For some time now I have observed High School and College age kids to try to determine the degree to which they appreciate and understand the sacrifice that the men in uniform have made, especially combat veterans. Frankly, it’s a disturbing practice that has led in no small part to a sort of loss of hope in this generation. Many are consumed with video games, comfort, and their own well being.
It’s always been Daniel Rodriguez’s dream to play college football, but that dream had to be deferred when he decided to join the Army after high school.
Six years after the decision, Clemson is finally making Rodriguez’s dream come true.
On Wednesday, the school announced Rodriguez, a 24-year-old, 5-foot-8 receiver, was cleared by the ACC to join the Tigers.
“I am very happy for Daniel,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in a release. “He is getting the opportunity to follow his dream. We are excited to have him join our program. I have no doubt that he will become a great leader for us. His background and story is an inspiration to us all.”
Rodriguez served as an Army infantryman in both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006-10. In October 2009, Rodriguez was wounded in the battle of Kamdesh after more than 400 Taliban insurgents stormed a small American base. Rodriguez took shrapnel in his legs and neck, and a bullet fragment in his shoulder. He was awarded a Bronze Star of Valor and Purple Heart for his bravery in the fight.
Rodriguez was honorably discharged in 2010, and when he left the Army he did so intending on following through on a promise he made to his good friend Pfc. Kevin Thompson, who was killed in the battle. That promise was to find a way to play college football.
Rodriguez, who hasn’t played football since high school, first shared his story and his workouts on a YouTube video that ultimately went viral. He has since been featured on the cover of USA Today, and has been profiled on CNN and “Dan Rather Reports.”
Rodriguez understands that he’s not going to come into Clemson and be some sort of world-beater on the field, but he’s grateful for the opportunity and hopes his leadership will become an asset. Watch the above video, it will make you want to root for Rodriguez to do well.
“I’m not this high-scouted athlete expected to change this program,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just a cog on the wheel that’s going to play my role and better the team from an individual standpoint and give insight from what I’ve been through as a person. If I can help mold some of these guys in the locker room to have the same perspective on life I have, that’s a benefit.”
The video is remarkable, and Rodriguez gets the honor of competing for Clemson … and Clemson gets the honor of having him. It’s a remarkable video that punctuates a remarkable story.
Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post penned an article on the buildup to the disaster at COP Keating that got little attention. The entire history is worth study, but several quotes are lifted out (and certainly out of context) in order to make important observations that aren’t dissimilar to those I have made for four years.
Just before 6 a.m., more than 300 insurgents launched a massive attack on Bundermann’s remote outpost in the Kamdesh district of northeastern Afghanistan. By 6:30 three of Bundermann’s soldiers were dead, and the Apache attack helicopters he desperately wanted weren’t going to arrive for another half hour …
The outpost, surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides, was isolated and hard to defend. “It felt like we were living in the bottom of a Dixie cup,” one of Brown’s soldiers said …
Attacks on U.S. forces had increased every year since Keating was established in 2006, and by summer 2009 Brown concluded that the presence of U.S. troops was feeding the insurgency. His study of the local rebel factions had led him to believe that a U.S. withdrawal from the area would split the insurgency …
Brown also asked for Sadiq’s “wisdom.” “We need assistance from leaders like you that are able to reach out and encourage the people of Kamdesh to cease the violence and oust the Taliban,” he wrote. He offered to meet with Sadiq whenever it was convenient and promised him protection …
The next morning, Afghan villagers approached Keating’s main gate and asked for permission to collect their dead from the base and a nearby village. Brown gave the Afghans some body bags and told them to stay off the high ground where the U.S. forces were still dropping bombs to take out snipers.
The next two days were spent packing up equipment and rigging the outpost’s remaining buildings with explosives. After nightfall on Oct. 6, a half dozen Chinook helicopters flew into Keating and hauled away the troops. Brown climbed on the last bird. As he was leaving, engineers triggered the delayed fuses on the explosives. Forty minutes later Keating was in flames. A B-1 bomber finished the job the next day.
Brown typed up an e-mail cataloguing mistakes he made in failing to build up the outpost’s defenses in the months before the planned withdrawal. He sent it to his boss, his fellow battalion commanders and the two-star general assigned to conduct an investigation of the attack. The letter of reprimand the general wrote to Brown closely tracked the e-mail.
Alone in his office a few weeks after the attack Brown re-read the letter he had sent to Sadiq in September. It made him cringe.
“I was playing to his ego. But reading it over, it sounds like I was kissing his ass from a position of weakness,” Brown said months later. He paused and exhaled. “We certainly weren’t operating from a position of strength.”
The importance of terrain has been an ongoing theme in our coverage of Kamdesh and Wanat, but in spite of the experiences at VPB Kahler at Wanat, the COP Keating Soldiers were left to tough it out in terrain that almost ensured their demise. We are not a learning organization. Moreover, the first close air support was at least one hour from the battle, and there was no artillery. This shows once again that the campaign is underresourced.
The notion that coalition presence was feeding the insurgency was the horrible and cowardly excuse proffered by the British commanders when they left Basra (the follow-on activity as you will recall was of the U.S. and ISF engaging in heavy battle to defeat the Shi’a militias while the British watched from their bases). If Col. Brown had studied the history of Iraq as he had claimed, he would have more quickly dismissed the notion of the counterinsurgents being the fuel for the insurgency as mere fodder for withdrawal and defeat.
Finally, “ass kissing” is the about the best explanation possible for this pusillanimous letter to a loser like Sadiq. The lesson of the Anbar Province is one winning from the position of strength (see also Col. MacFarland’s comments on Ramadi). Force Projection, the importance of terrain, the importance of close air support and artillery, and the importance of the position of strength in counterinsurgency – these things are not only common themes here at The Captain’s Journal, they are the foundations of success.
Spencer Ackerman is conflicted over leaving COP Keating open. Jim Hanson agrees with the commenter that has Spencer thinking – and supports the notion that a commander should be allowed to amend, caveat and stipulate in order to manage the campaign. Starting this kerfuffle, Spencer’s commenter says:
McChrystal is well within his rights to make individual exceptions to his overarching ruling of giving up the countryside to protect the population centers — and it seems pretty dumb to give up a known avenue of approach like this rat line, especially when the governor is requesting protection.
Well, maybe. But there is more to this than meets the eye. I had known for some time that COP Keating had been left open for political reasons at the request of the Provincial officials. In fact, the politics gets rather ugly. Richard Engel tells us:
Around 25,000 votes were cast in Barge Matal, approximately ten for every person in the village. A cynic might say U.S. forces were called in so Barge Matal would be secure enough for local officials to rig the vote. I have spoken to cynics within the U.S. military leadership in eastern Afghanistan. They go further than that. They believe the Afghan government used the military (which brought in the ballots by helicopter) to provide cover for vote rigging and that the Afghan request to secure Barge Matal had deadly consequences for U.S. troops.
But it gets even worse. Jonathan S. Landay (McClatchy reporter who was with the three Marines and Corpsman who perished in the Kunar Province when they were denied artillery support after being ambushed by Taliban) digs deeper.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, kept a remote U.S. base in the country manned last year at the local governor’s request despite warnings from his field commanders that it should be closed because it was vulnerable and had no tactical or strategic value.
McChrystal’s decision to maintain the outpost at Barg-e Matal prompted the top American commanders in eastern Afghanistan to delay plans to close a second remote U.S. outpost, Combat Outpost Keating, where insurgents killed eight U.S. troops in an assault Oct. 3, a McClatchy investigation has found.
Keeping Barg-e-Matal open also deprived a third isolated base of the officer who would have been its acting commander and left its command to lower-ranking officers whose “ineffective actions” led “directly” to the deaths of five American and eight Afghan soldiers in an ambush Sept. 8, according to a high-level military investigation.
In addition, an unidentified witness told the military investigators that the operations center that failed to provide effective artillery and air cover to the U.S. and Afghan force that was ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley was focused instead on Barg-e Matal.
However, the ambush inquiry and a similar high-level Army probe into the Oct. 3 deaths at COP Keating, the worst single American combat loss in 2009, don’t mention that McChrystal’s decision to keep Barg-e Matal open made the combat outpost and the Ganjgal operation more vulnerable.
Instead, the inquiries hit lower-ranking officers — including two field commanders who’d urged McChrystal for months to close Keating and Barg-e Matal — with administrative penalties.
The two officers, Col. Randy George and Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown, and other U.S. officials had warned repeatedly that the two outposts were worthless and too costly to defend, two American defense officials and a former NATO official told McClatchy.
So via the AR 15-6 process, we are on another head hunt in order to exonerate decisions made at the very top. Listen carefully to me. I have previously said that COP Keating did indeed serve a purpose, i.e., to interdict fighters flowing from Pakistan into Afghanistan along this route. That is what makes this so ugly.
McChrystal has a right to decide, stipulate, caveat, circle back around, and whatever else he wants to do. His giving up the countryside in favor of population centers is wrongheaded, and I do not now and have never concurred with the idea of population-centric counterinsurgency when applied as an exclusive use doctrine. Nor do I believe in holding terrain.
But again, listen carefully to me. What neither McChrystal nor any of his reports has a right to do is leave U.S. warriors in poor terrain, with lack of adequate force protection, in inadequately garrisoned outposts, with poor logistics and little outside assistance. McChrystal DOES have a right to issue deployment / garrisoning orders. He DOESN’T have a right to forget or ignore basic military doctrine like force protection – not for interdiction, not for politics, not for any reason, ever.
The video below is well worth the study time, and tells us even more first hand information about the battle at Kamdesh, and specifically how the Soldiers at COP Keating responded to the attack. It would be good if the Army released the AR 15-6 investigation, but in lieu of that we can piece together enough information to draw conclusions regarding terrain, combat readiness of the U.S. Army, combat readiness of the Taliban, etc.
Obviously, this was an intense fire fight with ammunition being fired so quickly that shooters were unloading weapons as fast as re-loaders could work. The Taliban were very effective, and notice that one of the first things they did was to render the mortar pits incapable of use due to suppressing fire. They were good shots, had large weaponry (e.g., recoilless rifles), and were very well prepared to occupy good terrain and engage in serious conventional-style combat with U.S. forces.
There are still lessons to be learned from the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces of Afghanistan, respectively.
The Executive Summary of the AR 15-6 Investigation into the complex attack at COP Keating has been released. It begins:
On 3 October 2009, Soldiers of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry, repelled an enemy force of 300 Anti-Afghan Forces (AAF) fighters, preserving their combat outpost and killing approximately 150 of the enemy fighters. US forces sustained eight killed in action and 22 wounded, all but three of whom returned to duty after the attack. The Soldiers distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage, and bravery under the heavy enemy fire that surrounded them.
Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, originally established as a base for a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2006, was located deep in a bowl in Nuristan Province, surrounded by high ground, with limited overwatch protection from nearby Observation Post (OP) Fritsche. The mission for COP Keating during the rotation of B Troop was unclear to the Soldiers of B Troop who understood counterinsurgency doctrine and the need to engage with and protect the local population. But owing to limited manpower and tactical reach off of the compound, the mission devolved into one of base defense and by mid-2009 there was no tactical or strategic value to holding the ground occupied by COP Keating. As a result, the chain of command decided to close the remote outpost as soon as it could. (bold added)
But while this summary hints at population-centric procedures, COP Keating was intended to patrol and oversee a stretch of Pakistani border to interdict the flow of insurgents coming into Afghanistan. By any account, being located on a transit route for insurgents brings legitimacy to the outpost. A command decision was made, however, to close the COP due to lack of proper manpower. This delay caused additional problems.
The delayed closing of COP Keating is important as it contributed to a mindset of imminent closure that served to impede improvements in force protection on the COP. There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters. Over time, and without raising undue concern within the US intelligence system, the enemy conducted numerous probing attacks, learning the tactics, techniques and procedures of B Troop, and pinpointing location of weapons systems and key infrastructure and material, such as generators and barracks.
Compounding the situation for the Soldiers on COP Keating, intelligence assessments became desensitized to enemy actions over several months. During the five months of B Troop’s deployment to COP Keating, the enemy launched approximately 47 attacks – three times the rate of attacks experienced by their predecessors. On several occasions intelligence reports in advance of an attack indicated there was a large enemy force that would strike, but the attack that followed generally consisted of a few number of fighters who used indirect and small arms fire for an engagement that averaged five to ten minutes in duration. Owing to this experience with the enemy in vicinity of COP Keating, the perception prevailed that reports of massing enemy forces were exaggerated and improbable.
Approximately eight months ago (and approximately four months before the attack on COP Keating at Kamdesh) I outlined in detail six different battles in Afghanistan where the Taliban has massed between 100 and 400 fighters, or close to half a Battalion size force. There is absolutely no reason to have assumed that massing of enemy forces was improbable. In fact, there is never again a reason to assume that in any engagement in Afghanistan. As for the intelligence failures, John Brookins notes of previous testimony on Capital Hill about Kamdesh:
Gen. Burgess explained in testimony to the committee that the military had three intelligence reports on the issue, but that the reports were among many human-source reports that had not been verified by other means, such as electronic intelligence. As a result, the reporting was not deemed “actionable” intelligence, said defense officials familiar with the testimony. We don’t trust our human intelligence people to make a call. We rely way too much on sigint more than anything. If it’s not in a signal some don’t think it’s real. It’s as if someone can’t lie over the radio or phone.
Recalling our analysis of the Wanat engagement, intelligence failed the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company by ignoring the signs of an imminent attack by massed Taliban forces. The Vehicle Patrol Base (COP) Kahler was located in low terrain, and worse still, the insufficient force protection at Observation Post Top Side took eight of the nine who perished that fateful night (including Soldiers who attempted relief of Top Side). The video below (from approximately 1:00 to approximately 2:00) shows the terrain and natural features of the location at Wanat.
Military Historian Douglas R. Cubbison has written an extensive and smart study of the Wanat engagement, and provides some useful insight into the circumstances surrounding the battle. But as smart as his study is, I diverged from his conclusions when he pointed towards the lack of nonkinetic engagement with the population as a significant contributor to the failure at Wanat. Rather, I see this counsel being implemented at a different phase of the campaign for Eastern Afghanistan, with the problems being more directly related to combat tactics. Marine officer and commenter Slab noted of my remarks concerning 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.
COP Keating at Kamdesh suffered from the same sort of force protection and terrain problems. The best video I have found of COP Keating has been removed, but another useful one can be seen below (the video is obviously being taken from Observation Post Fritsche.
This is an issue for all such Combat Outposts in this part of Afghanistan.
The military does not release figures on disciplinary actions taken against field commanders. But officials familiar with recent investigations said letters of reprimand or other disciplinary action have been recommended for officers involved in three ambushes in which U.S. troops battled Taliban forces in remote villages in 2008 and 2009. Such administrative actions can scuttle chances for promotion and end a career if they are made part of an officer’s permanent personnel file.
The investigations are a departure for the U.S. military, which until recently has been reluctant to second-guess commanders whose decisions might have played a role in the deaths of soldiers in enemy action. Disciplinary action has been more common in cases in which U.S. troops have injured or killed civilians.
In response to the recent reprimands, some military officials have argued that casualties are inevitable in war and that a culture of excessive investigations could make officers risk-averse.
“This is a war where the other side is trying, too,” said one Army officer who commanded troops in Afghanistan and requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
As many as five battlefield commanders have received letters of reprimand in the past month or have been the subject of an investigation by a general who recommended disciplinary action. A sixth commander received a less-severe formal letter of admonishment. None of the investigations or letters of reprimand has been released publicly.
Regarding COP Keating, leaving Soldiers garrisoned at an ill-defended outpost that (contrary to claims, did serve a purpose) is intended to be abandoned is a huge error in judgment and points to inept logistics and planning. Regarding COP Kahler, poor terrain, poor force protection, poor intelligence and a delay of almost 12 months (allowing the Taliban to do their own intelligence work and mass forces) again points to horrible errors in judgment. But the idea of using smaller, less defended Combat Outposts to put Soldiers and Marines more in touch with the population comes from counterinsurgency doctrine, and it is here that the failure is occurring.
When a particular location has not been subjected to intensive kinetics to place the insurgents on the defensive and reduce their influence and power, it is naive to plan population-centric tactics and procedures. We are attempting to employ the later phases of the campaign in earlier phases (contrary to the claims of the certainly still grieving David Brostrom, father of 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom). Counterinsurgency is being practiced absent a conventional mindset, leading to poor force protection. We can wish for the utmost in contact with the population. But winning hearts and minds won’t work unless and until the insurgents’ control over their hearts and minds is challenged with kinetics. The enemy is certainly telling us that when they can mass forces of nearly half a Battalion against platoon size U.S. forces. The population has no reason to side with the U.S. when the Taliban are stronger.
Four important lessons can be learned from the deadly engagements at Wanat and Kamdesh. First, terrain is of critical importance to far flung Forward Operating Bases and Combat Outposts in the rugged, mountainous regions of Afghanistan (or anywhere else there is undulating terrain). Second, the Taliban have shown the propensity and capability to mass troops to near half a Battalion size force. The proper force protection must be planned and implemented to prepare for such engagements. Third, as a corollary to the second, FOBs and COPs must be properly manned with U.S. combat forces to accomplish the mission. Thus far, U.S. command has demonstrated a predilection to underestimate proper manning of smaller outposts. Fourth, our intelligence apparatus has shown a predilection to intransigence. The response time and sensitivity of our intelligence must improve or more lives will be lost due to inept analysis.
From Stars and Stripes, we are headed back to the Waigal Valley, Nuristan and Kunar Provinces.
The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment is heading back to the same region where it took part in the Army’s deadliest battle in Afghanistan.
While the rest of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is heading to Logar and Wardak provinces for its upcoming deployment, the 2-503rd will be assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, said Maj. Thomas Gilleran, 173rd public affairs officer.
The 4th Brigade Combat Team is serving in Kunar province, the same region where the 2-503rd served in 2007-2008.
During its 14-month tour, “The Rock,” as the unit is known, engaged in hundreds of contacts with enemy forces, including the battle of Wanat, in which hundreds of insurgents attacked a small, remote Army outpost. In the hours-long battle, nine 2-503rd soldiers were killed and more than two dozen were wounded.
The region is still volatile.
Since the beginning of October, 12 soldiers assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team have died, including eight who were killed Oct. 3 in Kamdesh district in an attack similar to the one at Wanat.
Kamdesh is in Nuristan province and northeast of Wanat. Kamdesh is one of a collection of isolated valleys near northeastern Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan where U.S. troops have faced fierce resistance in recent years. Military and outside analysts have described the insurgency in northeast Afghanistan as a hybrid of local, tribally based fighters loosely allied with the Taliban and other insurgent networks. The military initially ascribed the Kamdesh attack to tribal militias but later blamed the Taliban.
Battalion leaders confirmed the 2-503rd’s upcoming assignment.
The Captain’s Journal will follow this deployment. Let’s hope that we have learned the many lessons of Wanat and Kamdesh – controlling the high ground, sufficient logistics, properly resourced and manned deployments, adequate force projection, taking the initiative concerning the population instead of waiting for their approval, adequate force protection, and so on. This is a chance to prove that we have.
Following up on Kamdesh Troops Were Sitting Ducks: The Importance of Terrain, this video is a stark reminder of just where COP Keating was located. They were completely walled-in by the terrain. Perhaps the ease of vehicle movement and delivery of logistics was the reason for locating COP Keating where they did. But they didn’t have even a single hill which abuts the COP (or or on which the COP is at least partially built). Every direction is up. It would have been better to have utilized a hill and go to the hassle of building, walking and driving on sloped terrain.
Stationed at a remote, undermanned Army outpost in a dangerous patch of northeastern Afghanistan, Stephan Mace knew trouble was brewing. His father says U.S. military commanders should have known that the troops there “were sitting ducks.”
Larry Mace’s soldier son was buried Monday at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, one of eight U.S. troops killed earlier this month in Kamdesh when several hundred militant fighters armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed their base, known as Combat Outpost Keating.
The attack at Kamdesh, along with a similarly costly battle a year earlier in nearby Wanat, have emerged as powerful symbols of the challenges the Obama administration faces as the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year.
Without more troops and firepower, the Taliban-led insurgency will grow stronger. But devoting more people and equipment risks an open-ended commitment to a war increasingly unpopular with the American public.
American commanders didn’t reinforce Keating or pull the troops that were there out in time, Larry Mace said.
Led by an Army band, Stephan Mace’s flag-draped casket was borne to the grave site on a horse-drawn caisson. Under blue skies with a cool wind blowing, he was remembered as an all-American boy from rural Virginia who answered his country’s call to duty. After three rifle volleys by a firing party, a bugler played Taps. A bagpiper followed with Amazing Grace.
More than a year before the firefight at Kamdesh, nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 more were wounded when their base at Wanat, a village about 30 miles from Kamdesh, was nearly overrun by insurgents.
“The only differences between the two (battles) are the dates and the names of the soldiers killed,” Larry Mace said. “They haven’t changed their game plan. They’re fighting a war with too few people.”
Following the Oct. 3 battle that killed Stephan Mace, U.S. forces left Keating and another outpost at Kamdesh. The withdrawal had been planned before the attack had occurred, according to the NATO-led coalition.
A spokesman said the shift was part of a new strategy outlined months ago by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to shut down difficult-to-defend outposts and redirect forces toward larger population areas to protect more civilians.
Even as his son was being remembered as a hero, Larry Mace remains angered by the circumstances surrounding his son’s death. Stephan was home in August on two weeks leave. Sitting in the living room of their home in Winchester, Va., Mace said Stephan told him the Taliban were massing in Kamdesh.
Yet strict rules of engagement kept the soldiers from taking aggressive action to prevent an attack, Larry Mace said.
Mace recalled that Stephan gave his dog tags to his brother Brad before returning.
“I think he knew he wasn’t coming back,” Larry Mace said.
Born in Falls Church, Va., Stephan Mace was the second-eldest of four brothers. He joined the Army in January 2008. Mace was made a “19 Delta,” Army parlance for a cavalry scout, and assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, Colo. He was sent to Afghanistan in early 2009.
When he was home just a few weeks ago, Stephan anguished over returning to Keating, his father said. Dedicated to his unit, there was no doubt he would go back. But he was weighed down by worries the base was vulnerable to an onslaught he felt sure was coming, according to Larry Mace.
Photos that Stephan Mace took in May of Outpost Keating showed a base located on low ground, surrounded by craggy outcroppings that made ideal hiding spots for enemy fighters.
His father had also noticed a physical change in his son. He’d lost about 20 pounds from his 185-pound frame, a combination of the rigors of military life and the stress of being on the front lines.
Larry Mace had planned a fishing trip with Stephan, who alternated between the Mace home and staying with old high school friends while on leave. But on the day of the outing, Stephan didn’t show.
Larry Mace didn’t see his son before he left. In text messages they later exchanged, Stephan asked his father to forgive him.
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.
We know that the Taliban are going to conduct mass assaults against our positions. We know that they want the advantage terrain offers them. Yet we continue to emplace Combat Outposts manned by platoon-size U.S. forces in the absolute worst locations imaginable from the perspective of terrain. The … worst … locations … imaginable.
Really. What gives? Is this a sickness within the American military? McChrystal’s position, i.e., deploying the troops in population centers, obviously neglects the countryside in a tip of the hat to the (utterly failed) Soviet model. But the answer to failed combat outposts in poor terrain is not to withdraw. It’s to position the outposts on favorable terrain for force protection and garrison them with the right number of troops.