Col. Harry Tunnell was far removed from the war crimes that took place when his Stryker brigade was sent to war, an Army investigation concluded, but his refusal to embrace military strategy created confusion in his top ranks and frustrated commanders both here and abroad.
Twice, Tunnell’s disagreements nearly cost him his post as a combat leader in Afghanistan – once, six months before his 4,000 soldiers deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to Afghanistan, and again when NATO commanders lost faith in him, according to the report.
Five soldiers under Tunnell’s command allegedly murdered Afghan civilians between January and May 2010 in a district northwest of the colonel’s headquarters in Kandahar. His conflicts with Army leaders have fueled questions about whether he cultivated an overly aggressive environment that enabled the killing of noncombatants.
In his investigation, recently obtained by The News Tribune, Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty found no evidence that Tunnell’s behavior caused the war crimes.
Twitty, nonetheless, wrote that the colonel should never again be given a combat command because of the lack of maturity he showed in butting heads with NATO leaders in Afghanistan.
Tunnell now serves at Fort Knox, Ky., in an administrative post.
The unit he took to Afghanistan – the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – was later given a new identity as the 2nd Brigade. It is now training at its home base south of Tacoma for another, yet-to-be-announced deployment.
Its motto under Col. Barry Huggins is “Seize the High Ground” – a phrase that contrasts with Tunnell’s “Strike – Destroy.”
Tunnell didn’t give any ground when he spoke with Twitty. He used his time with the investigator to settle scores with officers who disparaged him after news of the “kill team” broke.
He criticized his British commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, for having “a cavalier attitude toward the lives of his subordinates, particularly due to his emphasis on ‘courageous restraint’ whereby he directed that our soldiers assume extreme risk in order to prevent any civilian casualties.”
Tunnell continued to criticize the Army’s counterinsurgency strategy as a “colonial” approach developed by academics and European powers lacking in real military experience.
He wanted to practice counter-guerrilla warfare, which emphasizes neutralizing the enemy as a top priority.
The first hints that Tunnell was out of step with the Army’s changing strategy in Afghanistan came in winter 2009, when he took his troops to the Army’s National Training Center in Southern California for their big combat-readiness exercise.
The brigade’s orders had recently changed from Iraq to Afghanistan, “causing additional stress, confusion and frustration,” Twitty said.
Command-level trainers at NTC were critical of Tunnell because he wouldn’t adhere to counterinsurgency doctrine. They certified the brigade as ready for combat only after a two-star general compelled Tunnell to drop his loudest complaints, according to the report.
Once the 5th Brigade arrived in Afghanistan, NATO leaders came to view Tunnell as a commander who would challenge nearly every order they handed him, a general told Twitty.
Tunnell initially reported to a Dutch commander who tasked Tunnell’s troops with attacking the Arghandab Valley, a restive area that had not been touched by Western forces over much of the previous eight years. The brigade’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment subsequently lost 22 soldiers fighting there, Twitty noted.
In November, Carter, the British general, became Tunnell’s direct supervisor in southern Afghanistan and changed course. He wanted the 5th Brigade out of the bloody fighting in the Arghandab; he put the unit in charge of securing a regional highway so that civilians could move freely.
Tunnell considered it “a misuse of his highly lethal Stryker brigade,” Twitty wrote, and “vehemently disagreed” with his superiors about the new assignment.
Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, an American who served as Carter’s deputy commander, told Twitty that they eventually lost confidence in Tunnell, but they didn’t relieve him of his command because they wanted him to be successful.
“Looking back on my relationship with him,” Hodges said, “I regret that I wasn’t more involved in his professional development during his tenure as a brigade commander.”
Twitty’s report catalogs complaints from officers who served under Tunnell – subordinates who characterized him as “introverted, stubborn, unapproachable, close-minded, and as a person who thinks he knows more than most.”
The report also includes favorable comments about Tunnell from soldiers who believed their leader was misunderstood.
They described him as intelligent and proficient. They said he strictly adhered to the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict. They said he carried out all the tasks asked of a counterinsurgency leader, such as gathering support among local Afghan leaders.
“The only mistake Col. Tunnell ever made regarding the counter-guerrilla subject was not engaging in the war of perceptions,” his deputy commander, Lt. Col. Karl Slaughenhaupt, told Twitty. “Had he made an effort to explain why he chose to use certain language, there may have been less concern by senior leaders and less friction for the brigade.”
In the end, Twitty appears relatively generous to Tunnell. The general rejected a story from one of Tunnell’s subordinates who described Tunnell as motivated by revenge from a serious combat wound he suffered in Iraq in 2003.
“If anything, the evidence shows that Col. Tunnell used his experiences as a motivating factor to do all he could to prevent casualties within his (brigade),” Twitty wrote. “It may explain the lengths to which he stood by his tactical philosophy even in the face of the conflict it created with his superior and subordinate officers. He felt that the counterguerrilla strategy allowed the (brigade) to better find and kill the enemy before the enemy killed them.”