Col. Harry Tunnell and His Ill-Fated Stryker Battalion

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
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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The following months would yield more missteps. Tunnell’s soldiers once drove a Stryker with loudspeakers through a village during an insurgent’s funeral, announcing “This is what happens when you fight us.” At a meeting with State Department officials, one Stryker officer dismissed a request that the brigade focus more on development, saying, “Come on, buddy, we’re just here to rack ’em and stack ’em.” The word around the Kandahar Airfield was that Tunnell had told his men that by the time they were done with their tour, the Afghans “will be praying to Mecca 10 times a day.” The brigade spent almost nothing from a multimillion-dollar military account for reconstruction projects during its first three months. And when a company commander posted on the wall of his base a quote from McChrystal’s COIN guidance—“sporadically moving into an area for a few hours or even a few days solely to search for the enemy and then leave does little good, and may do much harm”—a senior officer ordered him to take it down. Not long after, Tunnell reassigned that company commander to a desk job.

Senior military officials at the Kandahar Airfield and at NATO headquarters in Kabul grew alarmed. Their concern extended well beyond Tunnell’s rejection of COIN strategy. The 1-17 seemed to be making tactical mistakes. It quickly pulled out of areas it assaulted, which allowed insurgents to return. But its most egregious sin, the officials said, was using Strykers in places where its soldiers should have been walking. Barreling through the district in a vehicle that afforded the driver only a narrow slit of a window meant the soldiers couldn’t scan the ground for bombs as effectively as if they had been on foot.

Stryker after Stryker hit roadside bombs. Sometimes there would be a fatality. If the vehicle’s occupants were lucky, there would be just a bunch of broken bones and concussions. But the insurgents began to adapt by building bigger and bigger bombs. In late October, when a Stryker rolled over one buried in the banks of the Arghandab River, seven soldiers and their interpreter died.

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The second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, raised the question of whether Tunnell should be relieved of his position. But the top U.S. general in Kandahar, Mick Nicholson, told Rodriguez he thought Tunnell could change. A few months later, Nicholson confided to colleagues that he regretted not having pushed for Tunnell’s removal.

Some officers who worked for Tunnell told me the brigade had been thrust into an untenable position. Its four battalions were spread across a huge swath of southern Afghanistan, often forcing them to remain in their vehicles for drive-by patrols instead of bedding down in villages and walking the beat. Their area was crawling with far more insurgents than they had expected. And every time they thought they were gaining traction, senior commanders upended their mission. In mid-September, de Kruif ordered the second battalion that had participated in the Arghandab operation to move to the far western part of Kandahar province to replace a departing U.S. Army unit that had been working for the Canadians. That left the 1-17 responsible for all of Arghandab.

With so many insurgents holed up in Arghandab, Tunnell’s men needed to take forceful action. But they failed to offer enough carrots with their sticks, and they failed to grasp the political winds within the NATO headquarters. Had Tunnell been just as tough but described his methods as COIN—instead of counterguerrilla operations—he would have run into less trouble with his superiors.

In November, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter took charge of southern Afghanistan from de Kruif. He immediately concluded that the Stryker battalion was the wrong unit for Arghandab. He pushed it back to Shah Wali Kot and brought in a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, which had originally been sent to Afghanistan to help train the country’s army.

By then, 21 soldiers from the 1-17 had been killed in Arghandab. It was the highest death toll of any U.S. Army battalion in Afghanistan.

Two months after the Stryker brigade returned home to Washington state, five soldiers from the battalion Tunnell had sent to far western Kandahar province were charged with murdering unarmed Afghans for sport and keeping their fingers as trophies. A subsequent Army investigation by a one-star general absolved Tunnell of any direct blame for the killings. By then Tunnell had relinquished command of the brigade. Had he still been on the job, he should have been relieved of command, the general determined, in part because of “his failure to follow instructions and intent.”

Tunnell’s stubbornness cost the United States a critical chance to pacify key areas around the most important city in southern Afghanistan during the first year of Obama’s presidency. “We had a great opportunity,” Mick Nicholson told a fellow general. “Sadly, we lost a year.”

Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

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