Investigating the Battle of Wanat

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

The Battle of Wanat has been in the news lately.  Tom Ricks has posted an analysis of the battle from his reading of a thus far unreleased document – a study by an Army Historian at the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth named Douglas R. Cubbison.  There is an interesting comment thread at the Small Wars Journal blog on this topic.  Ricks finds that the result of the battle – 36 casualties, 9 dead and 27 wounded – resulted in large degree from a failure to implement the principles of counterinsurgency.

I have also reviewed Mr. Cubbison’s study.  We’ll get to more thoughts on the battle of Wanat and the study in a moment.  Before that, there are rumblings of a Congressional investigation of this event.

Two congressional leaders are urging the Pentagon to launch a new investigation into a deadly attack in Afghanistan last year.

That attack killed nine people, including 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a graduate of Damien High School and the University of Hawaii.

Jonathan Brostrom

Brostrom was in charge of 45 American soldiers and 20 local troops in a remote Afghanistan outpost. About 200 enemy fighters over ran that outpost last July killing the nine Americans and wounding 27 others.  In an interview with KITV a year ago, Brostrom’s father, David, said he had been concerned about his son’s safety even before the lieutenant died.

“They’re fighting in a situation where they don’t enough troops on the ground and it’s been like this for a long time,” David Brostrom told KITV in July 2008.

Brostrom’s father is a retired Army colonel who spent 30 years flying Army helicopters.  David Brostrom said during a home leave, his son told him he feared for the safety of his men without enough manpower to maintain security.

“That’s when I started to worry about him,” David Brostrom said.

At David Brostrom’s urging, Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Virginia Sen. James Webb have called for an independent investigation by the Department of Defense’s solicitor general.

An earlier Army investigation left commanders blameless.

“We have to see if there are grounds for some disciplinary action,” Abercrombie said.

A later report by the Army Combat Studies Institute was critical of command decisions before the attack, saying the single platoon lacked necessary manpower and equipment even enough water to carry out its mission.”

Col. Brostrom’s point is that a little bit of investigation may save lives and prevent injuries in the future,” Abercrombie said.

Returning to the study from Leavenworth, Mr. Cubbison is certainly credentialed and capable, and has done an outstanding job of weaving together a consistent account of the battle from multiple sources.  He is to be commended for a comprehensive and scholarly study and analysis (not to mention that we were pleased to see that The Captain’s Journal merited two citations in the massive bibliography).

I have always believed that the campaign in Afghanistan is under-resourced, a sentiment underscored by Lt. Brostrom’s remarks.  In addition to the need for better logistics and more troops (needs that Mr. Cubbison noted and in fact highlights), I hold that opening the VPB (Vehicle Patrol Base) Wanat was ill advised under the circumstances (waiting approximately one year while negotiating with the tribal elders for approval, this approval not forthcoming due to the fact that they feared being targeted by Taliban fighters because they were seen cavorting with the U.S.).  This delay allowed the Taliban to mass troops to near half Battalion size, a practice we have observed occurs whenever the Taliban believe that they can grossly outnumber U.S. troops.

Under different circumstances, i.e., rapid base construction and deployment of the troops, VPB Wanat might have been much more successful and would have been advisable.  It might have been things that occurred one year prior to manning the base that doomed it.  I also believe that the physical location of OP (Observation Post) Top Side with its lack of control over the surrounding terrain, was extremely ill advised.  Had an OP been needed and a good site not located, VPB Wanat might have had to be constructed in a different location.  Remember that eight of the nine who perished that fateful night did so either defending or attempting to relieve OP Top Side.

Mr. Cubbison also goes into some detail considering other tactical and weapons failures (specifically at OP Top Side).  Due to rate of fire issues, there were numerous weapons systems failures (e.g., jamming) of SAWs, M4s and M16A2s.  I know one Marine who has trained his “boots” hard in the art of rate of fire and other measures to keep their SAWs from jamming and the barrels from melting.  Clearing jams within mere seconds is necessary for proper functioning of the Soldier and Marine and his .223 closed bolt system of arms, and Soldiers and Marines must be extensively trained to accomplish this under duress.

Mr. Cubbison goes into other important details such as placement of mortars that could have potentially effected a different outcome had different choices been made.  There were numerous tactical and logistical issues with which to contend in his important analysis.

In my humble opinion, Mr. Cubbison’s analysis goes awry when tackling the elements of population-centric counterinsurgency.  Colonel William B. Ostlund documents the kinetic engagements during the deployment in his analysis of lessons learned.

Ultimately, the task force was involved in 1,100 enemy contacts. Those engagements required:
●5,400 fire missions (expending 36,500 rounds).
●3,800 aerial deliveries (bombs and gun runs).
●23 Javelin anti-tank missiles.
●108 TOW missiles.
●Hundreds of grenades thrown.
The enemy routinely engaged at the maximum effective
range, but on at least five occasions were close enough to touch Americans. Twenty-six members of Task Force Rock gave their lives in Kunar Province. Other noteworthy Soldier statistics include:
●143 wounded.
●Three nominated for the Medal of Honor.
●Two nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross (one awarded by the time of this publication).
●25 Silver Stars awarded.
●90 Bronze Star Medals with Valor awarded.
●Over 300 Army Commendation Medals with Valor awarded.

Mr. Cubbison reviews this data and remarks that:

“TF Rock was unable to provide commensurate statistics for Shuras conducted, VETCAPS and MEDCAPS performed, quantities of Humanitarian Supplies distributed, economic development projects initiated, schools constructed, or similar economic, political and diplomatic initiatives.”

Later, he also concludes that population-centric counterinsurgency is not consistent with such heavy kinetics.  I have always attempted to be open, honest and clear with my readers on this issue.  I reject the single center of gravity focus of the Clausewitz school and favor the notion of lines of effort in any counterinsurgency campaign.  There is absolutely no reason to place protecting the population over against killing the enemy.  Moreover, many COIN campaigns can be more neatly placed into phases, with heavier kinetics dominating the initial stages and more population-centric tactics dominating the subsequent stages.

I don’t see the heavy kinetics as a failure on the part of TF Rock.  As The Captain’s Journal has also stated many times before, we see force projection and the actual need to apply force as inversely proportional.  The small footprint model almost guarantees that heavy kinetics will ensue, pointing back once again to the resourcing of the campaign, not TF Rock’s effort in the campaign.  In Brostrom’s case, he didn’t even have enough troops to ensure force protection, let alone force projection.  In any case, while Mr. Cubbison did indeed focus some attention on the issue of population-centric COIN, Tom Ricks has very badly misinterpreted the study if he concluded that the weight of the study is pointed towards this aspect.  The balance of the report is pointed at tactical, logistical and weapons related issues.  Mr. Ricks is only seeing what he wants to see, a sign of bad analysis.

Finally, as to the issue of Congressional investigations, I have mixed feelings about this.  Colonel Brostrom wants to see justice, or at least, lessons learned, as a result of the death of his beloved son.  I understand.  But Congressional investigations invariably turn into witch hunts, with blame focused on everyone but Senators and Congressmen.  More often than not nothing good comes from them.  The Captain’s Journal has some readers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  While there are good people in both – and you know who you are – you also know what becomes of Congressional investigations.

If I was convinced that anything fruitful would come from such a thing I would press for it.  I am not, and will not.  The campaign for Afghanistan is under-resourced, and it’s difficult to carry out the mission in such circumstances.  This theme has been consistent with us, and will continue to be as long as we have breath.  Instead of doing investigations, send more troops and equipment.

Prior:

Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

Battle of Wanat Disputed?




You are currently reading "Investigating the Battle of Wanat", entry #3469 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Battle of Wanat,Counterinsurgency and was published July 29th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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