Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is there a connection?

This very disturbing story concerning an ongoing Army investigation appears to pose a question while at the same time, implicating a positive answer to that question.

A platoon apparently went on a months long spree of barbarism in Afghanistan, killing dogs and Afghan civilians, dismembering corpses, taking photographs with the dead, and all of this was, inexcusably, not reported up the chain of command. Instead the Platoon was ordered by immediate superiors to plant physical evidence (spent AK magazines) evidence that would show the civilians were indeed combatants.

This platoon was attached to a brigade commanded by a Colonel that did not hide his disdain for COIN strategy being implemented in Afghanistan. He instead, publicly insisted that his command would undertake a highly kinetic "counter guerrilla" strategy that simply amounted to seeking out and killing Taliban combatants. He forbade mention of COIN, and even had relieved a company commander, allegedly for talking favorably about COIN and posting a COINcentric quote from then theatre commander McChrystal.

The WaPo story raises the question: was this commander's disdain for COIN in some way responsible for the actions of the platoon and company commander under him? One might read this question and ask: Why is the question even raised? After all, subscription to a non-COIN point of view does not necessarily imply that one approves atrocities. That much is obvious.

Well, to boil it down, the answer to that question is that there is a coincidence of events. In the words of the WaPo:

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.

Gibbs, 25, was reassigned to the 3rd Platoon for reasons that are unclear. Army officials declined to say why he was transferred, citing the ongoing investigation.

Within days of the transfer, other soldiers have said in statements to investigators, Gibbs confided to his new platoon mates that he had gotten away with "stuff" during his previous deployments. They also said he talked about how easy it would be to stage the killings of innocent Afghans. Investigators are now examining Gibbs's involvement in the killing of an Iraqi family in 2004.

Through a spokeswoman at Fort Knox, Ky., where he now works for the U.S. Army Accessions Command, Tunnell acknowledged that Gibbs served on his security detail "for a brief time" but declined to answer other written questions for this article.

When asked in July about the killings, he told the Seattle Times that the fact that his brigade had opened the investigation by itself was "a good comment on how the system is supposed to work."

Gibbs's attorney and family also declined to comment for this article. His attorney previously told reporters that the killings Gibbs is charged with were combat-related and therefore justified.

Now, I confess I'm a bit uncomfortable in writing what I'm about to write. But it needs addressing. Before addressing it though, it needs to be made clear that Tunnell really was slipshod in playing his proper role when moved to Afghanistan. He has every right to disagree with the strategy being implemented, and he has an obligation, as an officer, to voice that disagreement in appropriate contexts, NOT publicly as appears to have been the case. He should know that to do so creates a toxic command climate, and a lack of respect up the chain. Given that he did not choose to ask for reassignment or did not resign, he should have saluted and done his best to carry out the missions given him, implementing the strategy with which he disagrees.

Now, having said all that, one cannot but note that the WaPo is seeing a possible parallel here between the sort of command climate Tunny apparently created or tolerated, and the command climate that McChrystal himself apparently had created, one that in the latter case led to the Hippy Lettuce Weekly debacle, and his resignation from command of the Afghan theatre. In Tunny's case, the WaPo seems to be implying, the results were far more serious, and potentially far more damaging to U.S. Afghan relations, in ways that need no explanation.

The problem with this implication is that there is far less evidence of such direct connection. Note that Gibbs seems to have bragged about having engaged in barbarism in Iraq, 2004, well before his being attached to Tunnell's security detail. Additionally, while Tunnell also served in Iraq, the WaPo piece gives no indication that Gibbs was with him.

As the story clearly indicates, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Tunnell, but the implied connection between Gibbs's brief stint on Tunnell's security detail, and his readiness to engage in acts of barbarism is, absent any substantial buttressing evidence, unfair to Tunnell.

There is no need to engage in speculative implication when writing these sorts of stories. The facts are bad enough.