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?

Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV.
Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, commander of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Photograph courtesy U.S. Army.

Following is an excerpt from Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Candrasekaran, out this week from Knopf.

As top Army commanders cast about for spare troops to go to Kandahar in 2009, they settled upon a brigade that had never deployed to a war zone and had spent the previous year preparing for a tour in Iraq. The unit’s commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, got the message about his new mission while he and his troops were conducting their last major exercise before shipping off to Iraq.

Tunnell had been gravely wounded in Iraq, where he led a battalion of paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In October 2003, his convoy was ambushed by insurgents near the city of Kirkuk. He was shot through the leg when he stepped out of his Humvee. Although he eventually regained the ability to walk, running long distances was out of the question. That would have been a career ender for most officers, but the Army didn’t want to lose Tunnell. He was among the very few African-American infantry battalion commanders, and his aggressiveness on the battlefield had led senior officers to predict that he would eventually become a general. He was allowed to substitute the running portion of his annual physical fitness test with a bicycle ride.

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In 2007, he was given command of a newly formed unit—the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. The 3,800-strong contingent was equipped with what was then the Army’s newest combat vehicle, the Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored transport that can carry 11 soldiers and travel up to 60 miles per hour. Strykers offered much better protection to the occupants and contained far more sophisticated computer systems than the Humvees the Army had used during the first five years of the Iraq War. But they had one massive design flaw: Their hulls, which were flat, could not deflect the force of bombs buried in the road. As Tunnell was forming his brigade, the Army replaced Humvees in other units heading to Iraq and Afghanistan with MRAPs, heavy trucks that had V-shaped hulls that could diffuse roadside bomb explosions. But Tunnell’s brigade got only a few. The Army had invested billions of dollars in designing and building the Stryker, and the Pentagon brass wanted to see it in action.

With little time to instill cohesion in a team of soldiers who had never worked together, Tunnell had drilled them repeatedly and aggressively. But he also encouraged his officers to seek guidance outside the military bubble. A young captain spent a few months studying small-business economics at the University of Washington. Another officer took a weeklong executive program on negotiation at Harvard. Tunnell himself went to an MIT seminar on innovation.

Despite his emphasis on education, Tunnell had a dim view of the intellectual underpinnings of counterinsurgency theory. He didn’t think insurgencies were defeated by protecting villages and winning over residents through reconstruction and development projects. He believed that the top priority was to kill the bad guys. As he had convalesced in 2005 at the Army War College, he had written a short book about his experiences in Iraq that included a spirited prebuttal to the COIN (counterinsurgency) fever that would sweep the military a few years later:

Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy. It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her point of view—they simply must be attacked relentlessly. ... It is appropriate for military units to develop goals that include appreciating local culture, improving quality of life for the populace, and promoting good governance whenever these concepts improve access to the enemy. However, if the pursuit of them does not advance one’s knowledge of threats and a unit’s capability to maintain the offensive, then they are of little practical value as tactical or operational objectives. Destruction of the enemy force must remain the most important step to defeating terrorists and insurgents.

By the time Tunnell took over the brigade, every other infantry commander preparing to go to Iraq or Afghanistan was using Gen. Petraeus’ COIN manual as his lodestar. But not Tunnell. He told his soldiers that their approach to security operations would be drawn from an Army manual that outlined counterguerrilla operations, which had long been superseded by Petraeus’ playbook. Instead of emphasizing the protection of civilians, it instructed commanders to “give priority to destroying the guerrilla forces.” He called his unit the “Destroyer Brigade” and ordered that its vehicles be painted with the motto SEARCH AND DESTROY. When the brigade was at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., officers there grew concerned about Tunnell’s aggressive approach, but more senior Army commanders did not force him to abandon it. And selecting another brigade for the Kandahar mission was out of the question—the Army’s force generation command was emphatic: No other units were available for an Afghanistan rotation.

The counterguerrilla orientation influenced preparations. Tunnell boasted that his soldiers expended more ammunition during training than any other brigade headed to Afghanistan. In order to get higher scores than their peers at combat exercises, he left more experienced officers in command of platoons instead of using the opportunity to train newly arrived second lieutenants, who would have to take charge once they got to Afghanistan. One lieutenant in the brigade told me that the first time he spoke to his entire platoon over the radio was when they were in combat.

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One of that lieutenant’s responsibilities was to disburse money for small reconstruction projects. Such outlays were a priority for Petraeus, who called cash his most important weapons system. But the lieutenant never received any training on how to requisition funds or how to properly distribute them. “Almost all of our training focused on combat,” he said. “All of the other stuff—learning about the culture, the language, the plan for reconstruction—that was an afterthought.”

Tunnell’s brigade set up its headquarters at the recreation-packed Kandahar Airfield in August 2009. Instead of concentrating near the city, which was a priority for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the brigade’s four battalions were sent in different directions by Mart de Kruif, the Dutch general who ran the NATO headquarters in Kandahar at the time. He said he had Taliban problems everywhere and did not possess enough force to deal with all of them. With the Marines augmenting the British, neighboring Helmand province had almost 20,000 foreign troops. Kandahar province, which was larger and more important, had fewer than 10,000. “The prize was Kandahar city, but we didn’t act like it,” said Tunnell’s deputy, Lt. Col. Karl Slaughenhaupt.

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