Assigning Blame in the Battle of Wanat

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 3 months ago

From Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post:

The Army’s official history of the battle of Wanat – one of the most intensely scrutinized engagements of the Afghan war – largely absolves top commanders of the deaths of nine U.S. soldiers and instead blames the confusing and unpredictable nature of war.

The history of the July 2008 battle was almost two years in the making and triggered a roiling debate at all levels of the Army about whether mid-level and senior battlefield commanders should be held accountable for mistakes made under the extreme duress of combat.

An initial draft of the Wanat history, which was obtained by The Washington Post and other media outlets in the summer of 2009, placed the preponderance of blame for the losses on the higher-level battalion and brigade commanders who oversaw the mission, saying they failed to provide the proper resources to the unit in Wanat.

The final history, released in recent weeks, drops many of the earlier conclusions and instead focuses on failures of lower-level commanders.

The battle of Wanat, which took place in a remote mountain village near the Pakistan border, produced four investigations and sidetracked the careers of several Army officers, whose promotions were either put on hold or canceled. The 230-page Army history is likely to be the military’s last word on the episode, and reflects a growing consensus within the ranks that the Army should be cautious in blaming battlefield commanders for failures in demanding wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan.

Family members of the deceased at Wanat reacted with anger and disappointment to the final version of the Army history.

“They blame the platoon-level leadership for all the mistakes at Wanat,” said retired Col. David Brostrom, whose son was killed in the fighting. “It blames my dead son. They really missed the point.”

The initial investigation, conducted by a three-star Marine Corps general and completed in the spring, found that the company and battalion commanders were “derelict in their duty” to provide proper oversight and resources to the soldiers fighting at Wanat.

Petraeus reviewed the findings and concluded that based on Army doctrine, the brigade commander, who was the senior U.S. officer in the area, also failed in his job. He recommended that all three officers be issued letters of reprimand, which would essentially end their careers.

After the officers appealed their reprimands, a senior Army general in the United States reversed the decision to punish the officers, formerly members of the the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Gen. Charles Campbell told family members of the deceased that the letters of reprimand would have a chilling effect on other battlefield commanders, who often must make difficult decisions with limited information, according to a tape of his remarks. He also concluded that the deaths were not the direct result of the officers’ mistakes.

The Army’s final history of the Wanat battle largely echoes Campbell’s conclusions, citing the role of “uncertainty [as] a factor inseparable from any military operation.”

In its conclusions, the study maintains that U.S. commanders had a weak grasp of the area’s complicated politics, causing them to underestimate the hostility to a U.S. presence in Wanat.

“Within the valley communities there had been hundreds of years of intertribal and intercommunity conflict, magnified by hundreds of years of geographic isolation. Understanding the cultural antagonisms present in [Wanat] was difficult and complicated,” it said. “Coalition leaders had difficulty understanding the political situation.”

But the history focuses mostly on the failures of lower-level commanders to patrol aggressively in the area around Wanat as they were building their defenses. It also criticizes 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a 24-year-old platoon leader, for placing a key observation point in an area that did not provide the half-dozen U.S. soldiers placed there a broad enough view to spot the enemy.

“The placement of the OP [Observation Post] is perhaps the most important factor contributing to the course of the engagement at Wanat,” the report states.

The initial investigation, by contrast, found that the placement of the post was not a major factor in the outcome of the battle.

That investigation also found that mid-level Army officers failed to plan the operation beyond the first four days and as a result failed to provide sufficient manpower, water and other resources to defend the base from a Taliban attack. The official history makes little mention of such conclusions.

Analysis & Commentary

This information and perspective is mostly known to regular readers of The Captain’s Journal.  We have discussed the Battle of Wanat many times before, and linked the final report as soon as it was released (as well as commented on the original Cubbison report).

The main theme of Jaffe’s analysis is the reversal of reprimands for senior staff level officers and the switch to holding lower level field grade officers accountable for the failures.  But there are other aspects as well, and we must address those in order to crawl through the weeds.  Unfortunately, the weeds block our view and add little to nothing to the overall reality of the situation.

One such weed garden is this notion that:

“Within the valley communities there had been hundreds of years of intertribal and intercommunity conflict, magnified by hundreds of years of geographic isolation. Understanding the cultural antagonisms present in [Wanat] was difficult and complicated,” it said. “Coalition leaders had difficulty understanding the political situation.”

Maybe true, maybe significant for other considerations, and maybe frustrating, but irrelevant in this context (the battle proper, and whom to hold accountable for what happened).  It’s just weeds that block our view.  In Analysis of the Battle of Wanat, we discussed how “The meetings with tribal and governmental officials to procure territory for VPB Wanat went on for about one year, and one elder privately said to U.S. Army officers that given the inherent appearance of tribal agreement with the outpost, it would be best if the Army simply constructed the base without interaction with the tribes. As it turns out, the protracted negotiations allowed AAF (anti-Afghan forces, in this case an acronym for Taliban, including some Tehrik-i-Taliban) to plan and stage a complex attack well in advance of turning the first shovel full of sand to fill HESCO barriers.”

Local intelligence, also from tribal elders, pointed to massing of forces and planned attacks on VPB Wanat.  However complicated the tribal machinations and our attempts to understand them, they weren’t so complicated that we didn’t have good intelligence or even good counsel.  Had we followed the elder’s advice, the patrol base might have been manned and fortified well before the massing of forces that occurred by the Taliban, and in fact local atmospherics might have been different with time for interaction with U.S. forces.

But if the notion of tribal complexities is a smoke screen, so is the issue of limitations in weapons capabilities.  As we have discussed before:

It’s tempting to point the finger at weapons systems, just as it is tempting to fault the company with lack of soft COIN efforts.  But in the end, they were outnumbered about 6:1 (300+ to about 50), they were on a poor choice of terrain, they had poor logistics, they suffered lack of air and artillery support, and most importantly, they simply were never given the proper number of troops or the resources to engage in force protection, much less robust force projection.  They were under-resourced, and no analysis of weapons systems can change that fact.  Rather than focus on why the M4 jams after firing 360 rounds in 30 minutes, the real question is why this particular M4 had to be put through this kind of test to begin with?

It’s wise to deploy the right weapons for the job, and if that means that each squad carries an M-14 for the DM position, then so be it.  Commanding officers should make that happen.  There are plenty of M-14s left in our armories, and they should be put to use in the longer distance engagements.  But in the end weapons systems malfunctions is simply not a compelling excuse or even one of the root causes of what happened at Wanat.  It just isn’t, and time spent on worrying over that is time wasted.

Col. David Brostrom is rightfully indignant over his son’s role in the report.  Dead men cannot defend themselves, and Lt. Brostrom represents too easy of a target.  In that respect, the final report is petty and cowardly.  Nonetheless, I maintained, and continue to maintain, that OP Top Side was a poor tactical choice.

Most of the men who perished that fateful day did so attempting to defend or relieve OP Top Side (8 of the 9 who perished), and the kill ratio that day still favored the U.S. troops (“There were between 21 and 52 AAF killed and 45 wounded. Considering a clinical assessment of kill ratio can be a pointer to the level of risk associated with this VPB and OP. 21/9 = 2.33, 52/9 = 5.77 (2.33 – 5.77), and 45/27 = 1.67. These are very low compared to historical data (on the order of 10:1).”).

In previous discussions, one commenter weighs in with the following:

I definitely disagree with the idea of OP Topside as far-flung. It was only located 60 yards from the edge of VPB Kahler. In fact, the Company Commander was not pleased with the placement of OP Topside, but the LT believed placing the OP among the bounders in proximity to Kahler would make it easier to reinforce if a big attack did come. This in fact, proved to be the case as Topside was reinforced multiple times and proved the key to defeating the enemy attack at Wanat.

Strange analysis, this is.  OP Top Side proved to be the Achilles heal of the whole VPB.  Without having to relieve it, it is probable that most of the men who perished that fateful night would not have.  More salient is this comment by Slab:

Where I think you hit the nail on the head is when you mention the terrain. The platoon in Wanat sacrificed control of the key terrain in the area in order to locate closer to the population. This was a significant risk, and I don’t see any indication that they attempted to sufficiently mitigate that risk. I can empathize a little bit – I was the first Marine on deck at Camp Blessing back when it was still Firebase Catamount, in late 2003. I took responsibility for the camp’s security from a platoon from the 10th Mountain Div, and established a perimeter defense around it. Looking back, I don’t think I adequately controlled the key terrain around the camp. The platoon that replaced me took some steps to correct that, and I think it played a significant role when they were attacked on March 22nd of 2004. COIN theorists love to say that the population is the key terrain, but I think Wanat shows that ignoring the existing natural terrain in favor of the population is a risky proposition, especially in Afghanistan.

Moving on to Bing West’s analysis of assigning blame for Wanat, he observes:

In my forthcoming book, The Wrong War, I describe Wanat in the larger context of a multi-year struggle for control of the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan. Grave tactical and operational errors culminated in the Wanat battle. In The Wrong War, I conclude that at the operational level of war, Wanat “provided the classic case study of how insurgents conquer a superior foe. . . . The Americans intended to separate the people from the insurgents. Instead, the insurgents succeeded in separating the people from the Americans.”

Reporting from the Wanat area on Monday, Jaffe quoted the on-scene U.S. battalion commander as saying, “We fight here because the enemy is here. The enemy fights here because we are here. The best thing we can do is to pull back, and let the Afghans figure this place out.” The essential problem in the valley that includes Wanat was not a tactical mistake. The vexing nature of the tribal loyalties in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border far transcends the conduct of a single battle.

The Army, however, was heavy-handed and obtuse in handling the reviews of the Wanat battle. Many officers disagreed with the reviewing generals who recommended the reprimands, and others disagreed with Cubbison’s draft. Combat veterans can make a reasonable case one way or the other. But for the Army as an institution to zig-zag invites criticism and raises unhelpful suspicions.

At a larger level, the incident illustrates the inherent problem in the promotion system of all the services. Errors happen in every war. Often victory goes to the side making the fewer mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes: Washington at Great Meadow and later Long Island, Lee at Gettysburg, Halsey and the typhoons, Chesty Puller at Peleliu, MacArthur and the Chosin, etc.

One of the three officers at Wanat cited by Petraeus for reprimand is a superb officer; I believe he would make a fine field general. It should be possible for a selection board to assess a reprimand, place it in balance against an entire career and continue to promote an outstanding officer. In business, CEOs fail miserably and are rewarded, illustrating the selfish, back-scratching nature of too many corporate boards of trustees; in the military, the services demand that an officer receive upwards of 40 fitness reports without a blemish in order to qualify for general officer selection. The services thus institutionally tend to reward the cautious, rather than the bold.

Separating the people from the Americans is also a bit exaggerated (or at least, somewhat irrelevant) when discussing the battle proper.  Using only open source information, we can develop patterns of behavior with the Taliban that would have alerted U.S. commanders to expect such massing of forces.  If I can do it, Army intelligence can do it.  Good historiography brings in all elements of the problem to set the proper context, but even with proper context the basic outline of the problem doesn’t change.

There weren’t enough U.S. forces.  It took too long to set up VPB Wanat.  The Taliban worked much more quickly than did we in setting up their military operations.  The U.S. sacrificed control of key terrain around VPB Wanat – and especially OP Top Side – in an attempt to provide proximity to the population.  They summarily ignored both tribal counsel to set up the patrol base and tribal intelligence concerning massing of forces and imminent attacks, attacks that in fact followed tactics that could even be known by studying open source information.

Bing weighs in on holding officers accountable, and demurs insofar as it costs us openness and a learning environment.  Whatever.  I will observe that Marine Corps concepts of force projection and force protection are different and generally more aggressive.  Aggressiveness could have helped in the Waygul valley, but their aggressiveness was limited by the lack of resources.

Col. Brostrom is right about holding commanding officers accountable.  If his son objected to the placement of OP Top Side, so much the better.  But whatever responsibility must be shouldered for the engagement, it increases with increasing rank.  Pressing authority up and accountability down is the tactic of cowards.  Refusing to hold higher ranking officers accountable for fear of creating a climate of suspicion runs both directions.  If we cannot hold senior officers accountable, then neither can we (morally and rightly) hold lower ranking field grade officers accountable.  And if we hold anyone accountable, higher authority means shouldering more of the responsibility.  It’s just the way it is.  This is true in the family, in business, in relationships, and in church.  To claim that it could be anything else in the military is laughable and worthy of ridicule.

Prior:

Drone Front and Other Recommended Reading

Close Air Support of COP Kahler at Wanat

What Really Happened at Wanat?

Wanat Officers Issued Career-Ending Reprimands

Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer

Second-Guessing the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh

Wanat Video II

Wanat Video

The Battle of Wanat, Massing of Troops, and Attacks in Nuristan

The Contribution of the Afghan National Army in the Battle of Wanat

Investigating the Battle of Wanat

Analysis of the Battle of Wanat



  • http://www.cowboyjihad.blogspot.com Rick Keyes

    I commented before on the use of terrain in Afghanistan and opined that US forces in the commitment to COIN have had to locate where the locals are which in Afghanistan is the Valleys or built on the mountain side at a lower elevation. By positioning our troops towards the population terrain we were actually giving up the actual physical terrain to the AAF. We continue to do this on a daily basis.

    I maintain that this happened here and the analysis seems to prove that out there were no over head intelligence assets in place to take over part of the patrolling function while the base was set up. Minus OP Topside the COP was in a valley and the enemy could infiltrate the area without any warning. Even though the OP was only 60 yards away from the main camp the positions were not supporting especially once the heavy weapons were taken out of action which happened very early. Drones and satellites cannot be everywhere at once and the demand on these assets is very high and should not be expected but used to augment good on the ground observation.

    I read once that Logistics is much more important than the actual tactics in warfare. Logistics is also something that the U.S. military especially the Army is supposed to be very good at. Why a camp was set up without proper building materials, tools, and a proper resupply schedule is also a failure at the S4 level. I did not read in the summary of the battle any mention of any S4s being brought up for reprimand whatsoever.

    Weapons: Why are our troops having to face the same issues with their issued weapon as my uncle and dad did when first issued their M16s in Vietnam? While the M16A4 works decent enough the M4 not so much there have been many many reports on the failure of the M4 which is one of the reasons SOCOM went and adapted a new rifle. Also why can U.S. forces not make “RPGs hit as like machine gun fire?” While we have the AT-4 this is a single shot throw away weapon, the Corps has the SMAW but you have to be an assault man to be issued it. Meanwhile the Taliban and the ANA walk around with guys with an RPG-7 and a bagful or rockets and they beat us in the firepower game at least initially. Reports I have seen oft time begin with “the ambush was triggered by a volley or RPG fire” which we have no individual weapons system that can match the range or hitting power of.

    I know no on at this site would think otherwise but these 50 young men outnumbered by a forces many times its size held their camp until relieved. That is something the Army should also remember it was not a Colonel, or a general that did this it was a bunch of junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men that did this while it took command an hour to get them arty support. It did not take an hour to get arty or air support in WWII and they did not have nearly the communications our forces today do.

  • http://bit.ly/FirstContact3 Warbucks

    Accountability seems to be correlated to the level of ‘publicity’ vs. ‘perception of progress.’

    A perception of ‘Victory’ and ‘winning’ seems to offset huge mistakes that would otherwise rise to the level of court marshal.

    We invade Normandy and ‘only’ suffer 3500+- dead on the landing. A mere 5 miles inland we loose 85,000+- in the unplanned hedgerows. We adapted and moved on.

    It would seem that judgement is being rewritten in this case for strategic reasons and not necessarily for truth.

  • major.rod

    I’m new to the site so I need to become familiar as to what has already been said.

    I’m all for holding officers (or NCOs for that matter) responsible when they are negligent. Short of facts I’m not willing to 2nd guess the leaders on the ground. War largely consists of making life and death decisions with incomplete information. Murphy is alive and well.

    Just to correct the record.

    Gen Campbell’s final report (where he lifted the reprimands) specifically states UAV coverage was retasked to units that were in contact (a reasonable decision).

    As for the M16A4 vs the M4 the Army documented that ONE weapon jammed. The press has hammered that fact. Considering there are at least 35 – 40 other M4s in the platoon I don’t find it unreasonable.

    Adequate class IV construction materials were actually prepositioned 7 kilometers away at a neighboring outpost. The majority of it was scheduled for delivery to Wanat by an Afghan construction company. When the Co XO was notified those supplies were not delivered he attempted to compensate. He and the S4 were limited by the aviation assets available to get those supplies to the platoon. Launching a ground convoy with organic assets was not possible nor advised. The fact they were able to airlift a bobcat into that position attests to some of the efforts of the unit to compensate for Murphy. (ref Gen Campbell’s final report)

    Finally, according to the CSI study this platooon recieved attack helicopters within 30 minutes after being attacked. The first artillery round was fired 3 minutes after the attack started and a total of 52 155mm rounds were fired in the first 30 minutes of the fight. WWII response rates pale in comparison to the quick reaction in this fight.

    I have a lot of heartburn with blame being placed on the dead LT. I’m sure they burn inside his father. I hesitate to 2nd guess placing 25% of a platoon’s combat power in an OP. It does sound out of the ordinary and the fact that over 90% of the KIAs were suffered at the OP is highly suggestive as to its vulnerability. OP’s are designed to provide early warning and are to be withdrawn vs. reinforced.

    I’m also not “comfortable” with being ordered to defend on terrain which is not the best. I alo understand in war we rarely get what we want. What is undeniable is this platoon fought extremely well. Outnumbered, under resourced they inflicted tremendous casualties on the attacking force and “won” the fight. The cost of nine lives IS an expensive one and obviously TOO expensive to a public without the experience or attention span to understand the realities of close combat.

  • Bob

    I hope that all that have offered comments and the author of this article have taken a look at a map, photo..crayon drawing…anything to show the location of this base. The base was at the bottom of a “fish bowel”. There was no other spot for a OP on any piece of ground that would have offered better protection. There is a spot about 100 meters to the east up a large “OPEN” terraces. It suffered from the same dead space and low ground that the OP did. It also would have meant kicking the locals out of the house that was at that spot which the platoon was told NOT to do. Even so that spot would not have been able to have been reinforced, nor the OP able to “retreat” from. If the platoon would have position themselves there, it would have been 10 KIA with the bodies and weapons being recovered by the enemy.
    The high ground keeps being mentioned. They were numerous requests by the platoon leadership going into Wanat for blocking positions to be put in the high ground by the platoon at Camp Blessing. But they were denied.
    I have a heart burn with the CSI report coming down so hard on the OP spot. Not once did it mention a better spot. The one spot it does mention is a remark made by the relieveing PSG…going to the spot I outlined in the begining. He also took a PLT there…If the org plt had a plt to put in a OP it would have been there. But since they did not they made the best choice for the materials/men they had on hand. Also I wish the author would have used the same standard he used to judge the OP to judge the base. the northeast moving to the north was block by the town center straight due north about 30 meters away the ground went down sharply. From that spot going all the way to the south west there was dead space, low ground and a nice 6 foot wall the enemy used to fire from…only meters away from the base. So why is that not mentioned? Is it because one of the Officers that was let go of all charges made the design for the base??
    The bottom line is the platoon was told to defend a piece of terrain which all the bets were on the local populace being a shield…once that was taken away there was not a single spot that was safe. The only reason there was not more KIA was the preperation the PLT took in the couple days they had. The OP, although a very crappy position…but the best of crappy positions around… saved lifes.yes at the cost of 8 lifes taken at that location. It is a price but those Soldiers that died there did so taking the fight to the enemy where the enemy was strongest. They died protecting their brothers. All this is taken away by the constant monday morning quarterbacking going on, to include those on this site.

    to correct some stuff I have seen on here…
    UAV being retasked…there have been a number of reasons given…troops in contact, missing Soldier, route clearance for the visit by Joint Chief….all these may be the thruth…but it didnt help that the division had recieved the wrong intel…ie….the base was 75% complete and no enemy.

    Most of the class 4 was to come in the form of sling loads on the first morining ( water also ) in the form of 12 lifts from ch-47…that was dropped to 6…the bobcat was always slated to come up on that.

    It was not out of the ordinary to place 10 guys at the OP. The small area for the base was jammed pack with the plt, mortars, ANA.

    The heavy weapons were played a key part in holding the enemy back…they were placed in the best locations to provide that…it was proven in the fight.

    The biggest lesson one should take from this battle that I have not seen is…when you tie the hands of the onseen commander, be it LT, CPT, PSG this is what you get. When told you can only place people here, dont do this, dont do that, by a person that is not even there you take away options that a leader, on the ground, needs. Any leader knows that a map recon is vastly different to the leaders recon, which is different from the final product, once the positions start being made.

    Where am I getting this info? well just say Bob isnt on my service record and I hesitate putting my real name in and what I did in that battle on the site for fear of retribution. Hope you understand. Ask any questions on this site after my comment and I will answer.

    “bob”

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Well “bob,” let’s talk about this for a few minutes, shall we?

    I sent you an e-mail to let you know that you could send me an e-mail from your *.mil network domain, and I would hold it in confidence like I do with all other military readers, but let my readers know about your bona fides. It would lend credibility to your views.

    But guess what? The mail came back undeliverable. That’s right, “bob.” You didn’t give me a legitimate e-mail address. Bad form “bob,” bad form indeed. The comment form says e-mail is REQUIRED. That means a legitimate e-mail address, “bob.”

    But let’s go with it anyway, and before you comment again, send me an e-mail or at least supply a legitimate e-mail address.

    Now. Where do you get the notion that I am holding Lt. Brostrom accountable for OP Topside? Read all of my Wanat links to get the full picture of my views. I have severely criticized the placement of OP Topside. Most of the men who perished that fateful night did so attempting to relieve OP Topside. Facts are stubborn things, “bob.”

    I’ve seen the maps, and I’ve seen the videos. I still disagree with the placement of the entire VPB, much less OP Topside. I still disagree with the time delay in planting the first Hesco barrier. I still disagree with the under-resourcing the VPB. This base should have have a company, not a platoon.

    And if they had had a company, OP Topside would have been easier to relieve, the VPB would have been easier to defend, and perhaps they would even have had the chance to assault enemy positions during the battle. It took many failures to cause the situation.

    But I have also been clear that the responsibility for those failures rests entirely with command at the Battalion and above level, and even have called for Flag officers to be held accountable for not only emplacing COPs and VPBs in under-manned conditions throughout the Pech River Valley area, but now abandoning them entirely.

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2011/01/06/abandoning-the-pech-valley/

    Responsibility rests where authority lies – at the top. If this had been a Marine Corps operation, a company or more would have been sent it, Hesco barriers would have been put up in one night, no negotiations would have preceded the VPB, and they would have jettisoned the feel-good notion that enough Jirgas and friendly patrols would make the place safe. Killing would have been first priority.

    I have no doubt that Lt. Brostrom and the NCOs at the VPB thought the same way. What they didn’t have is an Army than backed up such thinking.

    As for micromanaging the military, you really should study my stuff more before commenting. See my category:

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/category/micromanaging-the-military/

  • Bob

    Mr Smith- first off fixed the Email. I didnt have the first two letters in the last one..palm to the face moment aside, lets clarify some stuff…..

    “Now. Where do you get the notion that I am holding Lt. Brostrom accountable for OP Topside?”

    I never said/meant you did…my comment was about the CSI study. But on that subject, you say it was a poor tactical choice,you have seen tons of photos…tell me where you would have put OP with the forces available and I will tell you why it wasnt selected. ( as I reread this part it seems it could be seen as a jab…its not my intent)

    The rest of your reply is SPOT on..wouldnt agree more…you did a better job arguing my case on a few things then I.
    well except the ” if it would have been a marine corps operation” part…that may be interservice rivarly talk though..jk But seriously that whole paragraph is extremly spot on. you are correct, that LT Brostrom and his NCO’s thought EXACTLY that way.

    I should have clarified better when writing the first comment with who I was directing my comments. my only heart burn ( mostly knee jerk reaction ) with your org article was the achilles heel/ poor tactical choice comment about the OP…that fired me up a little because the bottom line is there were no good choices. not even decent ones. just shitty ones ( concerning OP placement ) Ever been given choices that you knew were wrong but you still had to choose? its like that…I have thin skin about the subject.

    thanks, and I look foward to your correspondence. Again, the E-mail screw up was not intentional.

    oh…you mention disagreeing with the time delay in laying the first hesco..what did you mean by that? Did I miss something you had wrote about that? If I did, sorry, but could you restate/clarify? thanks

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Bob this is a very involved discussion, but involved is okay. I’m okay with that.

    First, I still believe that the OP was poorly conceptualized and manned. It should never have been placed in such a location that it cost that many lives to relieve it while under attack. Lack of an OP would have been better, as it would have concentrated men in the location needed for defense, and besides, when the attack came it came in force where the existence of an OP provided neither prior warning nor an interlocking field of fire otherwise unavailable to the team (they were trying to save their lives, as they should have been). Nothing good came that night from having the OP.

    Next, no, I’m not engaged in friendly inter-service rivalry talk. See:

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2009/02/02/opening-a-combat-outpost-for-business/

    Which is one of the three Captain’s Journal articles referenced in both the Cubbison study and the final official study. I’m very clearly saying that there is a difference in philosophy between the Army and Marines. Year long negotiations to attempt to get local approval for the VPB allowed the massing of forces that finally created the bad situation we saw at Wanat. See Taliban Massing of Forces:

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/category/taliban-massing-of-forces/

    Finally, not enough troops. And I’ll come back to that every time. We knew before Wanat that the Taliban masses forces – I provide half a dozen salient examples, and if I can do it, Army intelligence can do it. We should never have had a single platoon defending the VPB at Wanat.

    I look forward to your further thoughts.

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Taliban Massing of Forces Part IV

  • Destined for Victory

    All, there was some very good talk going on. I know I’m late coming into the discussion, but I believe I might bring a couple of points that have not actually been talked about and possibly add to the existing debate/conversation.

    First, I’ll talk to the idea that the prolonged negotiations led to advance warning for the AAF. I absolutely agree. A year of talking with the elders and then finally deciding to establish a COP in the exact same location you discussed a hundred times before is not necessarily good business. However, one must first understand the background and nuances in order to understand the big picture. During this time in Afghanistan (OEF VIII), US troops were no longer allowed to simply plop down wherever they may and settle the land rights after the fact. There was a huge push from higher that stated you could not establish permanent patrol bases without going through legal means to ensure proper compensation for land owners first, only non-permanent VPBs were authorized.
    Second, if we are going to talk about blame and where fault may or may not lie, we must talk about whether this mission, to establish a patrol base less than two weeks prior to relief in place, was a priority mission. The ROCK and CHOSEN Company were handed this mission, with approval from CJTF-101 stating that it was in fact an RC-East priority. Where were the assets and overhead coverage that prove this? Having been a company commander three times now (twice in Kunar Province), anytime I designate something a priority or main effort, I ensure it has everything that I can possibly supply. This simply was not the case.
    Third, in discussing the location and / or removal of OP Topside, I tend to concur with Bob. At a similar location in the Chowkay District (a mere three districts away from Wanat), we had a patrol base that faced equally challenging location issues. The initial location of the patrol base was closer to the valley floor alongside the only road running into and out of the valley. During our time in country we discussed the possibility of moving this patrol base and its OP to higher ground due to the number of attacks we were receiving. However, after conducting a detailed terrain analysis and multiple aerial reconnaissance missions, it was decided that we had no other choice. If we moved the patrol base to “high ground” it would have resulted in virtually no contact with the local population due to the distance away from the valley. One of my take aways from my time in that region is that there is always higher ground. At some point you must pick a piece of terrain and defend it. We opted to go with our location in order to better influence the locals. Was this, VPB Kahler, the correct location? It seemed like it at the time. And, it was definitely better than COP Bella.


You are currently reading "Assigning Blame in the Battle of Wanat", entry #5935 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Battle of Wanat and was published January 3rd, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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