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Stryker soldiers say commanders failed them

Dec. 21, 2009 - 11:11AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2009 - 11:11AM  |  
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Residents of Rajan Kala meet with Capt. Max Hanlin, commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, at its new patrol base near the village, as he hands out Meals, Ready to Eat in November. Hanlin replaced Capt. Joel Kassulke, and the decision was met with disapproval from some 1-17 soldiers. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
The Arghandab Valley, once known as the breadbasket of Afghanistan, is the site of a struggle between insurgents and the soldiers of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. In the lush green area near Kandahar, the battalion has seen 21 soldiers killed, and questions have arisen about the role of Stryker units in Afghanistan. (JOHN BRETSCHNEIDER / STAFF)

ARGHANDAB RIVER VALLEY, Afghanistan — The view west from the roof of the Arghandab district center at sunset in mid-autumn is breathtaking, the remaining leaves turning the valley into a sea of green and gold.

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ARGHANDAB RIVER VALLEY, Afghanistan — The view west from the roof of the Arghandab district center at sunset in mid-autumn is breathtaking, the remaining leaves turning the valley into a sea of green and gold.

But the beauty deceives.

Beneath the branches, the Arghandab's signature pomegranates lie in rotting piles and the orchards are strewn with booby traps ready to sever a limb or take a life. Gunfire and explosions echo from end to end of the valley's lush "green zone." Once known as the breadbasket of Afghanistan, the Arghandab has become a killing field.

Battle has been joined in the valley because of its proximity to Kandahar city, a rich prize two miles to the east across a razor-backed ridgeline. Until this summer, insurgent control of the valley was unchallenged. Then 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, moved in, and the fight was on.

The vicious struggle in and around the Arghandab since the battalion's arrival has killed 21 1-17 soldiers and more than 50 insurgents, led to a popular company commander's controversial replacement and raised questions about the best role for Stryker units in Afghanistan.

It has also caused the soldiers at the tip of the spear that the United States hurled into the Arghandab to accuse their battalion and brigade commanders of not following the guidance of senior coalition commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to adopt a "population-centric" counterinsurgency approach. And now, reeling from the deaths of their comrades and the removal of their company commander, the troops have been ordered out of the Arghandab, a move they say feels like a defeat.

It was July when 1-17 deployed to Afghanistan, and August when the battalion moved into the Arghandab. Within 48 hours, they were in combat with some of the 200 to 300 insurgents in the "green zone" — a 14-mile-by-four-mile patchwork of small fields, orchards and vineyards. The dense foliage and high mud walls offered insurgents ample hiding places for the booby traps the military refers to as improvised explosive devices.

The first 1-17 soldier to die was Spc. Troy Tom, killed Aug. 18 by an IED. The casualties mounted steeply thereafter, climaxing Oct. 27 when seven soldiers and an interpreter died when their Stryker was destroyed by the force of an estimated 1,500 pounds of homemade explosive buried in the banks of the Arghandab River. By early December, the battalion had lost 21 men.

In late November, brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell decided a change had to be made. He replaced Capt. Joel Kassulke, the commander of 1-17's Charlie Company, which had taken 12 of the casualties.

But Kassulke's former soldiers say that not only was he not to blame for the casualties, the 1-17's problems started much, much earlier.

Mismatched training

The battalion had spent much of the previous two years training for combat, but preparing for the wrong theater — until February, when it got orders for Afghanistan, 1-17 was scheduled to deploy to Iraq.

However, 1-17 soldiers said their training, which had been focused on highly "kinetic" urban warfare drills such as room clearing, did not change much to accommodate the change in mission. "The COIN-intensive fight here … isn't so much what we trained on," said 1st Lt. Kevin Turnblom, Charlie Company's fire support officer.

"We trained [in] urban fighting in Iraq and then they give us Afghanistan," said Staff Sgt. Jason Hughes, Weapons Squad leader in 1st Platoon, Charlie Company. "The principles are the same but the details are day-and-night different, and we've learned that the hard way over the last almost five months."

In response to e-mailed questions from Army Times to Tunnell, Maj. Brian DeSantis, a spokesman for Regional Command-South, said the Stryker brigade "showed a great understanding of what it would take to operate in a COIN environment by the training they conducted before arrival in Afghanistan."

Kassulke also defended the pre-deployment training in e-mailed answers to Army Times' questions, saying it was "as realistic" as could be achieved. "[I]t is hard to say that the training didn't prepare us," he said. "We have done a lot of kinetic, enemy-focused missions and the soldiers were definitely trained to do that."

The 1-17's soldiers said their train-up was also marked by an absence of good intelligence on what they would be facing in the Arghandab. In their zeal to give their men some insight into their future area of operations, noncommissioned officers such as Staff Sgt. Matthew T. Sanders, 1st Squad leader in Charlie Company's 1st Platoon, resorted to printing out information on the Arghandab region from the Long War Journal, a respected non-Defense Department Web site, and posting it on bulletin boards.

"We made our own little S-2 because we weren't getting anything from the S-2 [intelligence directorate]," Sanders said.

Nasty surprises

When 1-17 got to the Arghandab, the insurgents were lying in wait in the green zone, armed with homemade bombs similar to those that have killed thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This came as a shock to 1-17 commander Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann, who hadn't anticipated being drawn into a fight in such constrictive terrain, where the troops learned quickly that they needed to dismount from their Strykers and patrol on foot.

"What we didn't understand is really where the enemy was making his push against Kandahar city," he said. "We did expect more of an open desert fight."

The IEDs also came as a huge surprise to Neumann and most of his soldiers, who said they'd been told to expect that the major threat would come from direct fire. This, despite the fact that during the first six months of 2009, as the brigade was training up, more than twice as many U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan died from IED strikes than were killed in gunfights.

As the casualties from IEDs began to rise, so did the troops' anger with what they viewed as their leaders' failure to prepare them for the threat.

"The extent of the IED threat was a surprise to us all," Kassulke said. "The enemy we faced in the Arghandab adapted to our TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] faster and more effectively than anyone expected."

RC-South spokesman DeSantis said that 1-17 had conducted "extensive leader training" and "comprehensive" lane training on IEDs before deployment. Once the extent of the threat became clear after arriving in Afghanistan, the brigade pursued innovative training and "intelligence employment" to counter it, he said.

As a result, the brigade has not lost a soldier in more than a month, while the percentage of IEDs that are found and cleared rather than struck has improved from 41 percent in August to 63 percent so far in December, he said.

Failing on the big picture

In command briefings and interviews, 5/2 Stryker Brigade leaders are keen to give the impression that the unit has fully embraced the tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. There is much discussion of the governance, reconstruction and development fusion cell headed by Lt. Col. Patrick Gaydon, the brigade special troops battalion commander.

"We think that mission is so important that we devoted his battalion staff to be the fusion cell leads," Tunnell said. "He and his kids have done a superb job," leading to the creation of a database of village elders, government leaders and similar figures, he said.

But lower down the rank structure, 1-17 soldiers said that a major factor behind the battalion's difficulties in the Arghandab was the failure of their battalion and brigade commanders to adhere to McChrystal's published counterinsurgency guidance, which states up front: "Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will not be won by destroying the enemy."

Soldiers in 1-17 say that while the battalion's junior leaders have embraced these principles, Neumann and Tunnell — whose brigade's motto is "Strike — Destroy" — have not. "There's definitely a disconnect between the platoon and company level and the battalion and brigade level," said a Charlie Company soldier in a leadership position, who requested he remain anonymous.

"McChrystal's guidance is very clear on its population focus," said another junior leader.

But 1-17 soldiers thought that focus was missing from their operations. "When we first started operations, we were told we were going to stay enemy-focused," said Capt. Jon Burton, an assistant fire support officer who is also 1-17's civil-military and information operations officer co-located with Charlie Company. "That came from brigade."

"That has absolutely been the message that's been delivered from higher," agreed Turnblom, the Charlie Company fire support officer.

When the brigade deployed to Afghanistan, Tunnell announced his intention to pursue a "counter-guerrilla" campaign. Most observers perceived a conflict between Tunnell's approach and McChrystal's population-centric counterinsurgency campaign.

But Tunnell said that his approach was drawn straight from Army Field Manual 90-8, Counterguerrilla Operations (last updated in 1986),and that it was complementary to, not competitive with counterinsurgency. However, he added, the "counter-guerrilla" concept "is misunderstood. ... That's why we don't use the term anymore."

Brenda Donnell, spokeswoman for the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., said FM 90-8 had been superseded by FM 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency. "It's not supposed to be used anymore," she said of the counter-guerrilla manual.

Tunnell, who was badly wounded as a battalion commander in Iraq in 2003, was adamant that the situation in the Arghandab lent itself to the counter-guerrilla approach.

"Here in the green zone ... they're hard-core guerrillas," Tunnell said. "They form and they operate in teams and squads, and they mass into platoons very quickly. So I think you can't ignore that. We haven't seen any $10-a-day Taliban here."

He outlined how he intended his approach to work. "[W]hen it comes to the enemy, you have leadership, supply chains and formations. And you've really got to tackle all three of those," Tunnell said. "I was wounded as a battalion commander and they had a perfectly capable battalion commander in to replace me very quickly; our supply lines were interdicted with ambushes and they never stopped us from getting any resources, but when you degrade a formation substantially, that will stop operations. And then if you degrade formations, supply chains and leadership near simultaneously, you'll cause the enemy in the area to collapse, and that is what we're trying to do here."

Asked if this was an enemy-centric approach, Tunnell replied: "The enemy informs how you gain access to the population. You cannot ignore it. We were taking horrible casualties trying to gain access to the population, and we knew that we needed to get to the population, and so if we didn't conduct the types of operations that we're conducting throughout the brigade's area ... we wouldn't be able to get to the population. So you can't separate the two."

Tunnell's counter-guerrilla vision has driven his brigade's missions, particularly in 1-17's area of operations. "We definitely haven't been COIN-focused in the Arghandab, we've been counter-guerrilla focused," Burton said.

The perceived disconnect between Tunnell's approach and McChrystal's guidance has led to intense frustration in Charlie Company. One young soldier said all the squad leaders in his platoon "have done COIN fights before, and they're pissed that we're not doing COIN properly."

Clearing operations

What has particularly angered soldiers here is the series of brigade-level clearing operations through the Arghandab ordered by Tunnell to cement his troops' hold over the Arghandab and particularly the green zone, where the bulk of the population live, according to Tunnell.

"That's one of the challenges of a population-centric strategy: you have to go to where the population is," he said.

One operation, Opportunity Hold, at the end of August, "was a unique opportunity to mass resources and go right to the hold" phase of counterinsurgency doctrine's "clear, hold and build" model, Tunnell said. "So we did that and seized initial key terrain, mainly on the periphery."

Sustain Hold was aimed at getting 1-17 deeper into the green zone and establishing platoon-level patrol bases, he said.

The most recent operation, Focus Hold, which began in late November, focused on the green zone's southeastern section. "It's really one of the final approaches to Kandahar city," Tunnell said, adding that Focus Hold's operational goal was "to dislocate the enemy so they don't want to continue operations."

But while the logic behind the operations is clear to Tunnell, it is less so at the company level.

"We have done absolutely nothing as a company to improve the quality of life for the average Afghan living in the central Arghandab Valley," Sanders said. "What we're doing is not working, and we need to go on a different tack." Asked what that tack should be, Sanders replied: "Basic counter-insurgency — give them a better option than Islamic extremism."

That is the prevalent view in Charlie Company.

"The ‘clear, hold, build' thing that we're supposed to be doing ... we're not doing that," Hughes said. "If any commander in this brigade goes to sleep at night thinking after we've walked through that orchard over there that it's clear, he's a f------ idiot."

Hughes added a comment that could have been taken straight from McChrystal's guidance: "The non-kinetic side of the house is what wins counterinsurgency, not attrition."

Frustration has bred a cynical humor at the Joint District Coordination Center where Charlie Company has made its home. A quote posted on the wall of the company's command post and attributed to the first sergeant, Charles Burrow, reads: "Apparently COIN stands for Clearing Operations in November." Burrow declined to be interviewed for this story.

Trying to do both

Among the young leaders who chafed against the "counter-guerrilla" approach was then-Charlie Company commander Kassulke, described by a subordinates as "a really smart, really knowledgeable guy" who "was the company commander that everybody in the battalion wanted to work for."

"He made no dice about the fact that he was openly trying to conduct a more counterinsurgency fight," Turnblom said, adding that Kassulke was trying to nest population-focused missions inside the enemy-focused operations imposed by Neumann and Tunnell.

"We were working to bring some security to the region, and that meant that we went to the areas where the enemy was," Kassulke said in an e-mail. "We still did all we could to effectively engage the population before, during and after all of our operations."

But soldiers who worked closely with Kassulke said he harbored deep misgivings about the enemy-centric focus of the missions he was ordered to conduct. Those doubts, along with his determination to do what he thought was right, brought him into conflict with his battalion and brigade commanders, his soldiers said.

In one instance, the point of friction was a quote from McChrystal's counterinsurgency guidance posted on the wall of Kassulke's command post. It read: "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. The local insurgents hide in plain sight and the people remain ambivalent. Once we depart, the militants re-emerge and life under insurgent control resumes."

In the context of Charlie Company's experience, the McChrystal quote seemed right on point. But when Neumann saw the quote during a visit to the JDCC, he told the battalion operations officer to direct Kassulke to take it down.

"I had them take it down to not get ahead of ourselves," Neumann said in an e-mail to Army Times.

"The quote was deliberately put up to make a point, probably one I was out of my lane to make," said Kassulke. "I knew that the quote would be a point of contention when I put it up."

Kassulke said the incident was "not even a big deal at all," but to his soldiers, the fact that their battalion commander was ordering the removal of a quote from McChrystal emphasizing the population-centric approach to counterinsurgency summed up the apparent disconnect between the company-grade leadership and their higher chain of command.

‘Backbone' of Charlie Company

In early November, Tunnell visited the JDCC. According to soldiers who were there, he asked Kassulke if he had any concerns about the upcoming Focus Hold operation. According to Turnblom, Kassulke "expressed reservations about the idea of undertaking another brigade-level offensive operation."

A few days later, Tunnell announced that he would be replacing Kassulke early as commander of Charlie Company.

The replacement was not a formal relief. Kassulke and the incoming commander, Capt. Max Hanlin, conducted a regular change-of-command ceremony Nov. 24 at 1-17's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Frontenac, 364 days after Kassulke took command. A standard company command lasts two years. But Tunnell's removal of the popular and charismatic Kassulke stunned Charlie Company.

"His guys absolutely loved and respected him," Burton said. "He just exemplified everything a leader should be and for him to be removed, it just never made sense to me, and kind of made me question leadership in general and how the Army perceives leadership."

"The glue that was holding the company together was Captain Kassulke," said Spc. Nicholas White, a machine gunner in 4th Platoon's second squad, who was not alone in describing Kassulke as "the backbone" of Charlie Company.

None of the Charlie Company soldiers interviewed said Kassulke was at fault for the heavy casualties his unit had suffered.

"I certainly don't think the company-level leadership could have done anything differently" that would have prevented the casualties, Turnblom said.

Neumann said if it had been up to him, he would not have replaced Kassulke, but the decision was Tunnell's. "His main point to me was [that he was] worried both about the company and about the man," Neumann said. "Either one can hit a breaking point."

But Kassulke's troops didn't see any strain affecting him. "I saw him every day," said Staff Sgt. David Myers, also of 4th Platoon's second squad. "He never once lost focus. He was on top of his game."

Tunnell said that the casualties suffered by Charlie Company influenced his decision to replace Kassulke "a month or two" earlier than planned. "It was going to happen in the December/January time frame anyway," he said.

But the soldiers were unanimous in their view that Tunnell was making Kassulke a scapegoat for the battalion's high casualty rate. "He [Kassulke] didn't do anything wrong, but he was thrown under the bus," said one leader in Charlie Company. "He's the last guy that should've lost his job."

Some in Charlie Company thought Tunnell's replacement of Kassulke so soon after the captain had told the colonel of his concerns over Focus Hold was no coincidence.

"It's probably bad juju for an O-3 to tell an O-6, ‘Hey, you're not doing what the four-star wants you to do,' " said a soldier.

But Tunnell denied this through DeSantis, who said Tunnell had visited and spoken with Kassulke at the JDCC prior to Focus Hold as part of a routine process of gathering "input" from subordinate leaders prior to a major operation. "[I]t did not have any bearing on his assignment within the brigade," DeSantis said.

Kassulke, who was moved to a brigade staff position in Zabul province, likewise played down the conversation's significance. "As far as I am concerned, this was a normal conversation about operations, and ... he was genuinely interested in hearing my opinions as one of the company commanders who would be participating," he said.

Army Times asked Tunnell via e-mail to respond to Charlie Company soldiers' comments about his removal of Kassulke. In response, DeSantis e-mailed that "other than change of command ceremonies ... details about the assignment of officers [are] not released."

Kassulke declined to detail the conversations he had with Tunnell regarding the switch. "The change of command was a surprise to me, but the brigade commander had a plan and this was part of it," Kassulke said.

The impact on the company of Kassulke's reassignment was exacerbated by Tunnell's decision to pull the unit back to Frontenac for two weeks, coinciding with the memorial ceremony for two of the company's soldiers killed in a Nov. 5 IED strike and the change of command. The move to Frontenac kept the company out of the fight "when we needed to get back on the horse," Hughes said.

Change of mission

But the final blow to the company's morale was still to come: the new RC-South commander British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter chose to pull Charlie Company and the rest of 1-17 out of the Arghandab permanently and replace them with elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade.

Carter had a new mission for Tunnell's brigade: ensuring freedom of movement along the major highways in his area of operations. The mission was a vital one for which the Strykers were uniquely suited, the British general said in an interview with Army Times.

Restoring security to Afghanistan's major highways is a necessary and important step in boosting southern Afghanistan's economy and restoring governance to the region, Carter said.

After analyzing the forces at his disposal, Carter concluded that the Stryker brigade was the best fit for the freedom-of-movement mission, in part because of its high-tech command-and-control gear. "In terms of an organization that can bring freedom of movement as an effect to me, there is no better capability than the Stryker brigade."

Soldiers in both Bravo and Charlie companies said the order to pull out felt like "a defeat." For Charlie Company, with the heavy toll it has taken, the move is particularly painful. Soldiers feel they are leaving the Arghandab without being given the chance to achieve success in the mission for which their comrades died. "I've lost 14 friends since I've gotten out here," said White. "Now what have they died for?"

Several junior leaders in the battalion said the change of mission was a reflection of their chain of command's failure to embrace population-centric counterinsurgency.

"I know exactly what my soldiers feel," Hughes said. "This is hallowed ground to them. ... They want to do good things here. They were fully committed and mentally and physically prepared to fight for the rest of the year to make our guys not die in vain." Hughes said that at every battalion formation, 1-17 soldiers had to recite the Army's Warrior Ethos, which includes the line, "I will never accept defeat."

"Us leaving here, I'm pretty sure that qualifies as a defeat," he said.

Carter disagreed, saying the 1-17 soldiers "created the conditions to hand over the Arghandab in much better condition than it was two months ago, to another unit, thus releasing [the 1-17] to go on to what is a much higher priority task, and a task which is much better suited for [the 1-17's] capability.

"They've been pulled out because they are the right capability to go on to what is the most important task in my judgment in Regional Command-South at the moment," he said.

Carter dismissed the fears of some Stryker brigade soldiers that they would be little more than "traffic cops."

"[T]his task is not simply a task of driving up and down a strip of highway," Carter said. "In order to secure freedom of movement you have to secure the ground — a tactical bound — to the left and to the right of the highway, and in some places that could be as much as three or four kilometers; in others, it'll be right up adjacent to it.

"Therefore, this organization has probably got the largest area of operations in the whole of Afghanistan, and that is quite a commitment to give it. ... And on that basis, my sense is that [the 1-17] has got the opportunity during the course of the last seven or eight months of its deployment here to make a significant impact upon the campaign."

Neumann said it was important for his soldiers to retain a professional outlook. "The challenge for us is to be emotional about our losses, not emotional about our mission," Neumann said. Hanlin, the new Charlie Company commander, echoed his boss. "We follow orders," he said.

Most soldiers seemed determined to put aside their disappointment to focus on their new task."

"We're going to do the best job we can no matter what mission we're given," Hughes said. "We don't quit."

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