Thursday, January 29, 2009

After Action Report: Wanat Aftghanistan

Last July I wrote a post about a small battle in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan between a reinforced platoon size force from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team"Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first." and a large force of Taliban irregulars. Nine American soldiers were killed and 27 wounded out of the 45 men holding the outpost. The story has again broken the surface and thanks to blogger abu mugqawama who writes Learning, even when it hurts and points to Tom Ricks Foreign Policy Blog, where Ricks has two posts analysing what went wrong and how it appears the lessons are being ignored. Shades of Vietnam seem to be surfacing in this mountainous fog of war, where earlier lessons about intelligence and deployment of a small force amid indigenous people who have more loyalty to the enemy than their own government or American forces.


Just before dawn last July 13, Taliban fighters attacked an outpost in eastern Afghanistan being established by U.S. Army soldiers and fought a short, sharp battle that left many American dead -- and many questions. But the U.S. military establishment, I've found after reviewing the Army investigation, dozens of statements given by soldiers to investigators, and interviews with knowledgeable sources, simply has not wanted to confront some bad mistakes on this obscure Afghan battlefield -- especially tragic because, as the interviews make clear, some of the doomed soldiers knew they were headed for potential disaster.

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Ricks continues in part II

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?

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These two intrepid bloggers are are holding the Army accountable by tying blog buoys to the story so that it won't sink beneath the bureaucratic fog into the dark sea of "Can't remember Shit" where logic and horizontal thinking is ignored. For the sake of those who gave their lives and so that others whom we are poised to commit to those barren krags and plunging valleys will not have to utter the last words of Cpl. Matthew Phillips "Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first."

Thomas Ricks continues his report about the battle at Wanat. Here, he highlights shortfalls.
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?
Basic Logistics 101 was ignored in a report that in many ways would read like an after action report from Vietnam after years of combat.
Troops: On the face of it, it would appear that there were not enough soldiers assigned for mission.
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.
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.
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.

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

In Part IV, Tom Ricks describes how the senior officers in the American Army fell into the same trap that earlier commanders of past American wars tumbled into. Men like George B. McClellan who kept underestimating Robert E. Lee. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who underestimated the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne, and General William Westmoreland, among others. The list is long and in this case those who were neglectful only caused the death of nine men. One would argue that this battle does not make a war, but it is revealing of hubris, neglect and poor planning by those charged with sending those men to hold a choke point in a valley surrounded by an unseen enemy.
Ricks begins:
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.

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When I read these reports, I am sickened because I recognize accounts that if we change the location and the enemy would be interchangable with many after action reports filed during the Vietnam War. Even modern contempory films have protrayed such scenes. Siege of Firebase Gloria (atheists in a combat ... and the actual event as what happened at FSB Mary Ann.

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