Did Disdain for Counterinsurgency Breed the ‘Kill Team?’ [Updated]
Protecting the Afghan population around Kandahar was “pussyfooting,” according to the commander of the Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade. Better to “strike” and “destroy” the insurgents. Inside one of his platoons, a team of young soldiers went rogue, applying that guidance not to insurgents, but to unarmed civilians.
The looming question within Craig Whitlock’s excellent Washington Post piece on 5th Stryker’s commander, Colonel Harry D. Tunnell IV, is whether Tunnell’s distaste for counterinsurgency created an environment of callousness that led some of his soldiers to form a “Kill Team.” Tunnell himself had nothing to do with the murders of three Afghan civilians that the “Kill Team” is charged with committing. And there’s no evidence to date that he knew about the team’s alleged killings, corpse mutilations or hash smoking.
But Whitlock’s report — like Sean Naylor’s Army Times profile from January — shows that Tunnell quickly rejected the counterinsurgency strategy set by the U.S. military command. After the brigade arrived in Kandahar for a year-long tour in May 2009, civilian officials were surprised to hear Tunnell say, “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,” a State Department official told Whitlock.
Instead, he was going after the insurgents — hard. Tunnell told Naylor, “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.” Some of his soldiers thought that approach would ultimately accomplish “absolutely nothing,” as a squad leader told Naylor. (See this Ink Spots post for more.)
But for the families of at least three Afghans, and possibly a fourth, the “Kill Team” had a lasting impact. “Kill Team” lawyers charge that Tunnell’s selective interpretation of his orders led Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the team, to play by his own rules as well.
Lots of officers and soldiers think counterinsurgency’s focus on protecting civilians has gone too far. And their units haven’t produced “Kill Teams.” So it’s not as if skepticism of counterinsurgency reveals a zest for brutality. And chief counterinsurgent David Petraeus has consistently reminded people that counterinsurgency is a violent undertaking.
But Tunnell isn’t the first commander to set an aggressive tone and watch his soldiers misapply it in ugly ways. If the “Kill Team” is found guilty, it’ll likely spark a painful debate within the Army about the relationship between his anti-counterinsurgency approach and some of his men’s crimes. Striking the right balance between protecting civilians and fighting an enemy just got harder.
Update: Over at Contentions, Max Boot surmises Tunnell might have fallen prey to technological “hubris” thanks to all of the networked systems his Strykers possess:
[Tunnell] actually told me that all his sophisticated computer systems gave him a better picture of his area’s “human terrain” than that that possessed by the insurgents. I thought this was a pretty amazing statement considering that few if any of his soldiers spoke Pashto or understand anything about local customs — all of which was second nature to the Taliban.
Also on Wired.com