Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (II): Did we tip our hand to the enemy?

There are many potential lessons learned from the deadly battle last summer in the remote Afghan village of Wanat that claimed nine American lives but has yet to be fully investigated and understood by the U.S. military command. One major question I have, based on extensive review of the official record and conversations with multiple ...

587240_090129_Wanat_B_1.29_resized2.jpg
587240_090129_Wanat_B_1.29_resized2.jpg
A 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment Soldier provides overwatch on an Afghan valley during Operation Verendrye near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

There are many potential lessons learned from the deadly battle last summer in the remote Afghan village of Wanat that claimed nine American lives but has yet to be fully investigated and understood by the U.S. military command. One major question I have, based on extensive review of the official record and conversations with multiple sources, is this: Were the U.S. forces correctly mounting a counterinsurgency operation, or not, when they got drawn into the Wanat battle?

American officers had been talking to village elders for months about establishing an outpost in the village of Wanat. But that approach gave the enemy more than ample time to prepare what was effectively a giant ambush. This isn't a thought original to me: The company commander worried about it at the time. "By negotiating with local people about the location and trying to gain support it allowed the locals to plan with the enemy to attack the base," he told the investigating colonel.

There are many potential lessons learned from the deadly battle last summer in the remote Afghan village of Wanat that claimed nine American lives but has yet to be fully investigated and understood by the U.S. military command. One major question I have, based on extensive review of the official record and conversations with multiple sources, is this: Were the U.S. forces correctly mounting a counterinsurgency operation, or not, when they got drawn into the Wanat battle?

American officers had been talking to village elders for months about establishing an outpost in the village of Wanat. But that approach gave the enemy more than ample time to prepare what was effectively a giant ambush. This isn’t a thought original to me: The company commander worried about it at the time. “By negotiating with local people about the location and trying to gain support it allowed the locals to plan with the enemy to attack the base,” he told the investigating colonel.

The Army maintains that the commanders were observing counterinsurgency doctrine of meeting with local leaders. “Providing legitimacy to and improving partnership with the district government was determined to be a key component of the on-going counterinsurgency fight,” it stated in a response to an inquiry from the office of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

But others tell me that Army forces in eastern Afghanistan really weren’t conducting a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign, which would mean not only meeting with local leaders and establishing outposts, but also finding and arming some local allies, and building roads and other projects, and, above all, protecting the population from being intimidated by the enemy. It would appear that the U.S. military didn’t have enough troops and presence in eastern Afghanistan to do that. Rather, they were in a tough fight and conducting a lot of airstrikes. In other words, it was more Fallujah 2004 than Ramadi 2007.

Likely lesson, I think: Counterinsurgency can’t be conducted piecemeal. You are either doing the full-court press — or you are not doing counterinsurgency. Just dropping troops into a hostile neighborhood is not COIN. The company commander seems to have similar thoughts, saying in his statement that he thinks more of a “gradual push” approach should have been used-that is, an “ink blot” strategy. Instead, the battalion commander appears to have tried to leapfrog into the valley.

But my thoughts are tentative, and I’d like to hear from others on this.

U.S. Army Photo

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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