Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Wanat (VIII): An Army report finds a major COIN failure

The Army’s study of what happened in the Wanat battle a year ago in eastern Afghanistan is even harder on senior U.S. military commanders than I was in my series on it back in February, saying that they didn’t understand counterinsurgency doctrine and also that some of their statements about the fight were misleading at ...

BABA KALA, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 17: Members of the US Army 1-6 Field Artillary Unit and the 2nd Squad 1st Platoon 527 MP Company rest while searching for caves where insurgents are thought to hide weapons on February 17, 2009 in the village of Baba Kala, eastern Afghanistan. As the security situation continues to challenge coalition forces, President Obama is considering his options on future troop deployments to Afghanistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Army’s study of what happened in the Wanat battle a year ago in eastern Afghanistan is even harder on senior U.S. military commanders than I was in my series on it back in February, saying that they didn’t understand counterinsurgency doctrine and also that some of their statements about the fight were misleading at best.

The report, which is still in draft form, contradicts a few aspects of the accounts provided by some of the senior officers involved, implicitly raising integrity questions. That’s especially significant because two officials at Fort Leavenworth have told me that the Army inspector general’s office is investigating how the Wanat incident was reported and reviewed. I also hear that congressional interest in the situation is growing.

The report, which has not been released and was written for the Army’s Combat Studies Institute by military historian Douglas Cubbison, finds multiple failures by the battalion and brigade commanders involved, Lt. Col. William Ostlund and Col. Charles Preysler. The core problem, Cubbison writes, is that the battle resulted from “a failure of COIN [counterinsurgency] manifested in a major combat action that although a marked tactical victory, became an operational and strategic defeat.” Indeed, the report concludes that the unit’s attempts at counterinsurgency were so badly implemented that they “were more likely to foster hostility than reciprocity from the local population.”

That finding on the failure to properly carry out a counterinsurgency campaign is to my mind the most significant part of the Cubbison report. He flatly concludes that, in sharp contrast to their predecessors from the 10th Mountain Division, the commanders in the Wanat area mishandled their COIN campaign, both in the long term, over several months, and in the days preceding the Wanat fight. In sum, they alienated the population, failing to protect it and treating it as hostile. They then compounded the problem by instituting a “clear, hold and build” COIN operation without sufficient troops to clear Wanat, let alone hold it. “A single platoon in the open field near the bazaar lacked the capability of holding Wanat,” the report finds.

Those errors came on top of the ones I discussed in my series, such as launching a major new operation even as the brigade was pulling out of Afghanistan, plus failing to ensure that the troops in Wanat had adequate building supplies or any drone aircraft for intelligence surveillance or even enough water. Cubbison also is more emphatic than I was about the fears the platoon in question justly had about their assigned mission.

The brigade commander, Col. Preysler, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Ostlund, come in for repeated criticisms. (I e-mailed a copy of this post to both officers yesterday, asking for their comments or responses, but didn’t hear back from either.) Preysler, for example, has flatly stated that the Wanat outpost was never intended to be a “full-up combat outpost,” or COP. “That is absolutely false and not true,” he said after the fight. “So, from the get-go, that is just [expletive] and it’s not right.” The report finds that statement to be misleading, because, it notes, there were extensive plans for construction of a “permanent COP,” with walls, housing and sewage control.

In addition, while Ostlund, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, has stated that he was carrying out a COIN campaign, with a focus on “living with the population,” the report finds that statement to be inaccurate. “This was not the case in the Waigal Valley, where the paratroopers occupied only two COPs, and had almost no interaction with the population.” The report finds the statement of one machine gunner in the unit to be more accurate: “We didn’t interact with them…They didn’t come near us and we didn’t go near them.” Underscoring the hazy grasp Ostlund and his subordinates had of COIN, the report says, they were precise about the number of engagements they had, and even the number of bombs and missiles fired, but were “unable to provide commensurate statistics” for their efforts to actually help the local population.

The report quotes one soldier’s view was representative: “These people, they disgust me…Everything about those people up there is disgusting. They’re worthless.” This is not an attitude that tends to produce productive relationships.

These findings on COIN, by the way, sharply contradict the findings of the Army’s 15-6 inquiry into the firefight, conducted by Col. Mark Johnstone, who recommended in Powerpointese, “Continue to interact closely with the local population as per current counterinsurgency doctrine.”

Cubbison also writes that, “The highly kinetic approach favored by TF Rock…rapidly and inevitably degraded the relationships between the US Army and the Waigal population.” To top it off, a helicopter attack on some trucks just a few days before the Wanat outpost was established wound up killing a good percentage of the doctors and other health care workers in the valley.

Also, while there was every reason to expect an attack on the outpost as it was being established, which had happened with previous outposts, Ostlund didn’t appear to be focused on it. As a result, he and his subordinates appeared to neglect repeated signs that a major attack was imminent. “Until it had actually been the target of a major ACM [anti-coalition militia] attack, no senior leadership visited the new installation,” the report states.

The report also states that assertions made by officers involved that UAV surveillance wasn’t in place because of “weather issues” was “not accurate.”

In addition, Cubbison casts doubt on Col. Presyler’s assertion that, “The enemy never got into the main position.” Rather, he finds, the “defensive perimeter was positively penetrated, and fighting occurred within the OP [outpost] perimeter.” At any rate, Cubbison notes, overrunning the outpost doesn’t appear to have been the aim of the insurgents, who instead seemed to have been trying to capture soldiers or their bodies. Two of the American dead appeared to have been dragged several yards, probably in a failed attempt to do so, he notes.

Cubbison also makes the important point that the platoon was saved from being overrun mainly by its own discipline and professional competence. They did just about everything they could do to establish the defenses of their outpost, despite being dehydrated from a lack of potable water. They were attacked just as they were doing a pre-dawn “stand to,” in which every soldier, despite being exhausted from building walls and digging holes, was awake and fully armed and armored and surveilling his assigned sector of fire. As sergeants fell during the fight, junior soldiers were able to step into their shoes. He also marvels at the skill and courage of medical evacuation pilots and crews who picked up out wounded American and Afghan soldiers even as Apache helicopters were conducting gun runs 30 meters from the landing zone. Of the 20 evacuees, not one died of his wounds.

The report also is in awe of the bravery and persistence of the 42 soldiers and 3 Marines who fought at Wanat, as I am. I knew that some continued to fight after being hit several times. But I didn’t know that one continued to pass ammunition even when he was mortally wounded.

I also think the Army deserves praise for having the honesty to have this report done. I am told that the final version will be released soon. Let’s hope it isn’t thrown out the back door at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon in August.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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

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