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Originally published April 4, 2011 at 9:35 PM | Page modified April 4, 2011 at 9:38 PM

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Army report criticizes leaders in brigade involved in alleged war crimes

An Army report into the command oversight of soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan sharply criticizes several leaders in their Joint Base Lewis-McChord brigade.

Seattle Times staff reporter

An Army report into the command oversight of soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan sharply criticizes several leaders in their Washington-based brigade, according to sources who have seen the report.

The report recommends a letter of admonition for Col. Harry Tunnell, former commander of the 5th Brigade (Stryker), 2nd Infantry Division from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the sources say.

While his leadership or the command climate wasn't linked to the alleged war crimes, Tunnell was cited for an inability to get along with his superior officers and peers, as well as not following the Army's overall strategy in Afghanistan, according to the sources.

Tunnell has moved from the brigade to a new position in Kentucky. But the report's author said he would have recommended that Tunnell be removed from command if he still were in charge of the brigade, according to the sources.

Other recommendations in the report included calls for letters of reprimand against two junior officers for negligent oversight of the troubled platoon involved in the war crimes, the sources said. Letters of reprimand, which are more serious than letters of admonition, can block an officer from further advancement.

Five platoon members are accused of murdering three unarmed Afghans over a period of several months. Seven others are charged with lesser crimes.

The Army has declined to release the report while prosecutors at Lewis-McChord press their criminal cases against the soldiers.

A leaked copy of the report was obtained by Der Spiegel, a German news agency, which published a story about it Monday.

Questions surrounding leadership have intensified in recent weeks as Der Spiegel, followed by other media organizations including The Seattle Times, published photos of two of the accused soldiers posing next to an Afghan's body as if they had just bagged a deer.

Those images triggered a revulsion around the globe and a rebuke from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

A significant section of the 500-page report, authored by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, focuses on Tunnell, who commanded some 3,500 troops in southern Afghanistan from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010.

Tunnell is a controversial figure whose approach to combat appeared at odds with the doctrine developed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. military leader in Afghanistan.

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McChrystal was convinced that the key to the conflict was winning the trust of the Afghan people. His strategy put a big focus on providing aid and other efforts to win over villagers in Taliban strongholds.

"Strike and Destroy"

Tunnell was openly critical of that strategy in discussions with his officers. Instead, he emphasized hunting down the enemy, picking the motto "Strike and Destroy" for the brigade.

Twitty faulted Tunnell's unwillingness to embrace McChrystal's doctrine, as well as other shortcomings.

Tunnell, now based at Fort Knox in Kentucky, declined a recent interview request by The Times. A public-affairs officer said it would be inappropriate to comment while the criminal cases are proceeding.

In July 2010, however, Tunnell vigorously defended his approach to the Afghanistan war, saying his soldiers faced a tough fight in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province.

"As an experienced infantry brigade commander, going into my third war, I think I am qualified to make an assessment about what doctrine is appropriate," Tunnell said. "... Our casualties would have been much, much higher had we followed another model. I have no doubt."

Tunnell inspired fierce loyalty among some soldiers, but some officers under his command were put off by his approach.

"What was shocking was the level of ... disorganization, the level of mistrust among the lieutenant colonels (in the brigade) and their commander," said Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist who was given access to the report as a defense expert witness for Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who pleaded guilty last month to participating in the murder of the unarmed Afghans.

Mestrovic, in testimony intended to bolster defense arguments for leniency, said Tunnell's leadership contributed to a brigade dysfunction and an environment in which such crimes were more likely to happen.

The Times interviewed a half-dozen officers who served under Tunnell. They acknowledge that tension existed between Tunnell's and McChrystal's approaches to the war. But they disputed any notion that Tunnell's leadership style set the stage for the slayings.

"I just think that it's unreasonable and ridiculous, and I'm not the colonel's biggest fan," said an officer who clashed with Tunnell over tactics. "There is nothing he did that would foster an environment that encourages killing for sport."

The Army report noted that Tunnell placed great emphasis on the rules of engagement and war, according to those who have read the report.

Other officers noted that, in addition to fighting the Taliban, the brigade helped build up local governments, distributed food, painted schools, improved irrigation systems and performed other projects in line with McChrystal's doctrine.

"The frustrating thing is that all that gets forgotten due to the actions of this platoon," one officer said.

The report does fault an officer then serving as a lieutenant for negligence in not policing hashish use by his soldiers. He also was faulted for failing to prevent excessive use of force by numerous soldiers who fired on an Afghan who failed to heed orders to keep a distance.

Soldiers' stories believed

The report also examined how an early tip to the murder scheme was missed.

In January 2010, distraught villagers arrived at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in southern Afghanistan to claim the body of Gul Mudin, an unarmed teenager slain by Army soldiers who said he tried to launch a grenade attack.

Over sips of bottled water with officers, they shared a disturbing allegation. They said one village youth had witnessed the soldiers throwing a grenade at Gul Mudin, who wasn't armed. If true, that meant the teenager hadn't been killed in battle — he had been executed.

The officers had a company commander interview platoon members involved in the incident to determine if their stories checked out. They did, and the matter was dropped.

Officers in the battalion told The Times that the misplaced trust in the platoon enabled soldiers to create cover stories that villagers were unable to challenge successfully.

"We told the father that the son must have been recruited by the Taliban. For the rest of our lives, we're going to have to live with that," said one officer who asked for anonymity due to Army restrictions on public comments. "We had things going on that we knew we needed to change, but we had no idea something so evil was going on."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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