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In Nine U.S. Soldiers Killed in Kunar, Afghanistan: What Can We Learn? we covered the Taliban attack on a combat outpost in the Kunar Province, specifically near Wanat. We’ll call it the Battle of Wanat, for which there is already a Wikipedia entry.
But command is vigorously disputing the media presentation of events surrounding the battle of Wanat.
“The sky is not falling,” Col. Charles “Chip” Preysler, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, said Saturday from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Preysler spoke via telephone less than a week after his paratroops and their Afghan allies were involved in a fierce attack at a small post near the village of Wanat. In the July 13 battle, nine of his men were killed and 15 others wounded.
But the attack is not a sign of conditions worsening in the country, he said.
The battle occurred just after dawn at a temporary vehicle patrol base near Wanat. A platoon-sized element of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) soldiers and a smaller Afghan National Army force were occupying a hastily built area as they had done many times over the 15 months they’d been in country, Preysler said. The soldiers were there on a reconnaissance mission to establish a presence and find a good location to connect with the local government, populace and Afghan National Police, he said.
The small outpost had been built just days before the attack and consisted of protective wire and observation posts surrounding strategically placed vehicles. “That’s all it was, a series of vehicles that went out there,” Preysler said.
“People are saying that this was a full-up [forward operating base]/combat outpost, and that is absolutely false and not true. There were no walls,” Preysler said, latter adding, “FOB denotes that there are walls and perimeters and all that. It’s a vehicle patrol base, temporary in nature.”
But that doesn’t mean the soldiers were not prepared to take on the enemy, he said …
The Army did not “abandon” the base after the attack, as many media reporters have suggested, Preysler said.
He said the decision to move from the location following the attack was to reposition, which his men have done countless times throughout their tour, and to move closer to the local seat of government.
“If there’s no combat outpost to abandon, there’s no position to abandon,” he said. “It’s a bunch of vehicles like we do on patrol anywhere and we hold up for a night and pick up any tactical positions that we have with vehicle patrol bases.
“We do that routinely…. We’re always doing that when go out and stay in an area for longer then a few hours, and that’s what it is. So there is nothing to abandon. There was no structures, there was no COP or FOB or anything like that to even abandon. So, from the get-go, that is just [expletive], and it’s not right.”
He also didn’t like the media’s characterization that his men were “overrun.”
“As far as I know, and I know a lot, it was not overrun in any shape, manner or form,” an emotional Preysler said. “It was close combat to be sure — hand grenade range. The enemy never got into the main position. As a matter of fact, it was, I think, the bravery of our soldiers reinforcing the hard-pressed observation post, or OP, that turned the tide to defeat the enemy attack.”
Though Preysler and his staff have seen several reports on the fight and numbers of enemy, he said true specifics still remain unclear.
“I do not know the exact numbers. But I know they had much greater strength than one U.S. platoon,” he said. “I believe the enemy to number over 100 in that area when he attacked. I don’t know the casualties that he took, but I know that it’s got to be substantial based on the different reports I’m getting. We may not know the true damage we inflicted on the enemy, but we certainly defeated his attack and repulsed his attack and he never got into our position.”
Preysler and his staff also object to media reports that because of the size of the attack, it could be a harbinger of change in the way militants fight in eastern Afghanistan.
“I think people are taking license and just misusing statistics, and I refuse to do that,” he said …
The Captain’s Journal proudly reminds the reader that we’ve advocated an increase in forces, realignment of forces from NATO to CENTCOM, and a change in strategy for NATO for more than six months. The Battle of Wanat wasn’t misused at TCJ, as we have documented the diminution of security for half a year. The two graphics below show recent U.S. deaths in OIF and OEF, and long term U.S. deaths in OEF, respectively.
Courtesy of CNN.
But the Battle of Wanat shows an increased intensity of kinetic engagement for the Taliban, as well as a massing of higher numbers of fighters than seen recently. But the statistics tell a story regardless of the Battle of Wanat.
Further, the information we learn from Colonel Preysler leads to the notion that there was less force protection than even a combat outpost. He points to the “temporary” nature of the outpost, but this is not meaningful given that no FOB or COP is permanent. This might be fruitful terrain for more investigation to learn the lessons of the battle.
Colonel Preysler is understandably jealous for the preservation of the bravery of his troops. But this goes without saying. No one thinking rightly would doubt that. But preservation of bravery doesn’t change the battle space dynamics in which nine U.S. troops died on that fateful day, fifteen were wounded amounting to more than half of the U.S. force counted as casualties, and no Afghan deaths were reported (leading us to surmise that the primary engagement was between the Taliban and U.S. with the Afghan troops sitting on the sidelines of the battle).
The “sky is not falling,” but nine brave U.S. warriors are dead now, and questions remain as to the propriety of this engagement without the proper force projection, force protection or troop presence. At least one Corporal knew what was coming. Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling suspected that his days were numbered last week, while he and his band of brothers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team prepared for a mission near Wanat, Afghanistan. “It’s gonna be a bloodbath,” he told his father, Kurt Zwilling, on the phone in what would be their last conversation.
May Corporal Zwilling and his brothers rest in peace. Despite Colonel Preysler’s defense of his troops, in addition to the remarkable bravery, the story is one of need for forces. It doesn’t do his troops, his unit, or Operation Enduring Freedom any good to deny the reality on the ground.