Col. Harry Tunnell and His Ill-Fated Stryker Battalion

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June 27 2012 7:00 AM

Search and Destroy

One Stryker battalion lost more men in Afghanistan than any other. Who was the gung-ho colonel in charge?

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Top Canadian officers told Tunnell’s staff that no more than 30 to 40 insurgents were in the district. The Stryker battalion in Shah Wali Kot, the 1-17 Infantry, soon learned how wrong the Canadians were. On their first patrol into Arghandab, they were pummeled with gunfire and lost a Stryker to a roadside bomb. A week later, during a mission to guard polling sites for the presidential election, Sgt. Troy Tom stepped on a mine while crossing a footbridge. The bomb was so massive that Tom, a strapping 21-year-old Navajo from New Mexico, disappeared entirely.

US Marines.
U.S. Marines in Helmand Province on June 23.

Photograph by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

His platoon mates heard the loud explosion, but they had spread themselves so far apart that they had not seen what occurred. Some thought Tom might have been kidnapped, prompting the battalion commander to declare him missing and push more men into the area to conduct a search. Soon thereafter, a soldier looking for Tom stepped on another large bomb, and he too disappeared. With two soldiers gone, Tunnell dispatched his fourth battalion, which had been designated as a rapid reaction force for all of southern Afghanistan, into Arghandab to help with the search. It devolved into a 40-hour firefight with insurgents, many of whom operated in dozen-man squads as the Americans did. Although the soldiers eventually recovered some remains of both missing men, five more comrades were wounded. Among them was 25-year-old Lt. Dan Berschinski, a 2007 West Point graduate who lost both of his legs to a mine.

Tunnell decided to rewrite his battle plan. Based on Canadian reports, he had assumed Shah Wali Kot was the principal Taliban sanctuary north of Kandahar. But the fighting in Arghandab indicated otherwise. His intelligence officers soon estimated that there were between 300 and 400 enemy fighters in the area. In late August, Tunnell devoted half his forces to a two-battalion operation intended to clear insurgents from the northern part of the district. The 1-17 was to focus on a trio of villages not far from where Tom had been killed. Another battalion was to flush insurgents out of the south.

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On the second week of the operation, I met with Lt. Col. Patrick Gaydon, an artillery officer who had been put in charge of the Stryker brigade’s special troops battalion, which was responsible for governance, reconstruction, and development. After he spent an hour telling me about the universities at which his fellow officers had taken classes before deploying and the sophisticated computer network that allowed soldiers to send and receive vast quantities of data while in the field, I mentioned that I would be heading to Arghandab in two days to attend a shura, a meeting of local elders. Gaydon asked how I was getting there. I told him the general who was Tunnell’s boss had arranged a flight. Gaydon was delighted; it meant he’d have a chance to get there as well. Gaydon’s unit had been in Afghanistan for a month, but it had not yet received any vehicles suitable for travel beyond the Kandahar Airfield. Because his team’s mission was not to kill bad guys, it was at the end of the list for supplies.

I was astounded. Given his focus on government and reconstruction, Gaydon seemed like the officer who really needed to attend the shura. Over in the Marine areas, then-Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson had insisted that his battalion commanders hold districtwide shuras within 48 hours of their arrival in Nawa and other parts of the central Helmand River Valley. But Tunnell did not regard community meetings as a priority for his operation. The brigade’s State Department political adviser, Todd Greentree, had to meet with Tunnell three times to persuade him to authorize the shura. His ability to flout COIN, despite McChrystal’s unambiguous embrace of it, revealed the lack of control the supposedly disciplined U.S. military had over officers who were spread across a vast country and sometimes reported to non-American generals. Tunnell was fighting the war he wanted to fight, and nobody stood in his way.

Gaydon spent the day after our meeting drafting a speech he would deliver to the crowd of turbaned elders. “I want you to know that we are undertaking this military operation so that we can create an environment where we can work shoulder-to-shoulder with district leaders, elders, and the people of Arghandab over the long term,” he wrote. But the morning we were supposed to leave, we learned our flight had been canceled. A delegation of visiting members of Congress wanted to fly around the south, and our helicopter had been reassigned as an airborne tour bus. We settled for an early breakfast in the chow hall with Greentree, who fumed over an omelet and hash browns that the brigade was missing an opportunity to win over residents and steel them against Taliban intimidation. “This is really, really bad,” he said.

He couldn’t understand why a few vehicles could not have been diverted to transport them to the meeting. “Is this the most important thing we could have done in the operation today? Absolutely.”

 Gaydon tried to put the best spin on it. The shura would go on, he said. He planned to have an officer in Arghandab read the speech he had written. At least Tunnell will be there, I said consolingly. He’s the one who matters. The Afghans always want to talk to the man in charge.

“Tunnell won’t be attending,” Greentree said. “He said he’ll be too busy directing the combat operations.”

The next day, I asked Greentree how it had gone. Fine, he said, for the first 30 minutes. Then two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters strafed a nearby building, and the attendees fled.

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