What Was Behind the Afghanistan Sport Killings?

Understanding the brutal crimes by U.S. troops

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Reports first emerged last month that the U.S. Army is investigating one its combat brigades in Afghanistan for allegedly killing unarmed Afghan civilians for sport and desecrating their corpses. Beyond the immediate implications--how Army oversight failed, what it means for the broader U.S. mission--some observers are looking into the broader cultural conditions that allowed this to happen. Was the culture of counterinsurgency a factor? How do the Americans accused of these war crimes see their role in Afghanistan? Here's what people are saying.

  • Leader of Accused Unit Forcefully Rejected Counterinsurgency  The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock writes, "As sordid accounts of the platoon's activities continue to emerge, critics inside and outside the Army are questioning whether the brigade's get-tough strategy, which emphasized enemy kills over civilian relations, influenced the behavior of the accused. ... Evaluators warned [5th Stryker Combat Brigade team leader Col. Harry] Tunnell that his disdain for counterinsurgency would cause trouble in Afghanistan, but the brigade commander ignored them, said Richard Demaree, a retired lieutenant colonel who served as a battalion commander for the 5th Stryker Brigade. ... Tunnell, who served in Iraq and was badly wounded there, was a devotee of counter-guerrilla strategy, which places more emphasis on raids and other aggressive tactics but had been rejected as a doctrine by the Army in the aftermath of the Iraq insurgency."
  • Product of Army's Struggle to 'Balance' Protection with Fighting  Wired's Spencer Ackerman writes, "Lots of officers and soldiers think counterinsurgency’s focus on protecting civilians has gone too far. And their units haven’t produced 'Kill Teams.' So it’s not as if skepticism of counterinsurgency reveals a zest for brutality. ... But Tunnell isn’t the first commander to set an aggressive tone and watch his soldiers misapply it in ugly ways. If the 'Kill Team' is found guilty, it’ll likely spark a painful debate within the Army about the relationship between his anti-counterinsurgency approach and some of his men’s crimes. Striking the right balance between protecting civilians and fighting an enemy just got harder."
  • Technology-Induced Hubris  Commentary's Max Boot warns, "The Stryker brigades are among the most high-tech in the army...  This can breed hubris among soldiers who think that their gee-whiz gadgets give them an insuperable advantage over a more primitive foe. That was certainly the case with Tunnell, who actually told me that all his sophisticated computer systems gave him a better picture of his area’s 'human terrain' than that that possessed by the insurgents. I thought this was a pretty amazing statement considering that few if any of his soldiers spoke Pashto or understand anything about local customs — all of which was second nature to the Taliban. The army has made great strides in counterinsurgency, but this shows clearly that it still has a way to go. It clearly has to do a better job of making sure that all those in such important combat commands have ... a keen appreciation of the need for cultural knowledge and the limits of technology in this kind of fight."
  • Debate Reveals Blind Faith in Counterinsurgency  Registan's Joshua Foust takes a step back. "A fascinating undercurrent to this discussion is the descent of counterinsurgency as an unstoppable force for the betterment of war to a troubled theory we haven’t really figured out how to do right, if ever. Many of the boosters of COIN, who see the McChrystal implementation literally blowing up in our faces, seem eager to cast what is wrong with the war on refusing to follow the theory, rather than the theory’s inherent unworkability. There is an effort, in other words, still, to enforce a rigid orthodoxy on COIN. ... Blaming the monsters at the margins of the war, rather than the ill-suited strategy at its center, is passing the buck and avoiding responsibility for what happened."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.