Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (IV): Underestimating the enemy

It is striking that the Taliban fighters seemed to know exactly what was going on when they attacked the American outpost in Wanat, in eastern Afghanistan last summer, in a fight that the Army’s chain of command doesn’t seem to want to talk about, but which some of those with knowledge of the incident have ...

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Chinook helicptor carries a slingload recently during Operation Dragon Tree in the Argandab Valley in south central Afghanistan. Troops conducted the ten day operation to disrupt and destroy anti-Coalition forces and bring stability to the region.

It is striking that the Taliban fighters seemed to know exactly what was going on when they attacked the American outpost in Wanat, in eastern Afghanistan last summer, in a fight that the Army's chain of command doesn't seem to want to talk about, but which some of those with knowledge of the incident have encouraged me to look into.

The enemy had a battle plan ready before the Americans came on the scene. According to the military's internal investigation that I reviewed, the company commander was asked at dinner the night before the attack if there were UAVs operating in the area -- an interesting question to hear from an Afghan local.

It is striking that the Taliban fighters seemed to know exactly what was going on when they attacked the American outpost in Wanat, in eastern Afghanistan last summer, in a fight that the Army’s chain of command doesn’t seem to want to talk about, but which some of those with knowledge of the incident have encouraged me to look into.

The enemy had a battle plan ready before the Americans came on the scene. According to the military’s internal investigation that I reviewed, the company commander was asked at dinner the night before the attack if there were UAVs operating in the area — an interesting question to hear from an Afghan local.

As the Taliban began the attack, they turned on an irrigation ditch, so the sound of rushing water would cover the noise of their footsteps and whispers. Their attack was well-coordinated, “a lot of fire all at one time,” according to the company commander’s statement. They got close enough to locate in the dark Claymore mines meant to defend the American position, and gutsy enough to turn around the mines. When they attacked, they first concentrated on the heavy weapons — a big mortar, a .50 caliber machine gun and an anti-tank rocket launcher — that could do them the most damage. And they fought close, so that it was difficult for fixed-wing aircraft to fire at them. They seemed to know they had at least 30 to 45 minutes before attack helicopters would be on the scene.

The obvious lesson: Keep in mind that the enemy is also learning and adapting, especially in Afghanistan, where guerrilla warfare is the national sport. This takes us back to the previous lesson: you probably need more soldiers than you think.

A second lesson: Get surveillance assets overhead before moving in, especially if you’ve been warned of an impending attack. If the weather is too bad for those aircraft to fly, consider delaying the mission.

U.S. Army/Sgt. Jeremy Clawson

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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