Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Inside an Afghan battle gone wrong (V): Neglecting the misgivings of those given the mission

By this point, we’ve seen that the company commander, the platoon leader, and the platoon sergeant all had misgivings about the deadly Wanat mission in eastern Afghanistan last summer. They feared that the enemy had been tipped off, that the mission was inconsistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, that they didn’t have enough people to execute it ...

588942_090130_Wanat_E_1.31_resized2.jpg
A soldier from the Afghanistan Security Guard (ASG) stands guard a traffic control point (TCP) in Bella, Afghanistan, Feb. 15, 2008. The ASG man the only TCP around Bella 24-hours a day. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jordan Carter) (Released)

By this point, we've seen that the company commander, the platoon leader, and the platoon sergeant all had misgivings about the deadly Wanat mission in eastern Afghanistan last summer. They feared that the enemy had been tipped off, that the mission was inconsistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, that they didn't have enough people to execute it properly, that it was coming too near the end of their unit's deployment, and the commanders and staff above them were distracted by the turnover to the replacement unit.

This is from the sworn statement that the officer who was the best friend of Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, the platoon leader at Wanat, gave to an Army investigator:

By this point, we’ve seen that the company commander, the platoon leader, and the platoon sergeant all had misgivings about the deadly Wanat mission in eastern Afghanistan last summer. They feared that the enemy had been tipped off, that the mission was inconsistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, that they didn’t have enough people to execute it properly, that it was coming too near the end of their unit’s deployment, and the commanders and staff above them were distracted by the turnover to the replacement unit.

This is from the sworn statement that the officer who was the best friend of Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, the platoon leader at Wanat, gave to an Army investigator:

He told me he did not like it. . . 1st Lt. Brostrom told me he wasn’t sure why they were trying to do this mission so close to the end of the deployment . . . . [He] was surprised and disappointed at the same time that they were trying to push this mission. I asked who ‘they’ was and he couldn’t tell me if it was coming down from BDE [brigade], BN [battalion], or just his company commander, but he knew he wasn’t fond of the idea and nor were his men. 1st LT Brostrom expressed concerns to me about the number of men he was taking with him for the mission. . . . and that he was also concerned about the terrain surrounding the area. When I asked him about the terrain he said it was like Bella [another outpost], but he would have no OPs [observation posts] up above him.

The lack of those higher observation posts would allow the enemy to creep to the edge of the new American outpost at Wanat during the night of July 12-13.

Brostrom also told his friend that he had raised his concerns with his company commander, who had taken some steps to mitigate some of the problems. The friend was so worried that he spoke to his own company commander, telling him, he recalled, that, “I didn’t like the fact that it was only one platoon and there was no plan to insert Americans onto the high ground to establish OPs, especially with how much enemy activity had gone on the prior missions.” The two officers agreed that Brostrom’s company had competent leaders, so assumed that the company’s officers “would have the same concerns and identify and mitigate the risks.”

On the morning of July 13, this officer would be part of the reinforcements sent to relieve Brostrom’s beleaguered platoon. His friend was dead by that point.

The lesson: Yes, commanders need to show a spirit of confidence. But they shouldn’t let that “can-do” spirit prevent them from taking on and weighing the honest doubts of those being sent on the mission. That doesn’t appear to have happened here.

U.S. Military/ SPC JORDAN CARTER

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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