Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong: What happened at Wanat? (I)

Just before dawn last July 13, Taliban fighters attacked an outpost in eastern Afghanistan being established by U.S. Army soldiers and fought a short, sharp battle that left many American dead — and many questions. But the U.S. military establishment, I’ve found after reviewing the Army investigation, dozens of statements given by soldiers to investigators, ...


Just before dawn last July 13, Taliban fighters attacked an outpost in eastern Afghanistan being established by U.S. Army soldiers and fought a short, sharp battle that left many American dead — and many questions. But the U.S. military establishment, I’ve found after reviewing the Army investigation, dozens of statements given by soldiers to investigators, and interviews with knowledgeable sources, simply has not wanted to confront some bad mistakes on this obscure Afghan battlefield — especially tragic because, as the interviews make clear, some of the doomed soldiers knew they were headed for potential disaster.

First, here’s my account of what happened that day, drawn from the official investigation and other sources:

The 45 Americans, mainly from 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, had begun building a patrol base in the Waygul River valley village of Wanat on July 8. There also were three Marines present, who were training Afghans, and 24 soldiers from the Afghan army. (The initial Army report said two Marines, but subsequent documents corrected this.) The platoon’s leader was there the whole time, but the company commander was busy elsewhere and only arrived the day before the attack. None of their superiors visited the outpost during that time. Significantly, there was no overhead surveillance by unmanned aerial vehicles because of bad weather, according to Army documents.

At 4:20 a.m., just before sunrise, volleys of rocket-propelled grenades began to hit the base. There were approximately 200 attackers, according to the Army investigation. They began by concentrating on the American’s heavy weapons — a 120 millimeter mortar, a TOW missile system, and a .50 caliber machine gun. It felt like “about a thousand RPGs at once,” Spec. Tyler Hanson later told an Army interviewer. With the first two heavy weapons knocked out, the Taliban moved in to fight just feet away from the Americans, making it difficult to call in air strikes against them. Enemy fighters threw rocks into their Americans’ fighting holes, apparently hoping they soldiers would mistake them for grenades and jump out, exposing themselves to fire. Enemy fire was coming from every direction. “The whole time we were thinking we were going to die,” said Spec. Chris McKaig.

Many did. When most of the fighting was over, about an hour later, nine American soldiers were dead and another 27 were wounded. Between 21 and 52 of the attackers were killed. The Americans held the outpost, which is impressive, considering their 75 percent casualty rate.

Those are the facts of the matter. They are not in dispute, except for the size of the Taliban force, which one account claims is smaller than the Army’s estimate of 200. You can read a redacted version of the Army’s 15-6 investigation at the “Wanat” page on Wikipedia. Also, here is a Army Times’ outstanding view of the battleground.

It is an interesting case to study especially because of the discrepancy between what is known about the incident and what has been learned from it. In other words, the facts gathered by Col. Mark Johnstone in the Army investigation are compelling, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are not. Rather, the Army appears determined to shy away from the lessons indicated by those facts. Here is what the Army concluded — basically that we did OK, we should have had a Predator overhead, and that we shouldn’t have trusted those lousy Afghans. And then let’s talk about how brave our soldiers were:

The soldiers did fight valiantly at Wanat. I am in awe of them. As one reported to the Army investigator, “I continued to lay suppressive fire with the 240 [machine gun] but it was difficult because I was unable to stand due to wounds in both legs and my left arm.” When this soldier ran out of ammunition he realized that he was the only one left alive in his corner of the outpost, with the enemy so close he could hear them talking.

It takes nothing away from the soldiers to say that there are other lessons to be learned here. “You go through the 15-6 and your heart sinks, as you see all this,” said one person who has reviewed most of the data gathered on the battle.

Indeed, one way to honor them would be to look at what might have been done better to help them. But the Army seems positively determined not to study the Wanat incident. A few weeks ago, two interviews about the battle were posted on Fort Leavenworth’s very good series of Operational Leadership Interviews — but then were removed.

Screwups are inevitable in war. But there are serious questions to be addressed here — and I hope to do so over the next few days on this blog, drawing on the investigation itself and other sources who have raised concerns with me about the painful, and so far unlearned, lessons of the battle. As one Army source put it to me, “The paratroopers sent to Wanat knew they were in big trouble. Although the battalion HQ was only 7km away, these guys lacked class 4 [construction and fortification materials], ran out of water and had little material to build up their defensive positions.” Indeed, some of the statements made by those who fought raise the question of whether their concerns are being heard by their superiors.

Before leading the Wanat mission, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, who died during the fight, told his best friend in the battalion that “he thought it was a bad idea and knew he was going to get ‘fucked up,'” according to that friend’s sworn statement.

Taking corrective steps is, of course, what the chain of command should be doing, but doesn’t appear to have done. “I would not characterize this as anything more than the standard fighting that happens in this area in good weather that the summer provides,” Col. Charles Preysler, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, told Stars & Stripes about a week after the battle. In other words, nothing to see here, move on.

If the brigade commander and others in the chain of command don’t want to think about the lessons to be learned here, then perhaps the Army Inspector General should-a good IG is more about instruction than punishment. Failing that, the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Pete Chiarelli, might direct Lt. Gen. William Caldwell at Fort Leavenworth to have some experienced officers aid the Center for Army Lessons Learned in a review. I have heard that a historian at Leavenworth’s Combat Studies Institute had been working on a history of the battle, but I’ve also been told that his study for some reason has been put on hold.

In the next several items, I will discuss specific lessons that might be learned about resources, planning, support and other life-and-death issues.

(Hat tip to Michael Zubrow of CNAS for research aid.)

Photo via Panoramio

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 Twitter: @tomricks1