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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.'

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“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.”

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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.