When a Stryker brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord arrived in Afghanistan last year, its leader, Col. Harry Tunnell, openly sneered at the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy. The old-school commander barred his officers from even mentioning the term and told shocked U.S. and NATO officials that he was uninterested in winning the trust of the Afghan people.
Instead, he said, his soldiers from the 5th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division would simply hunt and kill as many Taliban fighters as possible, as dictated by the brigade’s motto, “Strike and Destroy.”
What resulted was a year of tough fighting in territory fiercely defended by the Taliban. The brigade also carried home a dark legacy that threatens to overshadow its hard-won victories and sacrifices on the battlefield. In some of the gravest war-crime charges to arise from the Afghan conflict, five soldiers have been accused of killing unarmed Afghan men, apparently for sport, and desecrating their corpses.
Seven other platoon members have been charged with other crimes, including smoking hashish – which some soldiers said happened on a near-daily basis – and assaulting an informant.
As sordid accounts of the platoon’s activities continue to emerge, critics inside and outside the Army are questioning whether the brigade’s get-tough strategy, which emphasized enemy kills over civilian relations, could have influenced the behavior of the accused.
Questions also persist about why the 5th Brigade’s chain of command did not intervene earlier, given that soldiers from the platoon are charged with crimes alleged to have taken place over a roughly six-month period, beginning in November 2009.
Interviews and records obtained by The Washington Post indicate that commanders received multiple warnings of trouble brewing in the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment.
Some soldiers have since told investigators that their company commander became furious after learning that the platoon had killed a second unarmed Afghan in January. But rather than referring the incident up the chain of command, he demanded that soldiers find evidence that would allow the Army to justify the shooting.
In March, the platoon’s first lieutenant and sergeant were removed from their posts because their soldiers had been caught shooting at dogs, according to Army investigative records. In contrast, no disciplinary action was taken after platoon members shot and killed four Afghan men, who were allegedly unarmed, in as many incidents. (Three of those shootings are now the focus of murder investigations.)
“It’s obvious that willful blinders came into play, because this unit clearly was stepping in it,” said Eric Montalvo, an attorney for one of the soldiers charged with murder.
Tunnell, the brigade commander, is not implicated in the shootings. There has been no indication that he was aware that soldiers were allegedly killing for sport until special agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command opened an investigation in May.
According to brigade members, however, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the self-described “kill team,” was assigned to Tunnell’s personal security detail from July until November 2009, right before the first of the atrocities was allegedly carried out.
Gibbs, 25, was reassigned to 3rd Platoon for reasons that remain unclear. Army officials declined to say why he was transferred, citing the criminal investigation.
Within days of the transfer, other soldiers have said in statements to investigators, Gibbs confided to his new platoon mates that he had gotten away with “stuff” during his previous deployments. They also said he talked about how easy it would be to stage the killings of innocent Afghans. Investigators are now examining Gibbs’ involvement in the killing of an Iraqi family in 2004.
Through a spokeswoman at Fort Knox, Ky., where he now works for the U.S. Army Accessions Command, Tunnell acknowledged that Gibbs served on his security detail “for a brief time,” but declined to answer other written questions for this article.
When asked in July about the killings, he told The Seattle Times that the fact that his brigade had opened the investigation by itself was “a good comment on how the system is supposed to work.”
In February 2009, while the brigade was undergoing mission rehearsal exercises in California, evaluators warned Tunnell that his open disdain for counterinsurgency would cause troubles in Afghanistan, but the brigade commander ignored them, said Richard Demaree , a retired lieutenant colonel who served as a battalion commander for the 5th Stryker Brigade.
“Everybody was astonished he has this war-fighting philosophy toward Iraq or Afghanistan that was totally out of sync with the Army,” Demaree said.
Tunnell, who served in Iraq and was badly wounded there, was a devotee of counter-guerrilla strategy, which places more emphasis on raids and other aggressive tactics but had been rejected as a doctrine by the Army in the aftermath of the Iraq insurgency. According to Demaree, Tunnell barred his soldiers from using the term COIN, shorthand for counterinsurgency.
Demaree, who says he was later forced to relinquish his battalion command because of personal conflicts with Tunnell, said many officers worried that Tunnell’s contempt for counterinsurgency would interfere with their mission in Afghanistan. “I believed it would put soldiers’ lives unnecessarily at risk,” he said.
Tunnell’s mindset also alarmed NATO and U.S. officials shortly after the 5th Brigade arrived in Kandahar, according to a State Department official who was present in Kandahar. At the time, military and civilian leaders in NATO’s Regional Command South had embraced counterinsurgency.
“We all said, ‘This is going to be a disaster. This is the exact opposite of what we need,’ “ said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because agency rules forbid him from giving unauthorized interviews.
U.S., Dutch and Canadian officials asked Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the then-deputy commander of Regional Command South, to intervene with Tunnell. Nicholson agreed to talk to the brigade commander, but the chat had little effect, the State Department official said. Nicholson did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
“Tunnell was just apparently totally unimpressed by what he was told,” the official said. “He spoke to us and said, ‘Some of you might think I’m here to play this COIN game and just pussyfoot with the enemy. But that’s not what I’m doing.’ ”
Tunnell’s Strike and Destroy approach contrasted with official guidelines issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, which read: “Protecting people is the mission. The conflict will not be won by destroying the enemy.”
As the 5th Brigade began sustaining heavy casualties, however, some officers and enlisted soldiers openly grumbled that Tunnell’s strategy was backfiring.
On Jan. 28, members of the 3rd platoon fatally shot an Afghan man along Highway 1 in Kandahar. Some soldiers said they thought the man could have been a suicide bomber. He was unarmed.
When Capt. Matthew Quiggle, the platoon’s company commander, heard of the incident, he turned “furious,” according to one soldier, Cpl. Emmitt Quintal, who later gave a statement to Army investigators. The platoon had shot and killed another unarmed Afghan man two weeks earlier, so Quiggle told the soldiers “they needed to search until they found something” that would justify the shooting, according to the statement. Quiggle did not respond to a request for comment submitted through the Army.
In response, Gibbs and other members of the unit planted a magazine from a contraband AK-47 rifle next to the corpse “to give the appearance the Afghan was an insurgent,” according to an Army investigator’s report. The shooting was subsequently ruled justified and no one was disciplined.
Members of the platoon would kill two more unarmed Afghans, according to charging documents.
Army criminal investigators learned about the killings in May as they were scrutinizing hashish use in the 3rd Platoon. In June, they charged Gibbs and four other soldiers with murder.