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Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (VI): How the Army handled the matter

Okay, I am down to the last couple of posts on this. We will soon return to our regularly scheduled programming. I apologize to those of you who have been bored, or think I have treated this like the 2008 version of Gettysburg. Rather, what I had in the back of my mind was some ...

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Okay, I am down to the last couple of posts on this. We will soon return to our regularly scheduled programming. I apologize to those of you who have been bored, or think I have treated this like the 2008 version of Gettysburg. Rather, what I had in the back of my mind was some of the work Bernard Fall did on small actions in Indochina. I think we study the big stuff far more than the small stuff.

That goes for the institutional Army as well. How it handled the Wanat battle may be the most disturbing aspect of this incident. We’ve seen indications of problems with how the Wanat mission was planned, executed and supported, but no one in the Army seems particularly interested in exploring the issue.

This oddly reminds me of the Army’s reaction to the third Armored Cavalry’s success in Tell Afar in northern Iraq in 2005-06. What was done there suggested a different path in Iraq-one that the surge eventually implemented-but the Army didn’t seem much interested. In fact, Secretary of State Rice picked up on Tell Afar long before Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did, mentioning it in her speeches and congressional testimony.

The Army attitude was crystallized in its responses to a congressional inquiry on Wanat. Sen. Inouye’s office asked how it came to pass that a platoon was sent into a light, remote, ill-prepared position, without overhead surveillance or observation posts, when there were indications of a large Taliban band operating in the area. The Army’s answer is non-responsive: It explains why the move was made, rather than how it was made.

I’ve been told lately that the Army’s Infantry Center has conducted its own “after action review” of the Wanat battle, including a new series of interviews with soldiers from the unit. (Is it significant that they decided not to rely on the 15-6 report? I don’t know.) I am glad this was done. I’d be interested in reading that review, if anyone has a copy.

By the way, I think it is just a coincidence, but I’ve also learned in the last few days that the Army IG has been directed to look into Wanat.

Lesson that might be learned: Just because something important happens, don’t expect the chain of command or the Pentagon to notice it and act on it. In fact, the more significant it is, I suspect the less likely it is that the institutional Army will act on its own. In other words, the more troubling the mistakes, the more likely external forces will be needed to get the attention of the brass, especially when the situation points to lapses in strategic thinking or by senior leadership.

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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