Sunday, February 1, 2009

Thomas Ricks Wanat Battle: Part (V) Underestimating the Threat

Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876
Clark Field, Dec 8, 1941

Isandlwana, 1879

The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13, January 1842

Firefight somewhere in Afghanistan, 2008

In a previous post, After Action Report: Wanat Aftghanistan, I linked the ongoing reports over at Tom Ricks Foreign Policy Blog, where Rick's details the investigation of what went wrong last July in Eastern Afghanistan at the village of Wanat, where a small force of American soldiers held out against overwhelming odds.

In part (5) of this series, Ricks continues his analysis.

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.

Read more:

What troubles me is how so many charged with sending these men, could have been so blind to the obvious. Placing a unit in what amounts to a box canyon, view, with no observation posts, high enough to see the enemy's approach borders on gross incompetence and neglect. I must note that if this were the Navy, and a Captain had run his ship on a sandbar, he would have already been relieved and a court of inquiry would have been convened to determine if it warrants a court martial.

"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."sworn statement from Lt Bostrom's best friend.

When those men deployed to Wanat, these words may have been both comforting and prophetic.

King James Bible Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

As someone who saw the same kind of mistakes being made in another war decades ago. I am deeply troubled that those charged with leading, have as Ricks distinctly observes with this lesson, let hubris, trump good soldiering.

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.

The "can-do" spirit and over confidence, led Custer to misread Sitting Bull, Custer'sLast Stand; MacArthur, Japanese airpower, MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines; Chelmsford, the Zulu warriors, Battle of Isandlwana. And from an earlier time in Afghanistan, General Elphinstone and the Ghilzai tribesmen, Kabul and Gandamak.

Granted, the battle of Wanat, is a pimple on an elephant's ass compared to the above failures in planning for the threat. But, consider this, in 1868 during the Battle of Washita River, Custer was accused of failing to come to the aid of Major Joel Elliott, who with 19 men, had ridden off a short distance and were attacked. Custer left the detachment dead on the battlefield, to be retrieved in the spring. Custer never was able to erase the stain from the memory of those he continued to lead.

The Army needs to shine a very private spotlight on the judgement of those charged with deploying these men, so that in the future, commanders rely on more than a "can-do" attitude to accomplish a mission, that in hindsight, looks like a recipe for disaster.

I do not post this to ignite a controversy, I have loved the United State Army from the first time I donned the uniform. During my service, including Vietnam and the year of discord (1968) as federal troops were deployed to major American cities, I sensed the responsibility that an army fielded by a democracy carries. To my last breath I will carry the knowledge that the common soldier wants to do his best, and is willing to sacrifice their life for their country and their fellow soldiers. It is critical beyond measure that they deserve the best in leadership. In reviewing what went wrong at Wanat, and adding comment, I hope to add my voice and those who visit this blog and to those of Thomas Ricks and abu mugqawama who have questioned the logic of sending these men into an impossible situation.
In a war such as this, perception is everything. Note, that we abandoned the valley and now only fly predators, like deadly hawks seeking prey, over a village now totally committed to the Taliban.
This report about Counterinsurgency in Vietnam by SWJ Editors is worth the read. The smell of Vietnam's jungle is beginning to waff from the rocks of Afghanistan.

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