Stryker Afghan War Crimes Probe

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Months after allegations and the start of UCMJ proceedings, investigations have finally been started of Stryker Brigade officers and leaders of those Stryker soldiers suspected of committing war crimes in Afghanistan.  The focus of the probe is determine whether the leaders of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division should have known sooner about the alleged crimes and illegal activity ongoing in the unit as well as the level and type of training the unit underwent prior to its deployment.  Like a child’s behavior is a reflection of a parent, so to, is a units performance a mirror of its leaders.  Unfortunately, even if the investigation leads to a level of accountability shared by unit leaders, the Army has shied away from holding leaders accountable for failed combat leadership (i.e. Wanat, Abu Graib).

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Pentagon worried about Striker Brigade in Afghanistan

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According to an article published by the Christian Science Monitor, the Pentagon had red flags about the command climate in ‘kill team’ Stryker brigade.

Key Highlights:

  • As the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, which Colonel 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. 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.  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.
  • 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.

SFTT Analysis:

If it is true, that senior leaders and general officers considered relieving or replacing Colonel Tunnel prior to the Brigade’s combat deployment, but chose not to, then their lack of moral courage is worse than anything the colonel may eventually be found culpable of “enabling”.  Then again, the time for “relief” is over, but if anyone really believes that any Brigade senior leader will eventually be held accountable for the heinous crimes that occurred during their watch, you only need review the Army’s track record in this regard to see to see other examples of failed leadership and lack of accountability – i.e. Abu Graib, where only enlisted soldiers were charged with crimes; and Wanat, where commanders where ultimately absolved of failed leadership; it seems that the list will keep on growing.

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“Young Officer”

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 A young officer I once served with recently changed command and is now attending the Army’s Intermediate Level Education course for field grade officers; when he graduates he’ll report to a new unit and redeploy. His tedious ride from the east coast to Kansas coincided with the sacking of McChrystal. Remember him? After the storm broke and his pension was paid, follow up analysis of the “crisis” revealed that the majority of attributable quotes and “off-the-record” background was provided by a score of “young officers” and not necessarily the General himself. Nevertheless, the collateral effect of their untimely and heartfelt Parisian disclosures to the Rolling Stone embedded reporter resulted in an Inspector General investigation of these young officers’ actions and statements. Imagine that, an investigation. Really? For what purpose? And as we’ve all learned by now, after the Wanat reversal, even if they’re found culpable of some level of insubordination or violation of policy, they won’t be held accountable they’ll simply be “Wanated,” yep, as in “to be Wanated,” the non-accountability finesse of a failed leader by his self-protective superiors.

But I digress, so back to my “young officer” driving to the brain-shed at Leavenworth for the consumption of more COIN kool-aid. As we commiserated over the amount of Galula theory he would have to suck down, I asked him to imagine for a moment being on the McCrystal staff still in Kabul tasked with General Petraeus’ transition and the integration of his new brain-trust of soon-to-arrive COIN-dinistas. For those who’ve never experienced the ins and outs of transitioning a four star commander while politely showing the door to the outgoing commander and his immediate staff, suffice to say, it’s a painful exercise. We’ll probably never know the behind-the-scene dynamics of the arrival of King David until Bob Woodward or Tom Ricks writes another breathtaking insider account of the administration or the war. However, we can safely assume that a new master of strategic communications is firmly in place in Kabul and a new brain-trust is arriving to assist the effort. If you want more proof, check out what was reported earlier this week by the New York Times coupled—not coincidentally—with the announcement of General Petraeus’ pending media blitz in the coming weeks. Here it is: “Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become experts over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials they need time to get their work done. “Their argument,” said one senior administration official, who would not speak for attribution about the internal policy discussions, “is that while we’ve been in Afghanistan for nine years, only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan should look like.”

So let me get this straight—the administration is soliciting advice from “young officers” on whether to continue the effort in Afghanistan after next summer when the US is going to begin withdrawal? And they are “experts” as well? For sure we’ve been down this road before, in 2006 when General (Retired) Jack Keane, the American Enterprise Institute and a couple of Army majors and captains from the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (who subsequently retired) with recent expertise in Anbar province/Iraq drew up a Power Point plan for the “surge,” which was then sold by Keane to John Hannah in Cheney’s office, and well, the rest is history.

Maybe that example is too remote (or simply a footnote to hubris) to apply to this master stroke of strategic messaging wrapped in a soft pitch to the public that “young officers…want more time.” My money is on Petraeus as point man preaching next summer on why the 2011 withdrawal timeline needs to be extended in part because the administration and the public should listen to the “troops”—i.e., these “young officers”—for a change. It’s brilliant.

No doubt the new “experts” are a group of planners from the services “Jedi-knight” programs to plan contingencies and back up plans when the current COIN mantra begins to die down. They are probably joined by other “young officer” staffers assigned to the Joint Staff or the National Security Council who’ve somehow wedged themselves into preparing slides, position papers or might even have a seat at the table at very low-level planning meetings. Regardless, I would also bet they’re Petraeus acolytes or COIN enthusiasts from a different father committed to re-validating their previous deployment successes by pushing the COIN theory as the remedy to whatever threatens US interests. In any case, the word is you best be a Petraeus COIN follower or you’ll be placed in the slow lane. After all, Petraeus was flown back to Washington in 2008 to supervise the Army’s Brigadier General promotion board…

Bottomline, the simple statement that a rising generation of young officers are calling for more time to complete the mission will deeply influence the now-rigged debate. For starters, it will serve as a green light on the battlefield for other young officers to inform VIP’s, respond to the media and brief their troops that “they need more time to get the job done”. Unfortunately, it will also serve as a blanket statement that the entire Army stands behind this call.

What is truly shameful here is the total disregard for those officers and leaders who know the gig is up but aren’t allowed to report the truth—veiled censorship by a master of strategic communications suspending us all in disbelief for at least the time being.

I was tempted to call my “young officer” when I figured out what was going on and wish him luck because he’s the type who’ll tell his superiors that no amount of time, resources or troops will change the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan. But he beat me to the punch and sent me a short note expressing his hope that the Chief of Staff will visit the brain shed soon so he can tell him directly that a small cadre of the “rising generation of young officers” doesn’t speak for the rest of the Army. Let’s all hope my guy gets to talk.

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