Brigade's strategy: 'Strike and destroy'

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010

When the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade arrived in Afghanistan, its leader, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, 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 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 and a casualty rate so high that it triggered alarms at the Pentagon. By the time the 3,800-member brigade returned in July to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., it had paid a steep price: 35 soldiers were killed in combat, six were dead from accidents and other causes, and 239 were wounded.

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 almost daily - and gang-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, influenced the behavior of the accused.

Questions also persist about why the 5th Stryker 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 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 he was aware that soldiers were allegedly killing for sport until special agents from the Army's Criminal Investigations Command opened a probe in May.

According to brigade members, however, Staff Sgt. Calvin R. 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 occurred.

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