after and destroying the enemy," Demaree says, "I knew the answer was going to be no.”

Not unethical, but not with the program

Within the Pentagon, some senior officials speculated about the decision not to remove Tunnell from command – even after repeated warnings about his unwillingness to embrace counterinsurgency principles.

“It’s a big decision to remove a brigade commander from his command and, most important, he had done nothing unethical,” says the senior military official who was at NTC.

Demaree agrees: “I would never accuse Tunnell of promoting something that’s immoral or unethical by any means.”

And as the brigade’s tour progressed, some units under his command that did embrace counterinsurgency principles were credited with helping to turn around pockets of the violent Arghandab Valley.

Given what is alleged to have happened within the brigade, however, Tunnell seems unlikely to rise any further in the ranks, senior officials say. After his tour in Afghanistan ended in June, he was assigned to be the executive officer for a three-star general in accessions command at Fort Knox – not the sort of high-profile Pentagon staff job working with four-stars that generally goes to brigade commanders whose careers are on the rise, they add.

“The Army has a way of penalizing people without penalizing them,” says a senior defense official.

Others say that despite the concerns about Tunnell’s leadership style, they understand his offensive mindset – to an extent. “As a Stryker brigade commander, you have to motivate soldiers who you are asking to do very dangerous things,” says the senior US military official who was at the NTC. “But you have to temper that with rule of law, and telling troops that, ‘Hey, part of winning this conflict is going to be every time you pull the trigger, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right thing to do.’ Then 20 years from now when you’re waking up in the middle of the night, that’s what’s going to keep you on the right side of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. That’s what’s going to keep you sane.”

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...