Best Defense

Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (III): Did the troops have what they needed?

Another major question arising from the Wanat battle in eastern Afghanistan that left nine American soldiers dead last summer is whether the soldiers in the fight were adequately supported. And a review of the investigation and interviews with key sources suggests there’s lots to be concerned about here — from potentially insufficient troop numbers to ...

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Soldiers from Task Force 2-27 Infantry patrol the ruins of an Afghan village during Operation Verendrye near the Pakistan border.

Another major question arising from the Wanat battle in eastern Afghanistan that left nine American soldiers dead last summer is whether the soldiers in the fight were adequately supported. And a review of the investigation and interviews with key sources suggests there’s lots to be concerned about here — from potentially insufficient troop numbers to conduct this kind of operation to insufficient supplies of basics such as potable water and concertina wire.

This is a touchy subject because it goes directly to the actions — or lack thereof — of senior officers. At the same time, if the lesson learned here is that more backup was required, that’s easily remedied in future situations, if people speak up, so it is especially worth examination. This issue breaks down into four key questions: Were there enough troops for the task at hand? Did they have what they needed? Was there sufficient aviation support? And was there adequate command attention?

Troops: On the face of it, it would appear that there were not enough soldiers assigned for mission. The platoon leader sensed this going in, telling his best friend in the battalion, according to that friend’s sworn statement, “1st LT Brostrom expressed concerns to me about the number of men he was taking with him for the mission.” One platoon may have been fine if there was no enemy action. But it wasn’t enough to build the outpost while also providing deterrent security, including foot patrols. They probably needed two platoons for those two tasks.

Supplies: I am told they ran out of concertina wire. Also, they lacked earth-moving machinery big enough to fill 7-foot-high Hesco barriers, so they cut them down to just over 3 feet and then filled them. This is grueling work, especially in the Afghan summer. Daytime temperatures were more than 100 degrees. In their exertions, they ran low of potable water, which was rationed, and so went on a reduced work schedule, which in turn lessened the amount of defenses finished by the time of the attack. Most of the men were “mildly dehydrated” by the second day of building the outpost, one soldier stated. By the afternoon before the attack, “we continued to improve positions and were unable to do anything else due to the lack of proper equipment and Class 4 supplies,” a staff sergeant stated.

Helicopters: I am told that aviation resources were stretched, that the unit had only a handful of AH-64 Apache attack helos, and that those were mainly devoted to escorting CH-47 Chinooks carrying troops and cargo and UH-60 Black Hawks flying around commanders. In addition, the attack was launched just as the Apaches were switching from night crews to day crews, with the arriving aviators needing to do preflight checks on their aircraft, debrief the old crews, get a weather update, and be briefed on the enemy situation. It took roughly an hour for the attack helos to come on scene and begin firing, I am told. “By the time they got there, the enemy was in retreat mode,” said one person who has reviewed the data.

Staff and command support: The unit had been there for a year, and the brigade staff appears to have been busy with planning for redeployment and taking care of the RIP, or “relief in place,” with the incoming unit. “They were distracted and didn’t focus on this particular mission,” said one veteran who has looked at the Army investigatory material. (There also was lots of intelligence that an attack was imminent, but I don’t make too much of that, because in my experience there is always intelligence of that sort, so I don’t think it means that much.) The platoon at Wanat could have used a visit by someone like the battalion commander or his XO to visit to ensure they were getting what they needed, from supplies to aerial surveillance.

The feeling that there was a distracted staff trying to do too many things at once originated with the platoon sergeant who likely was the savviest soldier at Wanat. “[It] is my own personal belief that this was the wrong time to start a new FOB,” he said in his statement to an Army investigator. “The RIP was going on, so that was using up assets that could have been used.”

There is lots to take away from this:

One likely lesson: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you don’t have the troops to hold, don’t move in.

A second lesson: One or two little mistakes are tolerable, but more than that and they begin to accumulate into a dangerously big mistake. Blow the whistle before they snowball.

A third very simple lesson: Don’t try to establish new bases at the end of your deployment.

A fourth time-honored lesson: Don’t be predictable. Maybe move around the crew shift time. And make sure you have attack helicopters ready to go at the most likely time of an enemy attack, just before dawn.

U.S. Army

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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